The Benefits of Working with a Mentor
Learning from a mentor can be a very rewarding experience for photographers. This article looks at the practice of mentorships and illustrates their value through the words of different visual storytellers from around the world who have had such an adventure.
© Etinosa Yvonne. Middle aged farm workers thresh freshly harvested rice at a farm in Adamawa, Nigeria, 2018
Even though the definition of the word mentorship changes depending on whom you speak with, it’s clear that it involves the guidance of “a more experienced person", as Etinosa Yvonne from Nigeria tells us. A mentorship involves a learning process in which a professional will be helping and giving advice for an extended period of time. Whether done face-to-face, online, or through a combination of these approaches, it can offer a photographer the unique opportunity to expand their photographic knowledge and skills and refine their photographic voice.
The photographers we speak with in this article have all had mentorships of varying lengths and within different frameworks. Some received a mentorship as part of an official degree, while others started them through a friend or at a social event. A mentorship can be more ‘official or more informal’ as Roger Anis from Egypt says. What most mentorships seem to have in common, though, is having contact on a biweekly or monthly basis, either through physical meetings and, more commonly today, over the phone, email, WhatsApp or social media channels.
© Roger Anis, from the series, Relationships in Captivity
Ideally, the goals to be reached during a mentorship are defined together with the mentor and mentee, as is the path to achieve these goals. It’s a custom designed process. The success of a mentorship relies on setting clear expectations on both sides and agreeing on those. Mentorships are often goal-oriented; they can lead to an exhibition in a gallery, getting your work published, developing a business plan or refining one’s personal vision and style. Etinosa, for example, who is currently being mentored by two photographers and a curator, tells us: “The two photographers provide me with guidance for both ongoing projects… on how to handle assignments, the price of my work and how to negotiate with clients. The curator reviews my work and offers advice on how to move my projects forward.”
So why should a photographer invest in a mentorship? To Nadia Bseiso from Jordan, those extra pair of eyes from someone that you trust can be an eye-opener on things that might have been missed or brushed off during production or selection. “The photographer can form attachments with his own thought processes/pictures that might not be the best thing for the work”, she says. For Etinosa, who is a self-taught photographer, having a mentor has been the only way to help her understand how she can improve professionally.
© Nadia Bseiso, from the series, Infertile Crescent. Fire burns in a farm in the Jordan Vally, Jordan, 2017.
A well-chosen mentor provides support, questioning and good critiques, as Nadia shares with us. When the right questions are asked, one starts reflecting upon and questioning decisions and choices. To Charlotte Hooij from The Netherlands, a good mentor is someone that can take you to the next level “by telling you how you could do things differently, and giving an alternative view on methods. Someone that pushes you to go further; to try things differently.”
Just as a successful mentorship requires commitment and effort from the mentor, the photographers we spoke to all agree that the mentee also has certain responsibilities during the process. Next to being open to feedback and new ideas, being brave in asking difficult questions, and being flexible and committed, a mentee should further value the time of the mentor, especially when there is no (financial) compensation attached to it. “Commitment is what a mentee gives in return”, as Nadia says.
© Charlotte Hooij, from the series, Her First Stolen Kiss.
Commitment from both sides seems to be the fundamental ingredient to a successful experience for both parties. In Nadia’s opinion, a failed mentorship is when the photographer expects the mentor to do the work for them. “If the photographer puts in 100% effort, does their homework and research, the mentor can focus their energy on helping the photographer follow their plan. But when the photographer does not produce the work or expects the mentor to motivate them to do their work, that is a complete fail. I have had days when my mentor would tell me one sentence, and that would be enough for me to keep going… "you are on the right track" goes a long way sometimes. To get that sentence you have to do your homework”, she tells us. It requires intentional investments of time and energy; you get what you put in.
Other than commitment, Roger says: “Understanding and accepting each other, having a framework, both being eager about each other… for me it's like a relationship where each one is waiting to meet the other - I wait to meet my mentor to show my pictures and he/she is waiting too, to see what I did.”
© Nadia Bseiso, from the series, Infertile Crescent
Trust in each other is also crucial in making it a positive adventure. Nadia thinks a good mentorship is when the mentor develops trust in their mentee, forming a special bond where they can see each other as equals/colleagues rather than having a rigid teacher/student relationship: “Where the mentor might show his own thought process and might even ask for the opinion of the mentee.”
The benefits of working with a mentor can be substantial to life altering. A mentorship can result in a lifetime support system and, as Roger says “a good mentorship is like a reminder and organiser for your work process which will eventually make you a better photographer” and help you figure out if you are on the right path. Mentorships, then, have the potential to offer great value to both mentors and mentees when the relationship is handled with care, honesty and sensitivity.
Thanks to the following photographers who reached out and helped us to write this article.
Charlotte Hooij is a Dutch photographer. She studied Audio visual techniques: Photography, at the LUCA School of Arts, Narafi in Brussels. She completed an Erasmus exchange at the Danish School of Media and Journalism in Aarhus and lived in Bangladesh where she attended the South Asian Media Institute, Pathshala for one semester. Currently, she is interning at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Geneva, Switzerland. Making reportage work all around the world is what drives her into the unknown. By going on a journey with the camera, she wants to contribute to the image and storytelling culture, doing what she is most passionate about: photography.
Etinosa Yvonne is a self taught documentary photographer from Benin, Nigeria, who focuses on under-reported societal issues. Etinosa leverages the power of visual storytelling to shed light on issues and causes that she is passionate about.
Nadia Bseiso is a Jordanian documentary photographer based in Amman. She completed a degree in photography in Florence, Italy in 2011, returning for a residency in Fondazione Fotografia in Modena, in 2015. She concentrates on long-term projects based on personal research in geopolitics, history, anthropology and environmental degradation. In 2016, she was selected for the Arab Documentary Photography Program, funded by The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Magnum Foundation and the Prince Claus Fund, for her project, Infertile Crescent. She has been working with several local and international NGO’s since 2011 and her clients include: The New York Times, The Telegraph, Reuters, and Zeit magazine, among others.
Roger Anis is an Egyptian photojournalist and documentary photographer. He received his BA in Fine Arts in 2008 and a Diploma in Photojournalism from the Danish School of Media & Journalism DMJX in 2015. He started his career as a photojournalist in the Egyptian Daily newspaper, Al-Shorouk in 2010, covering the social unrest across the country. He has contributed to international news agencies AP, EPA, Reuters, AFP. His work focuses a lot on the suffering of the Coptic Christians and on the conflict and the turning points of the country. His work has been published in international newspapers and magazines such as TIME, The New York Times, Newsweek, Guardian , Le Monde, The Daily Mail, Newsweek, Aftenposten, De Groene Amsterdammer, Politician, and Le Point.
Talking about Education is a monthly feature that looks at how current opportunities and practices can shape and develop your path as a photographer. To learn more about our educational program, visit phmuseum.com/education.