If there is one thing that seems to drive photographers it is fascination. For some photographers it is a fascination with beautiful landscapes and nature, for others the beauty of architecture or fashion, or even the ability to present food in an artistic way.
For me as a humanitarian photographer I am fascinated by people and the details of everyday life and culture in the places that I work. I love spending time in rural areas seeing how people live and gaining a better understanding of what everyday life is like. I also enjoy wandering the cities of the world as life passes by and finding beauty in those seemingly ordinary moments where a distinct humanity presents itself.
No matter what our fascination, even if it isn’t photographic, the real question is how do we share our fascination in a way that interests people. How do we we make our experience meaningful to others.
In the space of humanitarianism and nonprofit work I believe that fascination is foundational to connection. If we are to effectively build connections we as nonprofits have to be communicating from a space of fascination. It should be immediately clear in our communications that we are intensely interested in and genuinely love the people we are serving.
Our audience and donors are only capable of matching our levels of interest in the people we serve, not exceeding it. If we are fascinated and truly interested in the people we serve, they are much more likely to connect with the people we are serving and be willing to celebrate their achievements, than to celebrate our organizational goals that are we meeting.
In short we need to be building connections and to do that we need to be able to make our fascination contagious. So assuming we are already fascinated by the people we are serving, how do we share that fascination with our friends, acquaintances, audience and donors?
1 – Be Visual
We as human beings are visual people. We rely heavily on sight for most of the things that we do and experience in life. We gather an amazing amount of information about the world around us through our eyes.
Images whether photographs, paintings, or drawings are one of the fastest ways for us to take in information. A photograph of a scene allows us to share that experience with a friend instantly. Sure we may use words to add additional details about our experience, but in the end the photo provides an instant base from which to add details about our experience. Often when sharing our personal experiences with others we use more than one image, if we are sharing about our vacation at the beach we take photos of the beach, of the food we ate, the sunrise and sunset, the sailboat ride we went on.
There are many reasons why we use images to share these experiences, but one of the main ones is that they help us get peoples attention quickly. Photographs and visual imagery allow us to communicate large amounts of information about a people, places and events almost instantly. Which then gives us the opportunity to fill in the personal details about how we experienced the things and places in the images.
As non profit organizations trying to communicate with an audience it is important that we communicate visually for several reasons.
The first is speed of communication. Recent studies have shown that you have 8 seconds or less to get and keep your intended audiences attention. 8 seconds. How many words can you read and understand in 8 seconds? Now compare that with how many images you can view and understand what is happening in during that 8 second window.
I think it is safe to say that we can gather considerably more information through images in 8 seconds than through words on a page.
So what does this look like practically?
I think it means that we as non profits need to move more toward sharing our experiences visually. Specifically we need to be sharing visual stories that directly connect our audience and the people we serve.
Sure we can get by with a single portrait of a person or photograph of a situation. It provides a glimpse into who that person is or what a situation is like and it takes less time on the ground allowing us to simply summarize the event or story in a paragraph or two later. But does it really share the experience, does one image even begin to communicate what each of us is as a person. Does the one paragraph do our situation justice? Can we, along with our life experiences be summed up in a single portrait? I certainly wouldn’t want my story reduced on one image.
I realize that telling stories visually and doing it well is not easy. It takes time, effort, and patience. Often it can require hiring a professional to come in and capture images with the quality it takes to capture attention and build connections.
While it is not an easy, fast or low cost approach. I think you will find that telling stories visually is a much more effective way to share our fascination and build connections.
2 – Amplify instead of describe
Today I want to talk about the voice of our communications. Specifically, how we tell stories. It is easy to tell stories about people. We can gather a few facts, make some observations, ask a couple of questions and we can write a short bio on someone that tells their story
Well, it kind of tells a story about them. But does it really tell their story? If someone spent a few minutes with you or with a data sheet on how you benefited from a relationship and wrote a summary would it be accurate? Would you feel like you told your story?
I would like to suggest that as nonprofits and humanitarian organizations we move from describing to amplifying in our communications.
In business the most valuable thing you can receive is a word of mouth referral. One of your current customers has a great experience with your business, product or service and tells a friend how great it is resulting in another sale.
In the nonprofit world the people we serve are our customers. If we are effective, the most powerful testimonial comes from them.
We need to move away from describing people, their situation, and their accomplishments from the outside and move toward letting them speak and amplifying their voice with our resources. We need to become the radio or television station that broadcasts their message to the world.
In doing this we honor the people we are serving and show that they are valuable to us. It communicates that value to our audience, and in turn validates and gives credibility to the value our work.
So practically what does this look like? We can accomplish this in a variety ways. As a photographer and filmmaker I like to pair their telling of their own story with visuals of their daily life. For films I interview each person on camera, usually through a translator. Afterwards the interview is then translated and either subtitled or voiced over in the final language the video will be shown in. Honestly I prefer subtitles as I feel it allows the story to be heard in the person’s native language and gives respect and honor to their culture. It is a validation that their language, culture and traditions have value and we value them enough to listen to their story and their words in their native language. I feel like the human voice is one of the best ways to communicate on an emotional level. It has the power to fuel an emotional connection between the subject and the viewer.
For photo stories I like to interview the subject of the story and gather as much information about their experience in their own words as possible and then translate those words and experiences to a first person narrative telling about their experiences. This is then combined with a photos of their daily life, that honor the hard work they have done, and celebrate their success.
3 – Educate
Building connections between the humanitarian ideals we operate under and the general public is challenge that is growing more complex all the time. There are so many things competing for our attention, our time and our money that we simply can’t keep up.
If we look at the content we interact with on the internet and on TV and take a moment to think about what catches our eye and what we connect with I think we will find a common thread.
We connect with things we understand and things that trigger an emotional response. Honestly these two are somewhat connected, in order to trigger a good emotional response (love, happiness, joy, concern) we need a basic understanding of what is happening and how it relates to our own personal experiences. It can also trigger negative emotions (fear, anger, hate) if it relates other life experiences.
The point I am trying to make is that we need to be providing reference points for our audiences by educating them about the situation that we are working in and the trials and difficulties that the people we serve are going through or have gone through.
Having said that, the way we educate the community we are trying to build will heavily influence the way they see us, our work and the people we are serving. If all we talk about and show visually is the reality of people stuck in the middle of the problem we make it hard for people to see that change is possible. Most of the people served by humanitarian agencies live in what would be considered impossible situations to audiences in the west.
To educate our audience we need to describe the situation in words not images. We need to be clear about what problems are faced by the people we serve and the real tangible effects they have on the families involved. Our audience is used to hearing about hardship, suffering and loss. But if we visually show that hardship, suffering and loss visually, it is hard for our audience to see a way out of it for the people involved. They loose hope for the cause and are less likely to get involved.
There is a great article in the New York Times recently on hope vs despair in nonprofit marketing if you want further insight into this concept.
Ideally we want to educate our audience by telling about the hardship through the lens of time. We want to show how people have succeeded in overcoming their difficult circumstances and whose lives are improving with each passing month. The realities of their past need to be talked about in a real concrete way but only talked about. The words alone provide a stark contrast to images of people healthy and thriving. That contrast in turn provides hope and an invitation to your audience to invest in making opportunities available.
I think there is a place for talking about the general situation on the ground and for detailing what your non profit is doing and how it goes about it practically. However, especially on the social media channels we rely heavily on, this is best done in small doses with the majority of your education done through the stories of lives changed.