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In my last post, I talked about how a photographer can identify and approach NGOs (or, my specialty, an environmental NGO). As I said in that post, even after you form a relationship, getting an assignment to produce images can take a while. For larger NGOs, commissioning a photographer, covering expenses, and paying a day rate is a pretty rare occurrence. For the smaller NGOs, it’s even rarer. If your primary motivation for working with NGOs is to find a new market for your work, then you’re bound to be disappointed. That is not to say that NGOs can’t be a market but, to put it bluntly, if making money is your goal, there are a lot more effective places to put your energy.
A better way to assess if a relationship with an NGO is successful, is to consider whether you share some of the same long term goals and will be able to help each other accomplish those. In my own case, my long-term photographic and conservation interest in old-growth forests, the impacts of environmental degradation on indigenous peoples, and other issues align with a number of NGOs. These NGOs have helped me achieve my long-term goals as much as I have helped them, but the fact of the matter is, I would have found a way to work on these issues regardless of whether any NGO shared these same concerns.
So assuming you have an issue that you are compelled to document and you’ve identified one or several NGOs that share your interests, how can you build a relationship with them? Perhaps a few examples from my early experience will be instructive. With a couple of assignments under my belt and getting a little recognition for my work, I was asked to be a major contributor to a large-format coffee book on clearcut logging. A number of more established photographers, like Galen Rowell and Robert Glenn Ketchum were also involved, and, to the best of my knowledge, we all donated our time to the cause. It was a great experience for me — I had my expenses covered for a prolonged period of time in the field, was able to begin my work in the Canadian boreal region, met other committed photographers and activists, and received more recognition for my work.
After completing work on the clearcut book and witnessing so much devastation as a result of industrial logging, I felt compelled to share my experiences with a larger audience. In particular I was disturbed by plans to clearcut much of coastal Vancouver Island and the biologically rich, largely intact area of Clayoquot Sound. I was also deeply unsettled by the impact that logging and the associated pollution from pulp mills was having on the boreal and the local indigenous population. So, in the winter of 1993, I decided to go to Europe and give a series of presentations to build international awareness of what was going on in Canada.
With the moral support of two NGOs, The Friends of Clayoquot Sound and the Valhalla Wilderness Society, and some logistical support from Greenpeace and others, a colleague and I made plans, raised money, and set off for six weeks to give about 60 presentations in England, Scotland, Germany, and to the European Parliament in Brussels. We passed the hat, slept on activist’s couches, and had a wonderful experience. Although no one paid us, and we did all our own fundraising to cover our basic costs. And at the end of the day, including donations at our events, we were able to pay ourselves a modest honorarium and to donate some money back to the cause. More importantly, I was able to promote issues important to me to prominent NGOs and publications. They in turn came to me for images when these issues grew and took on international significance.
All of these activities can be considered “growing the relationship.” They helped me become a better photographer and better known for my work, while putting me in contact with people and organizations that would later purchase images, fund my work, and occasionally offer me assignments. And because at that time I was also involved in campaign strategy, creating markets campaigns, being a spokesperson, and other non-photographic activities, I learned a lot about how photography can advance conservation campaigns.
With this intimate knowledge of the needs and operations of NGOs, I was in a better position to work with them to create joint projects and self-funded projects that would meet their needs. Given how closely I was working with NGO’s, I was able to fundraise through groups with a charitable status, enabling me to receive money from foundations or individuals, which they, in turn, could write off for tax purposes. For me, working this way — doing much of the initial work of creating a project, fundraising, and working with groups from inception to completion — is far more common simply being handed an assignment, and often a more rewarding way to work with an NGO.
Some photographers who approach ENGOs are already established. Since I started working with ENGOs very early on, now when I approach an ENGO I have not worked with previously, I almost always know someone there and they are already aware of my work. So how did I start working with ENGOs before I was an established photographer? Local groups in my hometown of Victoria were working to protect the Carmanah Valley, one of the last large and intact watersheds of old growth coastal temperate rainforest on Vancouver Island and home to the recently discovered tallest trees in Canada. It was all scheduled to be clear-cut in the very near future. At the time, I was still teaching piano to support myself, but photography and environmental issues were exerting an ever stronger pull. I had recently visited the area and was equally impressed by the devastating clearcuts, majestic forests, and the committed individuals I met there who were building trails to help the public access the area and learn what was at stake.
I spent a few days in the area hiking and photographing, and upon my return to Victoria, I introduced myself to the local chapter of the Sierra Club and showed them my work. Shortly thereafter, Canada’s weekly news magazine, Maclean’s, decided the issue warranted national attention, they contacted the Sierra Club who referred them to me and I had my first published photo. Not long after that, our national newspaper the Globe and Mail decided to cover the story. The Sierra Club recommended me and I had my fist assignment, shooting aerials, which I’d never done before.
How you approach work with an ENGO or any other NGO will depend on how established you are and what subjects and areas you have in your photographic inventory. For someone in the early stages of their career, I think it is best to start locally. Is there an issue you care about that a local NGO is trying to promote? Do you already have images depicting this issue? If the answer to both these questions is yes, then you have an excellent foundation to begin building a relationship on. How you approach this will depend on how established you are and what subjects and areas you have in your photographic inventory. Of course, there are also other ways to make an initial connection.
Basically, you want the NGO to get to know you. They need to know that you care about the issues as much as they do. Thinking that you will walk through the door and come away with a paying assignment after your initial meeting is, in most cases, just not realistic. Okay, maybe that happens for some of the photo-gods and with very large NGO’s but for most of us mortals, being sent on a paying assignment by and NGO is something that only comes later.
One constant during the course of my career has been a close association with environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs). As an environmental photojournalist, motivated by a deep concern for the environment and the need to protect intact wilderness, working closely with committed activists and knowing that my images will play a significant role in their efforts has been one of the most rewarding and inspiring aspects of my work. I believe this has been a mutually beneficial relationship. My images have helped to shape public opinion and provided organizations with the material they need to advocate in a visually compelling way. In many situations, ENGOs have very graciously credited my work as being instrumental to their successes. In turn, the knowledge and contacts provided by ENGOs has greatly assisted in my understanding of these issues and has provided critical knowledge of various locales as well as the logistical support so important to successful fieldwork.
On occasion, groups have also directly commissioned me to produce imagery, and I have also raised money independently to undertake projects in order to furnish ENGOs with the images they need. Many of my most interesting and long-term projects have been possible only as a direct result of my longstanding relationship with these groups.
I have also given a number of visual presentations and tours in order to build support for some of the issues I have photographed and feel particularly strongly about. This has provided me with the opportunity to directly share my images with a large cross-section of people. Their feedback and response has helped me better understand the power of certain kinds of images, and that has been a great asset in my field work.
While my work with NGOs has mostly been with ENGOs, I think that any photographer whose work is devoted to promoting positive change, whether in environmental, humanitarian, or other issues would greatly benefit from a close relationship with NGOs dedicated to furthering these same goals.