The Challenge of Humanitarian Photography Part 1 – Communicating the Intangible

There are a number of challenges faced by those of us pursuing humanitarian photography. Often times the least of which are the technical aspects of actually making the photographs.

The challenges often fall more into the abstract and uncertain world of ideas. How do we create images and films that communicate on multiple levels.

I wanted to take a couple of posts to talk about the challenges that I see related to humanitarian photography and filmmaking and how we can address them.

The first and most important challenge is moving beyond communicating the concrete. In order to capture the imagination of the audience, we need to be able to communicate the unseen, intangible benefits that the organization is providing to the communities they are serving.

For example if the organization is providing clean water, water would be the concrete, tangible product or benefit they are producing. While that is a simple, easy to communicate, visible benefit, what are the intangible benefits that result from clean water? Heath, economic productivity, attendance at school, reduced medical costs, better tasting food and less labor to boil water are all indirect benefits related to the gift of clean water. Depending on how the organization is structured and how they work with communities, there can also be additional benefits.

The question is how do we show these visually?

I would like to suggest that it is possible show these benefits visually but that there are limitations. As photographers and communicators we cannot rely solely on images. Our images can provide a visual reference point that the reader uses to enhance their understanding of the story, but often images alone will not be able to fully communicate the ideas we are wanting to share.

As photographers we tend to want communicate simply through the use of images. I recently read an article by a fine art photography critic claiming that there were too many words being associated with photography now, that images were no longer able to stand on their own.

While that may be the case in fine art, I disagree with that statement completely when it comes to humanitarian photography. In order to adequately communicate the intangible through our photography we need to be able to pair it with a strong, well written story that brings these intangibles to life.

Looking outside of the non profit sphere, it is easier to communicate the intangibles of a wedding in photographs because the audience automatically understands the context that the images were produced in. With humanitarian photography we often need to use words to set the stage, introduce the players, and fill in the details that our images cannot communicate in order to allow our images to make that deeper connection with the audience.

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