The Assistants: Cape Collective Assist’s Robin Bernstein – a feature by Between 10 and 5


In this 4-part miniseries, 10and5 takes a behind-the-scenes look at the day-to-day lives of creative assistants.

Breaking into any creative industry is challenging, particularly a highly competitive field such as photography. Established photographers tend to work with the same group of reliable assistants who they’ve built a solid relationship with over time. While it’s only logical for photographers to continue working with people who’re familiar with their style of doing things, it does make it difficult for new assistants to find opportunities. This is where Robin Bernstein saw a gap in the market. Instead of relying on the powers that be, he formed an agency to to help connect budding photographers with assisting gigs. We chatted to him to find out more.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into the industry…

My initial attraction to photography was born out of an interest (bordering on an obsession) in documenting the events of our time and space as they unfolded around me. I still work within the documentary genre as a photographer, where my work is revolves around two broad narratives; urbanism and contemporary youth culture. My work can be seen on my Instagram.

I completed a degree majoring in Photography at The Stellenbosch Academy of Design and Photography in 2013, after which I completed my honours degree in Art Historical Studies at the Michaelis School of Art in 2014. During my honours year, I began working the local scene as a lighting assistant; this seemed like the natural next step to take in order to further my photographic career.

It proved difficult to break into the highly saturated Cape Town photo industry as a fresh faced freelance assistant. This led myself, along with some fellow graduates, to the idea of creating a platform to showcase our skills and find more assisting work. We created the photographic crew agency Cape Collective Assist in 2014 as a team of six lighting assistants. This idea has developed over the last three years to become a fully-fledged professional crew agency servicing both local and international photographers shooting in South Africa and Africa.

Describe an average day as a photography assistant. 

An assistant’s primary objective is to act as a third and fourth pair of eyes and arms for the photographer, ensuring that his or her requirements are satisfied is your main goal. One thing I love most about my job is that it’s fairly tricky to define an ‘average day’. The tasks at hand and the logistics that support those tasks vary greatly from day to day. For the sake of this interview I’ll describe the order of events in a common day on set as an assistant in the photo industry in Cape Town.

An assistant’s day at work typically starts the day before (or a couple of days before) with an intensive gear check and often some pre-production consultation with both the photographer and production coordinators to advise on weather, location, props and logistics, shot order, and any other technical requirements.

Next thing to note would be the exceptionally early wake ups, with call times in summer sometimes at hours like 2am to allow for light setups and tests to all be ready just before sunrise.

The nature of the work has to be highly adaptive; it revolves around acting fast to solve problems and ensuring that your photographer is able to focus on the camera alone, with the peace of mind that their creative vision is being technically catered to.

Days are typically long and labour intensive; physically intensive in the lighting department and mentally straining as a digital operator. I enjoy working on both the digital and the lighting side in order to gain holistic insight into the way light, people, and the practice of photography works – for me learning is and always will remain the primary goal of being an assistant. My days may be long and tiring, but I generally spend them in beautiful places with interesting people and on the whole I come home satisfied, with a tan and having had a free gym workout.

What tool/object is invaluable to your work and why?

A Leatherman tends to come in handy on a daily basis. I also carry a box with an obscure selection of tools and useful items. You’ll never guess how many times kebab sticks have saved the day. For location jobs, I usually take a selection of clothing options with me each day to suit a variety of weather options.

What qualities do you need to be excellent at your job? 

From one perspective an assistant needs to be calm, quiet, calculated and able to work as a shadow who always puts the photographer first. However, when the time comes one needs to transform seamlessly into an assertive, quick-thinking problem solver, who acts with utter surety and confidence as a professional consultant regarding the issue at hand.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve had to do?

Once while working for Simon Barnes, a highly regarded bottle, liquid and still life photographer, I was tasked with throwing glitter all day for a champagne shoot. We had to create a baroque ornamental pattern from flying streams of glitter. Of course it was impossible to achieve this in one frame, so we shot a huge selection of plates for the re-touchers to puzzle together. 

I built a large ‘glitter bowl’. A 4×6 or so meter swimming pool shaped, sealed bowl, made from drop sheets taped together and suspended on the sides by c-stands. After rigging the lights, I donned some old clothes and a shower cap and entered the glitter bowl with 5kg’s of glitter and a selection of pipes, spoons, scoops, brushes and other MacGyvered tools for propelling glitter through the air. It was weeks before I saw the last of those fine glitter flakes. On the whole, I feel my relationship with glitter has been tainted forever.

Tell us the most important lesson you’ve learnt on the job. 

Photography extends way beyond the technical or surface aesthetic realm. Photography is an endless endeavour towards understanding time, place, people and the human condition as a whole. One thing I can say I have learned is that one can never know it all. You can only try, albeit calculated trial; time itself contains an infinite number of variables and the job of slicing it up justly and effectively is no light matter.

What’s most rewarding about the job? 

Learning. I expect to learn something new every day. This sometimes proves optimistic, however more often than not, I am exposed to something new from which I can appropriate the bits of information I feel are most poignant to me. The greatest thing about working in a freelance capacity as a photo assistant is that you are exposed to multiple mentors, teachers and advisers. A fair portion of the time I find myself learning from myself; when constantly faced with a search for solutions, one develops an acute ability to adapt workflow and technique for the sake of improvement and efficiency. You figure out some new great way to do something while always bearing in mind that the method is likely to be further refined or even replaced. I find this constant pursuit of the ‘perfect way’ keeps me on my toes. Not working in an office environment is also great. So are the travel opportunities.

Find out more about Cape Collective Assist and follow Robin on Instagram.

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