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Miki Johnson: Tell me about how the Women Empowered book and exhibition was conceived. Was that a new thing for CARE to do a whole project around a photo project?
Valenda Campbell: It was definitely a learning experience for me. I had put together some exhibits before but this was my first time working on a book. Having published many books before, Phil came into it knowing what he wanted to produce. I let Phil know right up front that I’d never worked a book, but I was looking forward to learning a lot from him and that I’d do my best to keep up. CARE hadn’t done anything like this since I had been here. We had published A Gift from America back in 1996 about CARE’s 50th anniversary, but that mostly involved pulling materials from the archives.
At one point photographer Fred Housel was shooting quite a bit for CARE and some larger exhibit projects came from that partnership. So between that and the Connections photo exhibit, which I led in 2004, CARE had some limited experience with large exhibits. But since I had been with CARE we just hadn’t had the right opportunity or any specific clarity to justify a book and traveling exhibition.
When things started falling into place with Phil, we saw a lot of potential for the awareness it could raise around issues of women’s empowerment and CARE’s poverty-fighting work. But it was a bit of a hard sell because I had a pretty ambitious list of what we wanted to accomplish and what it was going to cost –- not to mention a lot of people would have to spend significant time helping us pull it together. Taking on a project like this is an organizational commitment that impacts everyone from the photo library, to finance, to the country office staff in the field.
It was also a hard sell because people don’t always appreciate the influence of social documentary photography. Everyone enjoys the creative products of projects like this, but they may not quite appreciate the impact, the number of supporters behind it, and the variety of networks that are created and plugged into it. I explained how Phil’s book and exhibition would reach a lot of people through new venues while also providing high-quality material for our regular venues.
Committing to this type of high-level project is a tough call because it’s not easy to illustrate how this channel, through a lot of dotted lines and connections, will get us to our target audiences. In the end, though, there was enough potential there to get started and see how it went. Then when the project started coming together, everyone thought it was great and were very excited.
MJ: What have been the lasting results from Phil’s Women Empowered project?
VC: The Women Empowered book and exhibition have allowed us to reach new audiences. There’s the audience of photography enthusiasts in general, the professional photography networks, photo collectors, and the arts community — it’s so widespread. Like the magazine you worked for [American Photo, which included Phil in its “Heroes of Photography” issue]. Everybody who is a photo enthusiast gets that magazine at one point or another. Also, coverage in Photo District News is a great avenue to reach out to the photojournalist and documentary side of photography, which helped us connect with resources and support. In these ways, Phil’s work has also made other photographers aware of what we’re doing and it helps us recruit a higher caliber of potential photographers to work with.
I may be biased, but I would say that Phil has been one of the most valuable communications relationships we’ve built in recent history. Everyone who has had his wonderful material available to them has been thrilled with the opportunities it inspires, the doors that it opens, and the conversations that it starts. Because Phil is a photographer who is pretty worldly and well-traveled, he has a lot of insight into examining indigenous cultures and telling those stories — he’s seen so much first hand. It’s also good to have a man’s perspective included in this women-focused communications platform that CARE has adopted. Ultimately it adds a lot of credibility to CARE that he’s so committed and passionate about helping tell the stories behind CARE’s work. It means a lot having somebody of his stature, experience, and talent make that kind of commitment to supporting our work and our mission.
One thing that’s interesting about this project is that we went into it with the specific understanding that this was not going to be a CARE project — his was going to be a Phil Borges project. It was going to have his look and it was going to be a message that he was bringing by telling these stories through the eyes of CARE’s work. We didn’t want it to be an overtly CARE piece and have people think we were trying to sell or solicit something. For instance, on Amazon.com I don’t think people are searching for books under CARE, they’re searching for Phil Borges. When the book stores are adding titles to their inventory or when we exhibited Women Empowered at the U.N., it has Phil’s name, his look, his brand, his stamp on it. Yet he’s telling CARE’s stories by sharing what he saw when he visited our projects. This way it’s a message about women’s empowerment, not a message about CARE. So even if somebody decides to throw their support behind behind another organization that empowers women in developing countries, whether it’s through CARE or not, it’s a win — because we were able to get someone engaged in those issues.
Miki Johnson: What were the logistics of how you collaborated with Phil?
Valenda Campbell: We took our basic system for executing a photo commission and sort of tweaked it. We knew that Phil wanted to really understand the projects, the community context, and the culture in order to develop more meaningful stories. That meant he would need some time in the communities to suss out the best subjects. Up to this point, most of our photo commissions were typically teaming up photographers with the local country office staff who would take you and a writer out to a community. The writer would interview, the photographer would take photos, and you’d spend an afternoon there doing that. The country office staff is usually anxious to hurry on to the next community so they could show you the next great project to photograph. So this time we had to say, “Okay, we need to be able to spend four days in a community. And we need to be able to stay either in the community or very close to the community so that we can maximize our time there.” It was actually quite a challenge, and still can be, to shift their understanding as to how we needed to carry out this work.
What we typically try to do with a commission now is close to what we did with Phil. We coordinate with our country office, give them some dates, and tell them what we want to focus on. We want to go out and see this type of program, we’d like for them to talk to their field staff in hopes of identifying any particular women that really stand out as stars. Hopefully, we can find people who are not too shy, who are articulate, and who can help us tell this story through their experiences. So the country office provides all the logistical support: the in-country transportation, the lodging, translator, driver, etc. And then we go out to the community and stay for a few days. We started this process with Phil’s first trip with CARE to Ethiopia where he met the people who the field had staff pre-identified. We needed to get everything started in advance because for Phil, spending four days in a community is considerably less than what he would do if he were working a project more independently. So we just tried to get everything lined up as best we could and made sure he wouldn’t need to worry about the logistical support so he could focus on finding those stand-out subjects.
But CARE wants to be careful and considerate about the disruption that we cause with the community when we come to visit and any particular burden that we put on them: keeping them away from their daily lives and the way they generate income or food for their family. We can’t be too disruptive and overstay our welcome. We also like to be there to help make the introductions and answer questions about the programming or the local community, so that Phil has an expert on hand and he can be really tuned into what he’s seeing and what he’s hearing from the interviews.
MJ: Did you have different specifications for the images from Phil than you normally would have because you were thinking ahead to a book project or an exhibition?
VC: Usually when we’re doing a photo commission, we want to produce photos that could be used for anything and everything. We’re a non-profit with modest budgets, so we need to make every dollar we invest in these photo commissions yield the most value possible. So, while we went into this project with the primary objective of creating an exhibit and producing a book, we also wanted to make sure that in working with Phil we were able to help populate our stock of images. We rely on that stock for calendars, annual reports, brochures, posters, and the web site – basically everything. We wanted to make sure that, in the end, we had something that not only reflected Phil’s style but also really represented the brand of CARE and our messaging around the empowerment of women.
At the time CARE was also launching a new marketing and print PSA campaign –- “I Am Powerful” — that had a distinct type of image we were looking for. We put together a creative articulation of what the images for this campaign should convey; we were looking for that portrait that compels the viewer to feel a connection with the subject. Through the image and her expression, the viewer should see or sense the latent potential within this woman, her determination to make her life, her family’s life, and her community’s life better. So we offered some creative direction, but Phil’s style of portraiture just naturally nailed it. It was like preaching to the choir.
In general we write up scopes of work that spell out all of the different things we could possibly use the images and caption information for. We try to give the photographers we work with an idea of the important aspects the program and what we find to be visually effective in helping to communicate what the project is about. We give them some ideas to think about but ultimately look to them to use their unique creative and journalistic skills to execute the idea.
What we asked for from Phil — and he was already doing — holds true today. We want engaging environmental portrait photos, but we also want to show people in action and carrying out their daily lives, overcoming their greatest challenges, along with CARE’s program in action. We try to make the photographer aware of what is most important to CARE to capture and what else we find really useful. Over the past eight years we’ve worked hard to strengthen our scopes of work.
When I first started the standard scope of work was pretty much give us everything and take pictures of anything that moves. But now we’ve really refined them to convey that the images that are most useful to us, and that most accurately reflect CARE’s work, are the images of actual project participants. We certainly appreciate the pictures you just can’t help but take because it’s just such a nice shot. But in the end, we won’t be able to get as much use out of those images because we can’t speak about that person as an individual and how their life relates to the work CARE is doing in the community. So we have really tried to get photographers to keep their focus on our programs so that their images and supporting caption information is very applicable to our communications. We want to make sure that the photographers are able to focus their efforts on delivering what CARE needs most, and what supports our efforts to accurately and effectively tell the stories of the women who are so committed to overcoming poverty for their families and their communities.
Miki Johnson: How did you first come across Phil Borges and his work? Did he make contact with you first?
Valenda Campbell: I’ve been here at CARE since 2001 and part of my role is to find photographers to represent our work. My associate photo editor at the time, Jason Sangster, and I were familiar with Phil’s work, through his Tibetan Portrait and Enduring Spirit projects. This was I guess around Spring of 2004 and we were looking at his work and saying, wow, his style of photography really captures that connection that we want our supporters to make with our project participants. And the way he was able to concisely give the viewer a glimpse into that person’s life and their world was just great. So we said let’s call him up and see if he’d be interested in working some with CARE. So Jason contacted him and we set up a conference call.
We got on the phone and told him what we were about. We let him know that we were really interested in working with him and asked if he would possibly do some work for CARE to help us get our message out. He was interested. I think Phil really connected with the fact that we work primarily with indigenous communities in developing countries and emphasize work with women and girls. He had been photographing indigenous communities for years and he already knew, from all of his travels and his previous projects, how women and girls who are usually marginalized can really influence their families and communities if given the opportunity. So it was just a really good match, and we began talking about what we could put together. What do we want to do? What do we want to accomplish? And that’s how it started.
MJ: And what did that conversation sound like when you guys started to talk about your goals and what you could do together?
VC: We familiarized Phil with everything CARE does, all the variety of programming we do, including microfinance, education, HIV/AIDS, maternal health, emergency relief, the whole gamut. We explained how, at that time, we were beginning to place new emphasis in our communications around CARE’s work with women. Our development work had evolved over the years, and we realized that CARE’s most successful programming was centered around the empowerment of women in the communities where we work. And that really struck a cord with Phil.
He’s a busy man, and he’s not one to just sort of take on a random commission here and there. He was really interested, but if we were going to do something, he wanted it to be a project. If he was going to commit some time to it, he wanted to have really specific outcomes in mind. And he let us know that the message that we had to deliver and the kinds of projects we were talking about was really meshing well with what he was looking to do for his next big project. He talked about everything he’d learned and come to realize through his work with these cultures and that he felt our messaging around women’s empowerment captured that. More »