“I have three treasures which I hold and keep. The first is mercy, for from mercy comes courage. The second is frugality, from which comes generosity to others. The third is humility, for from it comes leadership.” — Master Po
“Strange treasures. How shall I hold them and keep them? Memory?” — Caine
“No, Grasshopper, not in memory, but in your deeds.” — Master Po
What makes a great mentor is an inquisitive student. I often think of the old TV series Kung Fu, where the main character has flashbacks to his childhood, asking many questions of his master. We do not see the master pressing the boy so much as we see the young boy seeking out the master’s wisdom. If you truly want to learn and are open to criticism, you can learn a great deal from a mentor.
I watched one of my mentors, Don Rutledge , mentor many people. I was privileged to work with Don and down the hall from his office. Don Rutledge was a staff photographer for Black Star and later worked covering missionaries around the world for Christian magazines. He traveled throughout the United States and in more than 150 countries.
I watched, noticing that no matter who came by, Don made the time to sit down with the person and talk. They would bring their portfolios and mostly just want a job doing what he was doing. Most were just using Don; some were so bold as to go to Black Star trying to take his job. Many went on to prosperous careers but never called to thank Don — either for his wise counsel or his generosity in providing industry contacts.
Like everyone else, I sat down with Don and had him review my work. But where I gained the most valuable insight was when Don invited me to come along on some of his shoots. We took trips together where I would just watch him work and occasionally hand him a lens. This is where I was able to learn from a master of the craft.
I watched as Don would get out of the car and introduce himself to the subject. He would talk for a while with the person in a casual conversation, which was really an interview. He was listening and learning all he could. What would make a good photograph? What would be good quotes for the story? And by the way — his cameras were either in the car or in his bag during this time.
After each story, during our car ride back I would ask lots of questions and learn even more about what Don was thinking as he was working. When the contact sheets came back from the lab, we would go over the photos again. I only knew of a few photographers who sat down and looked through Don’s contact sheets and learned from him how he worked. Most were only interested in guidance about their own work; they didn’t know what they were missing.
When looking for a mentor, find someone who is at the top of the industry and has a personality and work that you admire. Show them your work on a regular basis and ask for advice. Ask if you can watch them work, and ask to help them. Most importantly, become friends with them for a lifetime; don’t just use people for your career development. And finally — give back, by mentoring someone yourself.
“But Master, how do I not contend with a man that would contend with me?” — Caine
“In a heart that is one with nature, though the body contends, there is no violence, and in the heart that is not one with nature, though the body be at rest, there is always violence. Be, therefore, like the prow of a boat. It cleaves water, yet it leaves in its wake water unbroken.” — Master Po
How did I learn about Don? My uncle Knolan Benfield worked with him from 1969 to 1979. Knolan told me so much about Don that when I met him I thought I already knew him. Don had impacted Knolan’s work and improved his photography.
My master’s thesis was on Don Rutledge; you can read it here . It will take a minute to load.
What I learned from Don changed my life. Today I teach at colleges and workshops and, like Don, I am willing to help anyone, because Don showed me it was important. Ultimately, I learned why Don had given so much. It was because in giving we receive so much ourselves.
[tags]Stanley Leary, Don Rutledge, mentoring photographers, photography tips[/tags]