I think I speak on behalf of most photo assistants when I say that travel’s easily one of job’s biggest perks. In my time assisting, I’ve worked in the Congo, Seoul, Monaco, Sydney and Rio among other cities, hung out with awesome new people and stayed at five-star hotels – all on someone else’s bill. Sweet, right? Not necessarily.
Traveling might be one of the best parts of the job, but it’s also one of the most challenging. Photo assistants are responsible for lugging hundreds of pounds (and thousands of dollars) of equipment across the world. We’re the lucky ones checking in ten cases of photo equipment, filling out the proper travel documentation, dealing with photographers trying to skirt airline luggage limits (I once had a photographer stick fake CNN passes on all our equipment in order to get it all through). Upon arrival, we’re the ones responsible for ensuring all the equipment got there in one piece, and getting it to the studio (while the photographer and clients are having cocktails on the hotel’s rooftop bar). Don’t even get me started on keeping track of excess travel expenses, or jumping on planes at a moment’s notice (the girlfriends love this, by the way). All that said, there are ways to make traveling – an inevitable part of the job – a little easier.
One: Pack right
It’s the photo assistant’s responsibility to ensure all the equipment gets to the destination in one piece. Therefore, make sure it’s packed meticulously: ensure all cameras are disassembled, individually wrapped and travel-ready. Carry on all cameras if possible (that way if everything gets lost in transit or stolen, the photographer is still able to take pictures). Make sure all other equipment is securely packed in their respective cases (Tenba makes sturdy travel-ready cases for camera, video and digital equipment) before checking them in. And it might sound like common sense, but it’s a good idea to double-check that all the required equipment is actually there and that it’s all functional before leaving the country.
Also be sure to double-check you have all the small but necessary items like cables, batteries, chargers, travel adaptors and memory cards. There’s nothing worse than discovering you have dead batteries and no charger in a location with limited pro-photo resources.
Don’t forget to pack properly for yourself, either: if you can, travel light and try to fit a week’s worth of clothing in one bag. But make sure you bring one nice shirt. You may be asked to dine with clients at some swank joint and that flannel might not cut it.
Two: Get all your documents in order
If you’re traveling outside the country with multiple cases of high-value photo or video equipment, it’s a good idea to obtain a carnet document (essentially a temporary “merchandise passport” for your equipment) to ensure you clear customs more easily and freely. These can be applied for online or at a carnet office, though in most cases the producer or studio manager will handle this process and all you’ll need to to do is to provide the serial numbers off each piece of equipment you’re working with. Obtaining a carnet might be a pain in the ass, but traveling with it makes hauling equipment from country to country a lot less dramatic.
Also ensure that have your personal travel documents in order: namely, a valid passport and the requisite visas needed for the country you’re traveling to. Double-check that you’re in possession of a valid driver’s license, as you’ll need it for identification purposes (and chances are you’ll need to drive).
Three: Back up everything
Backing up images should already be standard practice as a photo assistant or digital tech, but due to the high risk of digital media getting lost in transit (I’ve had bags stolen before; particularly common when it appears you’re traveling with expensive equipment), you have to get OCD-like about protecting your files when traveling. As a rule, I personally give the photographer a hard drive of the images taken on the job, and I take an additional hard drive myself which I carry on. I also FedEx one back-up hard drive of images to the photographer’s address before leaving the location. At least if the plane goes down, the job can still be delivered on time!
Four: Pack plastic
In a perfect world, you won’t have to pay for anything – and you shouldn’t. But in reality, you might need to put up small amounts of cash for cabs, excess baggage, some meals or to cover incidentals at a hotel. That said, carrying a credit card is useful. Once the job wraps, you’re entitled to get all these excess travel-related expenses reimbursed – including international roaming charges on your cellphone – so keep all of your receipts and records and ensure you can justify all the expenses you’re claiming. (For more information on invoicing and billing on any job, see my previous post.
Five: Get sleep!
Long work days coupled with jet lag and a fast-paced, high-pressure environment aren’t so great for your general well being. It also doesn’t help that you’ll often have dinner after the shoot with the photographer, crew and sometimes clients, and are tempted (or obligated) to stay out for a drink or hit the town. Though it’s important, necessary even, to socialize with your crew and explore a new city, know and respect your limits. Get back to your hotel room at a decent hour and try to get at least six hours of sleep – seriously. You’ll feel better, perform better and get booked on international jobs as a result.
If you have any other tips or questions on traveling as a photo assistant, feel free to comment below or get discussion flowing on the Photo Assistants’ Association Facebook page.