6 Realities of Humanitarian Photography and Storytelling

Still photo from a video project with Love Justice International in 2017.

I began this journey into the world of humanitarian photography, storytelling and communications almost 6 years ago. As I was reflecting on the process that got me to this point, I realized there are somethings that I wish I had known before I started. Things that would have helped me grow and improve faster, changed how I approached the work, and help me manage expectations about the career.

Humanitarian photography is less about the photograph and more about the people you photograph.

The goal of humanitarian photography is helping the world see people as valuable and worthy of our respect and admiration.  It is easy to get caught up in the idea of advocating for a cause, building a portfolio, creating a signature style to get work, and traveling to new and interesting locations and making photographs of those exciting places and experiences. 

The reality is that to make those photographs useful, for those stories and photos to really have an impact they need to be deeply focused on people and their story. They need to help the viewer build a connection with the person in the photo and the story. They also need to match the brand of the nonprofit that you are working for, it becomes a balancing act of celebrating and honoring the subject of the story while infusing the work, message and style of the nonprofit into the narrative in a way the allows the audience to connect with the subject of the story and the nonprofit.

Image quality and the types of photos you take matter.

These may seem like conflicting ideas but they are two parts of an equation and we really need to work to keep the two ideals in our mind at all times. We cannot create photographs that matter and are valuing of the individual without being focus on connecting with them and creating images that represent them well. Having said that, commercial and advertising photography set a very high standard for what it takes to capture the attention of an audience. In order to create an image that has impact on how people interact with the cause and the organization we have to be very intentional about what images we create. This means we need to intentionally create photos with the goal of building connection and supporting the brand of the nonprofit. Pure documentary photography will seldom create the depth and quality of images needed to build a connection with the audience and educate them about the cause. I honestly prefer to think of humanitarian photography and storytelling more as editorial work than documentary work, for me the goal is to build connection and communicate specific ideas that support the nonprofit and celebrate the subject of the story. With this in mind I try to illustrate the story with specific images that are crafted to get the attention of the audience and help the audience understand and care about the subject of the story and the cause the NGO is working on. To be clear there is no manipulation of the story, I simply choose to design and produce images and stories that will tell the story in the way that builds a connection between the subject and the audience.

Humanitarian photography and storytelling is not limited to documentary work in developing countries.

Humanitarian photography is about finding ways to celebrate the uniqueness and value of people. We as a global community need more storytelling and open sharing about our humanity. We need to be able to create photos of people around us and those outside of our small communities of relationships. Lots of photographers want to get into humanitarian photography, but when they say humanitarian photography they are often thinking of assignment work in foreign countries that are new and exciting. I would like to argue that there is a desperate need for true humanitarian, people focused photography and storytelling in every city and country in the world. If you want to be a humanitarian photographer, the best place to start is with marginalized and misunderstood people in your city. Those stories need to be told just as much as the stories in developing countries.

You will never have enough time on site.

No matter what, no matter how long you are on site you will always want more time. Moments and attention are fleeting so be prepared to work twice as fast as you are comfortable with and get half the shots you want to get. This means it’s important to understand the story and the clients brand before you arrive. Most often, the location will be nothing like you imagined and your shot list will not match the location. The challenge then becomes how can I create photos that accomplish my purpose (portray the subject well, in a way that builds connection and communicates the organization’s brand message) in this location, with the time I have. This is the constant struggle, it will always be anxiety inducing but the more you do it the easier it becomes.

Humanitarian photography is deeply important in the world, but it will never make you rich.

It probably won’t even pay your bills. The money simply isn’t there. Nonprofits are constantly pushed to reduce their administration costs and make sure more money is directed to work that directly improves the lives of their beneficiaries. This leaves very little for extras like photography, video and storytelling. This doesn’t mean that humanitarian photography is not worth pursuing, it just means that you have to be doing it for the right reason. You will need to be able to focus on the impact it can have rather than the paycheck you will be getting and look for creative ways to fund your projects.

You will need to find projects and clients, they will rarely find you.

Looking at the immense world of nonprofit organizations and NGO’s across the globe it is easy to think that there is an endless supply of humanitarian photography work. It is easy to convince yourself that with all the organizations out there there must be endless demand for storytelling and photography.

While there is a genuine need for humanitarian photography and storytelling there are two main categories of organizations. The most visible are large global organizations with large communications teams that include photographers, videographers, editors and writers. They do most projects in house and occasionally hire freelancers to fill holes in their schedule or to add production value to higher level projects. A friend of mine who works for a large international organization recently told me that she receives hundreds of emails a year from photographers who want to work for the organization. They only need a few freelancers for projects each year so the competition is high.

The other end of the scale is smaller nonprofits and NGOs with a limited audience that most people will never know exist. They work on specific projects in a small number of locations and operate on very tight budgets. They might have one staff member responsible for communications or a team of volunteers that post to social media, write newsletters and answer emails, or the founder may be trying to do all of it herself.

While these are broad generalized categories and there is a middle ground where some parts of both groups overlap. The reality is that neither group is actively looking for photographers, storytellers or videographers. The large organizations rarely need help and the small organizations don’t have money to pay for projects or time to look for photographers.

It is possible to find projects for organizations from both groups but the key is that you have to find them and you have to be able demonstrate that you can provide value and solve problems that they are struggling with. For most of us that will mean initially doing work for free to build a portfolio of work that demonstrates proficiency. In the case of working with small organizations, if they are able to pay, doing the work will often mean that you do it for less than it costs you. That applies to the cost of time for sure and often in the beginning it will also involve the actual out of pocket costs like food, lodging and airfare.

In my case I have broadened the types of work I do over the years. I initially started with photography but quickly worked to learn and add video to my skill set because demand for video was much higher and the amount of people providing video was much lower. Over the years I have added website design, brand strategy and messaging consulting to the services I offer which allows me to solve more problems that organizations are dealing with in one package. I can help them develop their brand and message, take the photos to support the brand, produce the video, and then design the website. It makes life easier for the organization. It is one relationship to manage instead of 4 and integration of the various aspects of the project is seamless.

I write all this, not to be discouraging but rather to help manage expectations. The reality is that being a full time humanitarian photographer and filmmaker is full of uncertainty. It is very hard to know where the next job is coming from and what it will look like. Having said that, if you can deal with the uncertainty, it can be a very rewarding career.

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