Stories From Set: This Shouldn’t Happen to Any Photo Assistant

Stories From Set are the stories of photographer Alyssa Meadows and others about the pains of being a woman on the modern photography set. This series is 100% endorsed by the Phoblographer in an effort to convey a critical message.

If they’re not careful, female photo assistants can find themselves in dangerous situations working on location. Central to this story is working with someone who suffers from a TBI (traumatic brain injury) that affects emotional responses and impulse control. The experience with this photographer was both highly inappropriate and totally explained by his injury. So, this one needs both sensitivity and honesty. Without his TBI, these behaviors would be egregiously unacceptable. While my particular situation was safe, explainable, and understandable, this is not an isolated incident. This speaks to the concerns women have when working on location, and the risks involved when working with someone new.

The Photographer Who Didn’t Take “No” for an Answer

I was approached to work as an assistant on a remote area in the Northeast. The job was to pick the photographer up from the airport, drive to the site, do the job, take him back to the airport, and drive home. Initially, he wanted me to fly with him. I offered to drive up separately, as I wanted to explore the area more once we completed the job. It was seven hours one way, and upon hearing my willingness to drive, he proceeded to invite himself into my vehicle. That was never part of the original request, and that wasn’t comfortable for me. I had never worked with him before, and it’s a long time to carry a conversation. I deflected his request four times, a massive red flag to his inability to accept the word “no.”

In normal circumstances, this is when I’d decline moving forward with the job, as any assistant should. If the person you are working with can’t accept “no” before being put in a compromised situation (staying in hotels on location, in unfamiliar/remote areas), it bears a glaring warning that personal boundaries may not be respected either. With this in mind, I firmly insisted that he fly separately. I couldn’t trust my safety on a ride that long when there’s already an evident inability to respect limits being communicated.

Once I picked him up from the airport, other forms of sexist behavior began creeping in.

  • Several times jokes were made at my expense of being female.
  • He kept providing verbal directions instead of giving me addresses. I explained that I drive while looking at my GPS map, to which he responded, “Yea, cuz you’re a woman.” I ignored it the first time. After the second iteration of that sentiment, I politely asked him to refrain from those kinds of jokes.

I knew he was kidding, but his clear tendency towards deprecating humor didn’t make the jokes less frustrating. How does one maintain a good working rapport onset if you disrespect your assistant, intentionally or not? I explained to him that while they were funny to him, they weren’t to me. He listened, agreed, and proceeded to do it occasionally throughout the rest of the assignment (four days in total). This made being a focused and dedicated assistant more complicated.

The Suggestive Comments

He made suggestive comments regarding the totality of the job. More than once comments revolved around the idea of “if your partner didn’t exist…,” and it was deeply disconcerting. The worst one was on our day off. We went to a family friend’s property with a beautiful vista, which he was unable to hike due to physical limitations. He insisted I see it anyway. When I thanked him after seeing it, he responded, “Well, that’s half my fantasy!” He explained how, in his perfect fantasy, I’d be single and “so overcome by the beauty of the scene” that I would have “turned and thrown arms around him and kissed him.”’

It was a comment I was entirely unprepared for and I was ill-equipped to respond. We’re supposed to be colleagues, working professionals, and there is no kind or polite way to deflect an inappropriate comment like that. No assistant should ever worry about evading advances from someone they are working with, especially on location. No photographer should ever be making his attraction clear to an employee – the power dynamics at play are inarguable, and it’s an unacceptable thing to have come up in a working environment.

Photographers take note, these are the things you should never do after-hours with an assistant. I knew dinners were going to be interesting when he prefaced with, “your partner won’t mind if I take you out for a nice meal, right?” There was tension throughout the evening. Several times the conversation stopped and fixated stares from him replaced said discussion. They felt like that kind of stare (ladies, you know exactly what I mean). Whether romantic or lustful, it felt like a definite air of him contending with internal conflict. He told me I had a cute laugh, which prompted the continuation of said laughter, as that ‘joyous’ expression was actually my awkward, uncomfortable deflection. Needless to say, the evening was full of these giggles.

The dinner continued treading into uncomfortable territory when he referenced the past behavior of an ex of his, saying, “I should have known she was a slut.” We all need to be responsible for creating environments that feel safe and accepting for people, not alienating and judging. I took the opportunity to have a genuine conversation with him, explaining that there’s no such thing as a slut. If you balk at that, know that it’s just a word designed to shame women for embracing their sexuality; there’s no equivalent term for men. Through conversations, I hoped to create a less toxic environment for myself both as a woman and his assistant. But, it seemed like he became more attracted to me for the intelligent correction I made.

The rest of the job went fairly smooth, and after completing the shoot, I drove him back to the airport. I didn’t want to be rude after working together for four days and understood he was a good person overall, and genuinely kind-hearted. I typically hug a colleague goodbye, though in this case I should have known better. I helped him out of the car (his TBI also affected his motor skills) and hugged him goodbye. He used the opportunity to give me a peck on the neck. I should have just shaken hands with him, given how many lines were consistently crossed. It was an uncomfortable end to an awkward experience, and something no photo assistant, male or female, should ever have to deal with.

This was a unique circumstance; his injury easily explains all the ways he was inappropriate. That said, these behaviors are unfortunately not limited to men with TBIs, and why female photo assistants need to be careful with evaluating who they are working with. Precautions are necessary to ensure our safety when working on location. While I knew I was safe (due to his physical disability, I knew I would not be physically overpowered), I never should have had to tolerate or deflect such egregious breaches of professionalism. Too frequently, women in the industry encounter these situations from men who don’t have brain injuries. I want to ensure that we all understand what it means to create a safe, welcoming environment on set, so photographers working on location, please take note: never do any of this to your photo assistants.