I Worked For A World-Famous Photographer — & It Ruined My View Of Him

Photo: Getty Images.
Refinery29’s Assistant Living asks assistants to talk about themselves for once — offering truthful, no-frills insight into the time before fame and fortune. What’s it like working next to the dream job? They talk; we listen. For our 7th installment, we talk to S, 25, assistant to a world-famous photographer, about god complexes, maternal instincts, and shopping for sheets. How long did you work for your boss?
For six tumultuous months. What was your salary?
At first I got $20 an hour, but then after the first week they bumped it up to $25. And they bought lunch. Why did you decide to take this job?
I had been working as a production designer on independent films and commercials. It was a lot of responsibility, and I very quickly got burned out. A lot of the people who make movies these days (with their big egos) are difficult to bear. It becomes especially difficult when you’re manifesting someone else’s vision and not creating your own work. I had a few weeks off in between movies, and I was trying to figure out what to do next. A friend of mine worked for this very famous photographer — we’ll call him Robert — and they needed some extra hands to help with a big move. It worked out that his assistant was leaving, and so they asked me to take her position. I took the job, thinking it was going to be part-time. I’d spend three days working for the photographer, and then I could use the other four to rethink and recalibrate after two years doing something I didn’t really like. I liked the idea that this job would allow me to use my hands and problem-solve, while also giving me plenty of free time. I liked the idea of having less responsibility. But, to my unease, it ended up being a full-time position. Did his previous assistant prep you for the job?
We had lunch together the day before she left. She looked at me and said, very earnestly, “They’re probably gonna ask you to take my position, but I just wanna warn you of the following things: He can be a wonderful role model, but sometimes he goes a little too far.” And I knew what she meant, but I figured she was just sort of naive, because she was younger than me and very beautiful. When I first saw her interact with him, I thought maybe she was his daughter or girlfriend. There was something very familiar about their interactions. Was this a typical 9-to-5?
I would get in around 10 a.m., but I never left at the same time every day. My boss didn’t like schedules — he didn’t have the temperament for them — so I never knew really when things would start and end. Some days, it would be 5:00 p.m. and I would be planning to leave at 6:00 p.m., but Robert would want some huge collection of works re-organized by subject matter, as opposed to chronologically, and it would be all hands on deck. It was really hard to say no. I wouldn’t leave without finishing it. I started going home later and later and later. Sometimes I wouldn’t get home until 10 at night. What kind of work were you doing?
A mix of things. Some days, Robert would ask me to find obscure materials for a shoot without any background information. Another time he asked me to write a letter to his long-lost friend. He didn’t know how to use a computer, so he’d give me some points and then start yelling some things out. I would try to transcribe, give it a little form, and then we’d review it together. In the morning, the first thing I’d do was go through his emails and print things out for him, and then we’d respond to little things. I’d make schedules for him, and I’d always go out to get lunch. Kept his fridge full. He’s very used to women taking care of him. What was most frustrating about the job?
His language was problematic. He would spit aggression. He liked to harass and goad strangers. When we’d go out to run errands, it was shocking to hear the way Robert spoke to people. He wouldn’t talk about anything but himself and his needs. And for a while, I just let it pass. I was so new, and more forgiving than I might have been as a result. I didn’t want to take it (or him) seriously. It also wasn’t really directed toward me at first, so it was easier to ignore. It was also super frustrating that he didn’t know how to use computers. I was always trying to explain to him why a low-res image looks pixelated when blown up to be 14 times its original size. He required special assistance all the time. Were there any perks?
It was almost like I was a part of his cult: I believed that spending time with him and doing things for him was some kind of honor. It’s hard for me to admit that, but it’s true. At a certain point, I was thinking: If I could just stick this out long enough, then maybe one day I could embark upon a similarly large artistic undertaking. And I was naive enough to think that when that happened, he’d support me and have my back. But really, there were no real perks. He bought me lunch and stuff. Can you talk a little bit more about your relationship?
He comes across as a rugged individual, the gentleman farmer. He has a certain bravado; it’s palpable. I’ve always been attracted to that way of life. And in some ways, when I met him, it felt like I had found my ideal man, even though he was much older. It made me feel important that he wanted me around and that he needed me to take care of his business. There was a lot of ego on my part, too. I thought I could bolster his creativity. I was the young woman who whipped his house into shape, made him his coffee in the morning, bought sheets with him. I guess no one had ever given me the opportunity to be maternal or domestic like that before, and it was something I always wanted. I played into his daydreams, and he played into mine. They were mutual fantasies. So has that ideal/idea crumbled for you since?
Completely. It’s been shattered. I had this moment where I sort of realized this isn’t real. I need to rise to the occasion and be a woman defined by my own actions, not by the actions of men. Why did you decide to stop working for him?
There was a bit of a blow-out between us. And I’d honestly rather not talk about it further. Dream job?
I want to make movies, move mountains, make a monument to the post office. I want to pack horses in the Sierras, I want to surf. I want to do everything. I don’t want a job to define me anymore. I just want to have confidence in whatever I do. Ever since the election, I’ve been really cautious about every move I make, every purchase I make, every interaction I have. It’s making me think a lot about what makes me a citizen of this country. There’s a lot going on right now. So the dream job is sort of on the back burner. It’s a dream life. That’s the goal. Maybe I’ll be the next president.

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