If you’ve ever thought about undertaking a personal documentary project, you have also probably pondered some of the challenges involved. The obstacle that usually comes immediately to mind is financing: Where am I going to get the money to pull this off? Although financing is an important reality, I believe something much more critical is often overlooked, especially in the beginning stages of a project.
Clearly defining what you want to say or what you want to accomplish is actually a much more important first step than how to get the resources. In fact, clarifying your vision and goals can actually lead you to the resources that can help make your project a reality.
Most of the photo projects that I have successfully completed have stemmed from knowing which global issues I wanted to call attention to. My concern over the Communist Chinese invasion and continued occupation of Tibet resulted in my book and exhibit Tibetan Portrait. I published the book The Gift to help the organization Interplast raise funds to send surgeons to remote corners of the world to treat children born with cleft palate and other facial deformities. With my most current book and exhibit Women Empowered I wanted to help bring attention to the gender discrimination that still exists in the developing world. I also wanted to celebrate the courageous women who are addressing this fundamental problem.
All of these projects were completed because I established partnerships with non-profit organizations who recognized that strong visuals that could help them achieve their own goals of attracting donations and volunteers.
Over the past 20 years, the number of not-for-profit organizations has exploded. Some of these groups are known as NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or 501c3s (for their tax-code identification), but the number of these groups has grown from one million to two million in the last seven years alone! Even better: This unprecedented trend of citizens stepping forward to tackle key social and environmental issues shows no signs of letting up.
As photographers, we can support this movement by supplying the visually powerful communication materials these organizations all need.
Once I have determined what issue I want to address in a photographic project, I seek organizations who share my concern. I then approach them and suggest forming a partnership. For Tibetan Portrait I partnered with the non-profit organization Tibetan Rights Campaign; for Women Empowered I formed a partnership with the international humanitarian organization CARE.
These partnerships help me move my projects along by allowing me to tap into resources that I could never afford otherwise.
Not all non-profits will be able to provide equal types of support. The small non-profit Tibetan Rights Campaign couldn’t fund my trips to India and Tibet. But they did provide me with a guide and interpreter. When I wanted to do a portrait of the Dalai Lama they scheduled the appointment. When I needed to get authors for the book they turned to their “Friends of Tibet” and lined up Elie Wiesel and Galen Rowell.
I wanted Women Empowered to highlight women around the world who were breaking through cultural conventions to empower themselves and their communities. Since CARE is a much larger organization than the Tibetan Rights Campaign, they had the budget to send me to 12 countries in Africa, Asia and South America to complete the project. To find the women I wanted to profile, I relied on CARE’s country directors to lead me to them. CARE’s pre-purchase of 2500 books was critical in landing a contract with a publisher. CARE’s relationship with Borders Books allowed me to do a national book tour. The publicity efforts conducted in conjunction with my book tour resulted in publication of some of my images in O Magazine, More, and many other publications.
Hewlett Packard supports CARE’s work and they agreed to print and frame the exhibit of my images that opened at the United Nations lobby in New York on International Women’s Day.
Determining what it is you want to say with your project usually takes work. Your concept may start off as a page of written text. But try to condense your idea to a paragraph, a sentence, or better yet, a few words. Not only will this give you a good title for your project, but you’ll also have a Google Search term that might lead you to that special NGO that could make the ideal partner for your work.
Because my partners on the Women Empowered project had the resources to back a national book tour, my image of Howa was published in O: The Oprah Magazine, which is read by more than 2.7 million women.
Howa is an 8-year-old Afar girl living in the desert of northeastern Ethiopia. Thanks to the advocacy work of Howa’s mother Abay, Howa will be the first girl in her family’s history not to undergo the centuries-old tradition of female circumcision. With CARE’s help, Abay also has opened a school that Howa attends. She will be one of the first in her family to be able to read and write.