Being a photo assistant is a notoriously grueling job — and often a thankless one. But for the five members of the winning team at Sunday’s Assistant’s Hexathlon in New York, all the backbreaking work and sleep-obliterating hours paid off in a very tangible way.
The third annual Hexathlon, presented by the New York chapter of the Advertising Photographers of America, pitted six teams of assistants against one another in six feats of strength, speed, and dexterity that are required of assistants every day. There was a sandbag relay, a Flexfill folding speed trial, a 12×12 frame team set-up, an Octabank build and break-down, a seamless hang, a “pack the right equipment” memory challenge, and, as a tie-breaker, an extension cord untangling race.
The top team — Steve Zadrozny, Esteban Aladro, Zach Callahan, Gabriela Herman, and Anthony Cunanan — won a bag of prizes that included a Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Digital Elph, a Lenbaby 3G, and a $100 Fotocare gift certificate. The second- and third-place teams took home smaller prizes. And, of course, all participants received their very own roll of gaffers tape from Set Shop.
While the prizes were a big draw for the competitors, the APA conceived of the event mainly as a way to put assistants in touch with the other assistants and photographers who come out for the event. Tony Gale, an APA member who helped organize the event, explained that when a photographer’s regular assistants are booked, the photographer usually asks those assistants to recommend someone to fill in for them.
Jena Cumbo, who was on the winning assistant’s team the first two years, has experienced that friend-of-a-friend phenomenon many times. “Most of the new work I get is through other assistants,” she said, adding that the hexathlon is a great way to meet other assistants, especially for aspiring photographers who have just moved to the city.
And it’s a good way to build up something else every assistant needs: a thick skin. While professional photographers stood on the sidelines swapping battle stories about their days as assistants (one got beaned with the dark slide from a medium format camera when he forgot to remove it), the current assistants struggled to do things they had done a million times before on set — but without a timer running.
The killer, by far, was the Flexfill folding challenge. A penalty time was imposed this year after participants last year simply couldn’t get the biggest one folded (this year’s was as tall as most assistants and an unwieldy rectangle). If someone couldn’t get the three reflectors folded and bagged after several minutes, they took a 30-second penalty and moved on to the next team member. Almost half the assistants ended up with penalties.
Eventually, a few professionals had to step in to show them how it was done. Simon Biswas, who competed in last year’s hexathlon, volunteered this year as a ref — and made quick work of the biggest Flexfill. “It’s way more fun to be a ref,” he observed. “It’s rough out there when you can do this stuff in your sleep, but you choke when everyone is watching.”
Jon Wasserman, who came up with the hexathlon after seeing a similar event in Los Angeles for film assistants, showed up midway through Sunday’s events to cheer on (and good-naturedly mock) the competing assistants. While most APA events are slightly more serious affairs, Wasserman and the other APA members agreed that fun events like the hexathlon are a great way to bring in new members and to foster community. “We like to have industry-related events that are just about having a good time,” Wasserman said.