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Dan Burn-Forti on About.com
Q. What was your entry into photography? Was it college or did you learn more from on the job experience?
A. I started assisting, via friends who worked as assistants, at the ridiculously young age of 16. It was a good experience, but the work kind of dried up around the ripe old age of 18, so I decided to go to college. I did a degree in Photography, Film and Television at Harrow College. Whilst there I carried on with my assisting and, after 3 years, graduated with a rather embarrassing 2-2. Not sure that the lecturers and me were really on the same wavelength. I remember one of them saying to me, on seeing my final project, “Well, Dan, you don’t need to earn a living from photography, do you?” Aaah, the perils of a posh name.
Q. In your opinion, which do you think is the best route, studying in college or university or learning on the job, or both?
A. I think it depends on the individual, but I’d have to lean towards the work experience route. Three years is an awfully large chunk of your life and I’m frequently underwhelmed by the work I see from recent graduates. I can’t help thinking that they may well have been better off spending that time lugging gear around, observing working photographers and testing, testing, testing.
Q. When using assistants, do you find it is a better experience with someone who is properly trained and qualified, or someone that has had more experience in the field? Is it necessary for your assistants to know everything about lighting and the technical side?
A. I can’t say I’m ever conscious of ex-graduates being properly trained. The lighting equipment etc., used today is so madly priced that it’s unlikely that universities would have this for the students to work with. Whereas a reasonably experienced assistant is far more likely to know how this stuff works. However, it’s not that important to me for assistants to know that much technically. It’s not very hard to learn on the go and for me it’s much more important that they’re good people to hang out with. And can carry all this stuff. Oh, and the tea - assistant's CV’s always mention how good their tea making is. Well, useful but not that important!
Q. Have you found your expectations from the young people that you employ changing at all as digital has become the dominant medium? For example, in light of the knowledge that is now needed in the capture and on site tech requirements?
A. It is useful but not essential for me. I like to do most of the digital stuff myself if possible. Otherwise I like to work with a dedicated digi-op, so assistants knowing this is not particularly important. Although, having said that, I like it when they teach me something I didn’t know. But whether the medium is digital or film, the role of the assistant isn’t that different in my experience.
Q. Would you still be willing to take on an assistant that has had no assisting experience at all as you did with me years ago?
A.Yes, I would. But to be honest most people come to me with some sort of experience, be it college or assisting. I would certainly consider someone with little experience just as long as they were quick learners. It can be a bit boring having to explain things repeatedly.
Q. In short, what is your advice to young people looking to get into photography as a career?
A. The absolute most important thing is that you’re always taking pictures and trying to find your own photographic voice. In an increasingly competitive market place, the only ones who’ll break through are those with something personal and unusual to offer. Technical competence is a given these days, but the ones who’ll always crack it are those with a world view to share. So assist as much as possible, shoot as much as possible and be your own toughest critic. The day you think you’ve cracked it should never come.