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Professional Opportunities for Students: Internships


Mary Virginia Swanson

Mary Virginia Swanson

As I visit photography programs across the country, I am continually amazed at how few of them encourage and support an internship program that allows students to work in professional situations. The job market today is very tough, and students need to prepare for seeking employment; internships will help your students decide which areas of photography they do and do not want to pursue after college. Teaching jobs are few and far between, and the cost of outfitting oneself to make a living as a photographer can be staggering. Giving your students an opportunity to experience real-life working situations in a broad range of environments-such as a gallery, museum, or arts organization; a professional photography studio or a magazine or newspaper photo department; or working for an equipment supplier or commercial lab-is essential. Students who have experienced many facets of the photography field have a decided advantage and can more easily enter the workplace within our changing profession.

One of the most valuable career choices I made came after I completed an internship in a field I had anticipated would be of great interest, but found was not so. Without having had that disappointing experience while still in school, I might have made a poor career choice upon graduation. Instead I continued to explore different internships for exposure to other potential areas of interest and discovered an area at which I was best skilled and most enjoyed.

swanson_cameraAs an employer I always examined what entry-level applicants’ résumés listed beyond their educational history to ascertain a sense of how interested they were in our overall field. I always hoped to find that they had been involved in student exhibitions, worked as an assistant at a summer workshop program such as the Center for Photography at Woodstock, the Santa Fe Workshops, or the Maine Photographic Workshops, or volunteered at regional and/or national Society for Photographic Education conferences. Ideally qualified applicants would have completed at least one internship during their academic years, indicating they had broader interest in photography at a gallery, photographer’s studio, lab, or other branch of the field. This, to me, was a gauge of an applicant’s thirst for knowledge and passion for being involved in our field.

Types of Internships

Internships may be available that allow students to assist photographers who work in fields such as:

  • Fine-art, commercial, documentary, public relations, forensic, medical, or wedding photography
  • Custom printing
  • Freelance photo research or art buying

Students may also be able to intern at/for a:

  • Fine art photography gallery/museum
  • Nonprofit photography organization
  • Summer workshop program
  • Professional portrait photography studio
  • News or stock photography agency
  • Advertising agency or graphic design firm (art buying office)
  • Magazine or newspaper (photo research or production)
  • Photographer’s representative firm
  • Photography equipment vendor
  • Professional photography lab
  • Online operation (gallery, e-zine, web design studio)
  • Publishing company
  • Professional portrait photography studio

swanson_negativesSome positions may turn out to be of interest and help students progress toward their professional goals, while others may hold little appeal, allowing students to better determine their own areas of interest. If a student wants to pursue a career as a professional photographer, encourage her or him to intern at a studio to get an overall view of the business skills and financial investment required to operate a successful studio. If the student wishes to pursue a career as a fine-art photographer, arrange for her or him to spend a semester “on the other side of the desk” at a gallery or museum, which will lend valuable insight into why some photographers’ portfolios are taken seriously, while others are not.

If the student is interested in a career working with photographs and photographers, he or she may want to intern at a museum, an agency that manages photographers assignments or stock photography, an advertising agency, or the photo department of a magazine or publishing company. If a student is not yet sure which area he or she wishes to pursue, encourage the student to intern with a respected photography organization that offers diverse experiences, such as exposure to the array of research, publishing, educational, curatorial, and fundraising arenas.

If there are graphic design firms or advertising agencies in your community, don’t underestimate the value of your students working with those who use photographs to illustrate their commercial campaigns. One of the most interesting positions is that of Art Buyer, whose task is to identify appropriate photographers or existing photographs to fill the image needs of their clients; an entry-level applicant with a broad awareness of contemporary photography would be an asset to any firm.

Internships generally are one semester in length and are taken for academic credit. Encourage your students to pursue a range of internships before graduation. Consider enabling students to serve internships no later than their third year (if a four-year program); then, during their final term, they can maximize the influence of these experiences on their work, secure part-time employment, and continue the networking they have begun.

Establishing an internship program

swanson_monitorThe number and diversity of internship sponsors you can cultivate will depend on the size of the area in which your institution is located. Larger cities are likely to have multiple venues for exhibitions, several newspapers/magazines, even active chapters of national industry organizations for image makers and “clients” (see Resources, below) through which to network. All of these offer professional environments within which your students can broaden their education, be inspired, and make connections for the future.

Here is some advice toward seeking/securing commitments from potential internship sponsors:

  1. Determine whether your institution will allow off-campus internships, if there are insurance/liability issues to consider, and whether your department will grant course credit to students in exchange for time spent in a structured mentoring environment.
  2. Set guidelines for your offerings to students, such as the point in your degree program at which students are eligible to apply for an internship; what the application process is and how much work time is necessary to achieve the allotted number of credits; the number of semesters students may intern during their degree studies; whether or not a summary paper about the student’s experience is needed to fulfill academic requirements; and so forth.
  3. Set guidelines for what is required of an intern sponsor, such as the amount of time per week the sponsor will allow the student to be at its offices; the goals of this experience from the department’s perspective (here, include a list of tasks that should not be considered part of the student’s work contribution); and the minimum amount of interaction you require between the student and sponsor.
  4. Seek mentoring situations that are at smaller places of business, where students will more likely be exposed to day-to-day operations rather than placed in a back room to pack boxes, make copies, or do other menial tasks. (Note: If a student is asked to complete these necessary tasks, ask if the student will be located where he or she can be exposed to telephone conversations with clients, portfolio presentations to collectors, constructing bids, producing commercial assignments, and so forth).
  5. Target mentors and study their businesses before meeting with them to discuss the possibility of their sponsoring one of your students. For example, know if a photographer works alone or has a staff and the market segment he or she targets, be it fine art, corporate, commercial stock, or other. If you’re considering a gallery, know if its market is local, regional, or national. If you approach a service provider, such as a lab, understand whether its facility is considered “state-of-the-art.” This type of information will help you select who to partner with, which will directly impact the range of learning your student will receive.
  6. At least a month before the start of term, meet with potential sponsors you think can provide experience that will be a valuable asset to your students’ education. Have a concise list of questions about their interest and the level of involvement you require or plan. To ensure that the student will receive full credit for her or his efforts, see that, at a minimum, internship sponsors agree to complete the forms required by your department and submit them by a specified deadline. Some sponsors will also agree to pay student interns; you should be fully informed of any payment they will provide and/or of planned reimbursement for the interns’ transportation or meals while at the place of business. Inquire about whether the sponsors have liability insurance that will protect students during the internship.
  7. Direct your students toward opportunities that best match their goals. Impress upon them the importance of conducting themselves in a professional manner. Upon completion of their internship, encourage them to ask if they can list their supervisor or mentor as a professional reference on their résumé and write a letter of thanks to all who have helped them during their internship. Encourage them to consider sponsoring interns themselves as their career grows and can accommodate such activities. In other words, give back!


Facilitating opportunities that allow your students to prepare for life after college is essential, and you owe it to your students to forge alliances with professionals in your area. Encourage your students not to wait until the last semester of their degree program to explore internship opportunities with a range of professionals. By taking these steps you will be building your own roster of future potential intern sponsors from your current student body; those who have had these opportunities are forever grateful and will express the value of their experience throughout their career. I would not be where I am today without the guidance of my mentors during college internships. Give this effort your all, as many, including yourself, will benefit!


Determine if your area has a regional chapter of the following professional organizations and, if so, network through them to search for suitable internship sponsors (and encourage students to join at the student membership level):

Professional Photographers:

American Society of Media Photographers: www.asmp.org

Advertising Photographers of America: www.apanational.org

Professional Photographers of America: www.ppa.com

National Press Photographers Association: www.nppa.org

Summer Workshop Programs (generally apply mid-spring!):

www.andersonranch.org (Snowmass, Colorado)

www.theworkshops.com (Rockport, Maine)

www.santafeworkshops.com (Santa Fe, New Mexico)

Graphic Designers:

American Institute of Graphic Artists: www.aiga.org

© 2004 Mary Virginia Swanson. Not intended for reproduction in any format without prior permission from the author: mvswanson@earthlink.net

Editor’s note: Swanson’s Marketing Guidebook for Photographers is an excellent resource and teaching tool that is frequently updated. It is available for sale at her lectures and workshops and at her website: www.mvswanson.com.

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