Most of us are incredibly lucky. We spend our time doing something we love, whether it’s our profession or a passion. Clearly, we’re in the minority when it comes to this type of lifestyle, and it had me wondering how I could share my good fortune with others who aren’t so lucky. One way to do this is to donate time to shoot portraits for families that might not otherwise be able to afford them. Especially now with the economy so unsettled, portraits are something that many people may forgo.
Now I could spend full days doing free portrait work, so it was obvious that I needed to focus on some area that would be meaningful and somewhat controlled. So, I decided that this year I would provide portraits for military families separated by war or assignment.
I’m doing a free session and providing two 5 x 7 and four wallet-size images at no charge to any local military family in which one of the parents is serving overseas. It’s not a question of whether I support why they are there. Rather, it’s about showing appreciation for a difficult job and the sacrifices that these families are making for all of us.
If you’re interested in doing something similar, I suggest contacting the local paper to place an announcement. You’ll also want to limit the times that you offer the service, because most of us can’t afford to just quit doing the work that pays the bills. Placing a limit on the times also helps control your costs.
If you have a studio you’re all set. I decided to work with the local museum and arrange for time to shoot there. This also helps define my available hours. It’s going to be done on a first-come/first-served basis with no appointments.Obviously, I hope that it will lead to future business, and some families may want to buy additional prints. But at the end of the day, my main goals are to brighten someone else’s day and bring a smile to the face of someone far from home.
It’s part of our business. But it’s a task that many aspiring pro photographers (and even some established pros) find intimidating. Walk up to a perfect stranger and ask to spend time photographing them? What if they say “no”?
Whether I’m in Delhi or Dallas, if I see someone doing something intriguing, I won’t hesitate to approach that individual and explain that I am fascinated by what they’re doing. Everyone I approach this way seems to enjoy having their activities validated as relevant or interesting. Thus, a camera can be a tool of validation.
Still, I understand that it can take new photographers some time to overcome their innate reluctance to approach strangers. That’s why when photographers attend one of my FirstLight Workshop sessions, I make it a point to pre-scout locations and pre-arrange permissions before giving students their assignments to go out and shoot. If I can eliminate that often frightening dynamic of approaching a stranger, it will help get my students into the process of shooting more quickly and allow them to fully immerse themselves in capturing their subject(s).
Some workshop participants may find this hard to believe, but over the past 30+ years, I can probably count on two hands the number of times I’ve been refused when I asked to take stranger’s picture. The key to getting permission to photograph a stranger is showing a sincere interest in both your potential subject and what they are doing at the time you encounter them.
I got into my present line of work by following two of my passions-- traveling to remote locations and photographing people. This combination of attractions has led me to photograph many indigenous groups around the world.
I love everything about the process—planning the trip, finding the guides, meeting and interacting with the people, and making their portraits. There is a unique beauty that comes from living close to the land. It’s a patina or maybe a wildness that attracts me. But it’s a look that seems to disappear as we begin to rely on others to gather and produce our food.
In the beginning of my career I was just trying to capture the beauty that I saw in the people I visited. However, it didn’t take me long to realize the unique challenges that these people face. To bring awareness to some of these issues, I began to combine personal stories with my portraits. I actually silkscreened biographical information about the subjects on the Plexiglas of my framed pieces in my exhibits. I could then highlight an issue (i.e. the human rights abuses in Tibet) through the eyes and words of individuals directly affected by the issue.
Today I look for partners, mostly not-for-profit organizations such as Amnesty International or CARE, that are addressing the same issues that I want to help bring attention to. These partners usually support the production by helping with access and travel expense. However the greatest benefit from the partnership for me is in getting the work distributed. If I’m doing a book, these partners will often pre-order books, making it easier to get a publisher. If I have an accompanying exhibit, which I usually do, they help find venues for the exhibit. By combining forces with organizations you believe in you can set up a win-win situation in which the organization gets exposure for its work.
When I started out in photography I had no idea I would be doing the humanitarian work I now find myself doing. As I look back I find the things that served me most were the projects I did out of an attraction for the subject or a sincere desire to help address an issue. The efforts that served me least were the times I tried to approach a market for my images or guess which images would sell.
Humaria is an 11-year-old street vendor (selling eggs) in Kabul, Afghanistan. She has never gone to school and like all but 12% of the young girls in Kabul is illiterate. I took this photo on top of a hill overlooking Kabul. She is part of the Women Empowered project that was supported by CARE and promoted by HP.
As photographers, we’re in that very lucky minority of people who can make a living from our passion. I have yet to meet a pro photographer who got into this business because they thought it would make them rich. Every single one I’ve spoken to has told me that it was their love of photography that led them to this career path.
One thing that makes photography so appealing to us and our clients is the memories that photos provide. Photographs are among the most treasured possessions people have, and looking back at them over the years evokes emotions that are unmatched by most other methods of preserving memories. So, where am I going with all of this?
Recently I became involved with a group of pro photographers who provide a very special service to any family suffering the loss of a child. This group is Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS), and what they give to people is a cherished memory–often the only photo remembrance they will have of a beloved member of the family. Typically, the deceased are newborns, but the group’s charter is to provide photography for babies and children up to 18 years old.
Working with hospitals in their area, the photographers make themselves available to come to the hospital to take loving bereavement portraits of the child and family, all at no charge whatsoever to the family. The family is given a CD with images that can be printed if they like, or a slideshow that can be played on computer or TV.
What impresses me most about NILMDTS is the caring spirit of all of these photographers. This isn’t about referrals, clients, and future jobs. This is about coming together to help families in need at what is likely to be one of the most tragic moments in their lives. It’s about giving families a gift that will last forever and honor the child’s life and memory.
This program isn’t for everyone of course but if you are interested in how you can help, I encourage you to visit their website to learn more about the program. Perhaps you’ll be moved, as I was, to donate some of your talent and time to give the gift of memories.
I’m often asked how I gain permission from people in the developing world to photograph them.
Actually, it’s not that difficult. Whether the person you approach is on the streets of New York or from a remote tribe in Irian Jaya, what matters most is your own mental attitude.
For instance, you’re immediately at a disadvantage if you approach someone with the intent of taking something (i.e. a photo) because then you have to convince them to give you something.
Whenever I approach someone, I truly believe that I am about to give them something. For one thing, I’m going to compliment them by letting them know they interest me and I think they’re special. I also know that I’m about to give them an experience they don’t get everyday.
With the right mental attitude, you don’t even have to be able to speak to the person. When you’re thinking positive thoughts, others can read it in your body language. They can perceive whether you hope to make their day or if you are just trying to get something out of them.
When I first enter a tribe or village, I almost always start by interacting with the kids. Kids are the most open and curious about new experiences. I unpack my photographic equipment and take a few photos of them, which I then give to them. It is my little magic show.
Before digital cameras, I shot Polaroids. Today I show them the LCD on the back of my camera and also carry a small battery-operated HP 325 digital printer so I can hand out prints. During my stay in the village these prints quickly make it to their parents’ huts and I find myself being invited into their homes and being asked to take photos of everyone. At this point the problem becomes how to take photos of everyone. I only carry a finite amount of Polaroids and ink cartridges. So, I find myself taking many group photos.
When I’m working in locations such as Kenya (shown here), the kids are often so fascinated that they offer to be part of the production crew.
Even though I first approach people without an interpreter so they can get a sense of me through my body language, I always have someone available who can serve as a translator. I want to be able to tell them what I intend to do with the photos, especially when I’m working on exhibits or books about certain issues they’re facing such as human rights violations, poverty or environmental degradation.
I often notice tourists taking photos of people in markets and villages without any meaningful interaction with the people they are photographing. Many times these tourists get a negative reaction. That doesn’t surprise me. Just imagine how you would feel if someone came into your backyard and started taking pictures of you and your family without making a connection with you.
Photography can be a great icebreaker that will allow you to have wonderful cross-cultural experiences. Strangers will be happy to allow you to photograph them if you approach them with the sincere belief that you are giving, not taking.
Phil will be talking more about his ideas and experiences during workshops in Los Angeles, South Africa and Guatemala. Visit his website for more details.
Here’s an image of a young girl in Mongolia who agreed to let me photograph her.