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Finding a Mentor

May 5, 2013

By Danielle Lancaster 

Today I had a very pleasurable experience. A young man came to visit me. Let’s call him “Joe”.

I first met Joe while doing a private lesson at my local lookout. He hung around in the background listening and experimenting with his camera and finally mustered the courage to come forward. Of course, I’d forgotten any business cards (lesson one of this blog) but he remembered the Bluedog name and within a few days I had my first email from him.

As it turns out, Joe wants to be a photographer and was looking for a mentor and a way to fulfill his dream. We exchanged emails and I gave him a few options to investigate until our meeting today. Joe arrived on time and with a hand- full of 6″x4″ prints he was excited to show as examples of what he’d been experimenting with and a list of requirements to enter Griffith University next year.

It was inspiring to be in the presence of such an enthusiastic young man.

Mentoring is important and any successful business operator will tell you they have had at least one enter their lives along their journey. The best mentoring relationships usually develop organically. While this blog is referring to photography, it’s relevant to any business.

So what is a mentor? A mentor is someone who voluntarily provides career advice and assistance. They can come from within your field outside; for example a purely business or marketing aspect.

It’s been an interesting transition in the photography field and now more than ever mentors are probably one of the most sought after commodities for any aspiring photographer. This has occurred in response to the advent of digital photography where we have seen photography rapidly become a “learn-it-yourself “art. Many, after only a very short period of time (I’d call this under five years working alone in the industry and providing their sole income) are now calling themselves professional.

What is the best way to find a mentor?
Start networking
This could be through professional associations and/or amateur associations such as photography clubs. Some social media groups can provide avenues, such as our Bluedog closed Facebook group. 

Know what you want to do: ask yourself, what are my goals? 

Do a workshop 

Yes, I know, part of our business here at Bluedog Photography is conducting workshops and tours. Services such as these provide excellent opportunities for you to be exposed to well respected and trusted leaders in the field. However do your research first. Does your tutor have a long standing reputable experience in the industry.This gives you real-life immersion with people working in the field who also have time honoured advice they may share and it is often a platform to form and build a relationship.

Create a list
Of people that may be suitable and contact them during business hours and don’t be pushy for a reply as they may be away on assignment and not able to respond immediately. Respond to their replies promptly and be polite and formal. Use good grammar, punctuation and make sure spelling check is on for any written replies. Try to form a relationship through these communications to understand their personality while displaying yours. You will know when you meet the right mentor. 

Volunteer to work with no expectations

Attitude does matter! Keep upbeat and positive. Professional photographers are approached all the time and the last thing they want to hear or see on the first meeting is that you are well-renowned or a know-it-all or someone with a bee in their bonnet or grumpy. They are usually busy people so be appreciative of the time given. 

Get an online presence 
And be prepared to show examples of your work. It’s not enough to say you have done this and that without examples. 

Look outside
Don’t forget to look outside photography. To this day I still have mentors some in businesses so unrelated they seem worlds apart. However, we network, we bounce ideas on marketing, strategies, legal and other areas off each other and we support one another. At times the roles of mentor and mentee vary according to the issue under consideration. 

Choose carefully
Choose someone that has a long standing career within the profession. Too many fall into  the trap of choosing mentors that have been working in the industry for only a short time. Remember the internet, while a great source of information, is not always correct. Don’t forget to critically analyse your sources and evaluate them with fair judgement. Perhaps even ask them have they had or been mentors themselves. 

What happens if?
This is a scenario for which everyone should have a Plan B. What happens if: your relationship with your mentor turns sour, you change direction or lose interest or worse still, you set yourself up for failure early on (the dreaded career hiccup)? All are possibilities.

How you deal with these issues on a professional and emotional level is individual. Anyone in any business will tell you one if not more will happen at some time. 

Our Tips
When your relationship with your mentor or mentee turns sour:

Don’t play the “sour grapes” game. This happens more than you would think – it’s part of human behaviour and can occur due to a number of reasons. Be courteous and polite. Don’t publicly acclaim your ill feelings especially on social media sites as it only lowers you as a person. Don’t poach clients or contacts that you would not have otherwise known. This is both unethical and can irreparably damage your long term professional standing. No matter what has happened, in most cases your mentor has given graciously and personally invested in you. Don’t forget what they have shown you and remember one day again your paths may well cross. 
You change direction or lose interest:
This happens and it’s okay. Be honest and upfront. If you are having reservations discuss this sooner rather than later. It’s always better if things are out in the open. The cause could be a variety of reasons and remember neither mentor nor mentee are psychic. The more you can talk and openly discuss the more you can move forward in the right direction for you. 
You have a career hiccup:
Career hiccups will happen, but if they do early in your career they can ruin it. Lisa Kurtz, one of Bluedog’s tutors, advises ‘don’t bite off more than you can chew,’ and this is true.

Usually the main cause is over-enthusiasm and over-encouragement. Learn to balance challenging yourself photographically and being able to deliver to the client. For this you need to be confident in your own competency and technical aspects. ‘It is so important to take small steps and protect yourself,’ said Lisa. The transition from hobbyist to professional and living the dream can come with a hiccup or two.

We hope this helps those of you out there looking at mentoring programs. Knowing how to handle the ‘what if’s’ can make life flow more smoothly.

I liked “Joe”, so you’ll hear more about his journey in the future.

Best of luck everyone and we’d love to hear your stories on what has happened to you. Please feel free to email your mentoring stories to info@blue-dog.com.au 

Danielle Lancaster owns and runs Bluedog Photography. She receives commissioned work from Australia (her home base) and international clients and conducts a wide range of photography workshops, retreats or tour. For more information visit www.blue-dog.com.auor email info@blue-dog.com.au
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