Local Camera Gear Shop
Even if you live in a small town where there isn't a professional gear shop, your local camera shop will likely have the names of a few photographers in town, know what kind of work they do, and can give you an idea if those professionals are open to mentoring others. Local camera shops are also a great resource for finding out if there are any workshops or classes locally available (since they may provide supplies for them) so don't hesitate to get on their mailing list. If they don't provide high end photography equipment, ask them what the next closest place would be to find professional gear. There's a very good chance they know who keeps the professional equipment in house.
Even if you don't have a full-out photo school nearby, your closest college probably has a photography department or instructor of some kind. Teachers are often natural born helpers, so they can be a great resource when it comes to finding assistants or finding someone who is willing to take on an assistant. While photography in school is most often dedicated to fine art, it's still great to get out and see the work that today's photo students are creating in order to keep up with what is influencing the minds of the future.
Local Photography Groups
These are often a little more difficult to find, but if you've talked to someone in the area who knows a lot of photographers, they should be able to point you to at least one local photography group. Often times you'll find local groups listed on Flickr.com, Meetup.com, Yahoo Groups, etc. There are also several professional labs that provide free local workshops and opportunities to meet other photographers, such as Pictage PUGs (I currently host the Boston, MA one) and newly forming Smugs.
Getting to know my local photography peers has been one of the greatest assets to my business because individually we may not know everything, but collectively we can figure out anything! While online forums are excellent for learning at your own pace and getting lots of feedback, having a local offline network of support may be the only thing that can save you in a pinch when you need it most!
(This article was also shared on Photo.net where you might find more responses to this topic.)
Anne Ruthmann is a lifestyle & wedding photographer from Boston, MA. She spent 10 years practicing marketing & management in corporate and non-profit businesses before pursuing her passion for photography as an independent small business. She loves helping others find creative and low-cost solutions to business problems. Follow her on Twitter to see her daily adventures and thoughts.