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|| News Item: Posted 2007-05-23

Why assist: Lessons in Short Shorts
By Jared Dort

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Jared Dort, above, stands in for Cubs star Alfonso Soriano while assisting Robert Hanashiro at spring training in Mesa, Arizona in March of 2007.
Nobody wanted to be like John.

I played hundreds of pickup games while living in San Diego, and at the time, everything was Michael Jordan. And why not be like Mike? He is one of the greatest of our time. He did win six titles and how impossible shots he made were just amazing.

Unlike Mike, the wannabes didn't make their teammates better - see Bill Wennington. Five Mikes, no passing and just absurd shots clarified with the cry of "Jordan" didn't win games.

It became obvious that someone had to play different in order for the team to be successful. Someone had to step back, assist more and shoot less. Someone just had to pass the freaking ball once in a while.


Utah's John Stockton wasn't Jordan. He didn't win six titles, although he took the Jazz to the playoffs each of his 19 seasons, giving the team a chance to win. He didn't drop 30 a night, but was a gifted shooter (career 50% average). He didn't pass like Jordan either, which is why he's a legend.

Stockton's 15,806 assists and 3,265 steals are tops in the NBA by a considerable margin. He's listed as one of the 50 Greatest Players of all time despite ranking 31st in scoring with 19,711 points. There are guys with more career points who are forgotten, No. 11 Alex English and No. 6 Elvin Hayes come to mind, or don't.

Stockton didn't even have a nickname.

When Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY staff photographer and founder of this site, posted a classified here on for an assistant in March, I was in. Two days of portrait work at Spring Training, learning from one of the best, and getting paid to do it sounded good to me.

When it came to assisting, I have some funny ideas running through my head. One was, at 29, I'm too old to assist. The other was Bert usually looks for students. And the best one, I've done portraits.

Good thing I didn't listen to those thoughts. In two days I got more out of assisting than in three years of work, and oddly enough, it wasn't all about lights.

Here's how those two days went:

Day 1 - Bert shot the Chicago Cubs' Alfonso Soriano at HoHoKam in Mesa. The setup: One light and one strobe head with 40-degree grid.

Sometimes all you need is a grid.

Darren Carroll, freelance photographer for Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and many other publications told me, "Forget about learning how to light stuff, run multiple remotes and all that crap. Sure you'll learn that, but it's not the only reason you're there."

Solid advice from that man who happens to know a thing or two about assisting. Before landing a spot with SI, Darren assisted at the magazine for six years. Don't focus so much on the lights that you become useless to your employer.

Day 2 - David Wells and Greg Maddux portrait. The idea - get them both on Harleys.

No grid today, just lights on each side with the bikes in the middle. The Padres' PR guy said they didn't want to do the Harleys, giving us a minute to move the lights and set exposure.

After the "standard" shoot, Wells talked Maddux into getting on the bike. Bert obliged and got some frames and that was it. At that point we had 30 seconds to move the lights and less that a minute for Bert to test the exposure.

Standard photo, or back-to-back with arms folded, ran. Without an extra pair of hands, the Harley shoot wouldn't have happened.

Bert's take on having an assistant:
"The person assisting me is there mainly as an extra pair of hands and more importantly, an extra pair of eyes. I am usually concentrating so much on one thing at a time - aiming a grid or working with the subject - having someone else there on my side (not some publicist) looking at the whole picture can be helpful."

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Jared Dort stands in for Greg Maddux and David Wells at San Diego Padres spring training camp in Peoria, Arizona in March of 2007.
In two days I carried gear. I moved gear. I packed and unpacked gear. I put gear in a car and took it out of a car. Did I mention there was a lot of gear involved.

-End of log-

I'll admit, I had selfish motives for wanting to assist. I wanted to learn more than how to set up lights. For me, watching Bert handle was critical for my development.

"Learning about lighting is probably tops on the list," says former Sporting News photographer and current freelancer Robert Seale, "but also to see how different people solve problems, how to pack --- packing is very important --- how to deal with subjects, how to talk to people, how to deal with clients, how to run a business, how to organize a project, how to CYA. It's all important."

For students, assisting is a popular job. Jordan Murph, a senior at the University of Hawaii and assistant-in-demand, has bettered his career and met people by being an extra pair of hands.

"I assist to learn how to be a better photographer, businessman, and better person. I don't think there is any substitute in a classroom or textbook for watching a true professional that I respect as they work."

Having talked with other photographers, learning always comes up as the No. 1 reason. A close tie for second is money and publicity.

"If someone told you that they were willing to pay you to learn from people who know what the hell they're doing, and offered you a chance (again, paid) to get your foot in the door at publications and agencies, why shouldn't you take that ball and run with it? To me, it's a no-brainer," said Darren.

One common myth -'I know it all' or 'I'm already a pro' - tends to keep photographers from assisting. You'd be surprised to know how many big-name shooters do.

"I assisted Robert Seale in San Diego for a portrait of Shawne Merriman. Robert had another assistant he hired, I was there to lend a hand, observe and learn," said Bert.

Robert Seale concurs. "I've assisted my friends from time to time - other photographers," said Seale.

What about age?

"You are NEVER too old to assist. It has nothing to do with age, and everything to do with how much you want to learn," said Darren.

"Too old is someone that can't carry my Lightware case," Bert said.

Now you're convinced. By God I'll do it, you say. Well, hold on a sec.

"I don't think everyone should assist because there are some bozos that don't know their place. When you're assisting, you're not there to make suggestions, crack jokes, hit on the hairdresser, munch at the lunch table, or anything like that. You're there to shut up and work," says Murph. "So I don't think that everyone should assist because there are people who can't put their egos away. But, the best of the best, veterans of this business who've I've been fortunate enough to learn from, have no problems assisting other photographers. I think an ego is one of the biggest enemies of learning."

Egos are what keep some us of from assisting in the first place. Would Stockton be considered the greatest point guard had he said, "No, I'm going to take all the shots. Malone, you pass me the ball"?

When asked what he looks for in an assistant, Seale said, "A pulse. Seriously, someone who is responsible, on time, presents themselves professionally in dress, speech, and attitude. If they have great lighting skills, that's great, but lighting can always be taught. I enjoy working with smart people who can solve problems. "

"I would sometimes rather have someone who is smart, hard-working, entertaining, or interesting to talk to, who won't annoy me or the client and has a great attitude rather than a lighting genius with a nose-ring who complains the whole time."

Again, attitude and willingness to learn are mentioned. It appears that for most photographers who need assistants, those are the two qualifications.

This brings us back to Stockton.

Aside from records, sick passing skills and his absurdly short shorts, Stockton gave us a business and life model that can be interpreted two ways.

One, his relationship with Karl Malone can be an example of assisting. Stockton to Malone is one of the most famous calls in broadcasting. Malone is also second on the all-time scoring list.

I always wondered what kind of player he would have been without Johnny Stock. How many of his 36,928 came via Stockton to Malone?

Second, those career accomplishments were not set out of selfish motivation. What Stockton did on and off the court made the team, the organization and the city, look good.

Wow, that sounds like my job.

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Nelson's iconic image of John Stockton symbolizes his career. This composite, a panoramic view showing each spot Stockton was located during a game, made Sports Illustrated history as being the first six-page spread.
NOTES: Trent Nelson, Chief Photographer for the Salt Lake Tribune, created an iconic image of John Stockton that symbolizes his career. Nelson's composite, a panoramic view showing each spot Stockton was located during a game, made SI history as being the first six-page spread.

Here's what he had to say about Stockton and the image.

"Stockton was huge in Utah. He was a fan favorite. That's the interesting part because he was certainly uncomfortable with the spotlight his fame brought. While he gave his all on the court, when the game was over, he just wanted to be left alone. I guess he didn't consider that he'd done anything that merited the attention coming his way. I figure he felt he'd done the job he was asked to do, and that was enough.

"The photo I made of him was the first of its kind and brought me a lot of attention from other photographers. But I never heard much about it from the team, or Stockton himself. I guess in a way I'm a little like him. It's much easier for me to stay focused on my photography and not get caught up in what people are saying."

(Jared Dort is writer and photographer based in Arizona. His work has appeared around the world, if your world is currently Arizona. To view his work, check his member page: and his personal website:

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