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I am the director of the Open Society Institute’s Documentary Photography Project, based in New York City. Through exhibits, workshops, grantmaking, and public programs, this project explores how photography can shape public perception and effect social change.
I joined OSI in 1994, helped establish the Moving Walls exhibition in 1998, and in 2004 developed and launched OSI’s Documentary Photography Project. Prior to OSI, I worked in Washington, D.C., as the director of government relations for NAFSA: Association of International Educators, where I represented U.S. colleges and universities in lobbying the U.S. Congress and government agencies on immigration policies affecting foreign students and the hiring of foreign faculty and researchers. I received a BA in history from the University of Michigan.
I’ve spent a decade supporting documentary photographers who devote years to personal projects. These photographers are thinking beyond getting a few images published in a newspaper or magazine — they want to have real impact. This happens when they:
Working with advocates/NGOs can greatly enhance a project’s reach and provide a photographer with on-the-ground contacts and assistance, as well as financial support. But there are challenges as well.
NGOs are not media organizations and have a different relationship to photographers. They also have their own agendas, which may or may not dovetail with a photographer’s. Sometimes there is a match. Sometimes not –- in which case, it may just be an assignment, not a long term relationship.
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In the beginning, Wéyo co-founder Stephen Katz and I started talking about how we could turn our photojournalistic skills and passion for working with nonprofits into a full-time career. We researched the nonprofit sector, talked to numerous organizations, and started to assemble like-minded journalists from a variety of disciplines (photography, film, writing, editing, designing), as well as marketing specialists.
Our goal has been to build a team that produces award-winning stories about nonprofits and then uses (markets) them in a way that can make a difference. Sometimes that is through designing websites and blogs around the content and sometimes it is crafting unique marketing projects utilizing our narrative-based material. Our fundamental principle is that, for people to act they must truly believe, and that comes from showing/telling them in compelling ways what it is exactly that our clients are doing to make this world a better place.
Starting a business in the middle of the greatest recession since the great depression may seem like a crazy move, and maybe we are a bit crazy, but it also presents a lot of opportunities. Nonprofits need us more than ever to tell their stories, and we have been able to attract people with not only great talent, but also great souls. We’ve grown (slowly) without taking loans or reaching too deeply into our personal finances, in part by appealing to nonprofits that we’d worked with when we were on staff at daily newspapers. Until now we’ve existed almost entirely by word of mouth, but we are currently in the early stages of a larger marketing campaign. So, we are growing at a comfortable pace,getting calls on a national level daily,but are ready for a larger role as organizations realize the potential we can tap into through our compelling work.
We decided on a model for the business that brings together different disciplines in large part after looking at thousands of nonrprofit websites — we realized 90% or more have a hard time telling people what they actually do with the donations they receive. The images on these sites are often of smiling kids, if there are images at all, and the videos and words leave people more confused. Our group understands the importance of showing and telling the story. It has been an amazing experience working with all these talented individuals, whose hearts are as big as their ideas. It’s not the hustle and bustle of the newsroom, much of what we do is in the virtual office online, but when those kind of talented people collaborate for a great cause, there is an excitement and creative buzz that is unmatched.
There are two main concerns working in this sector. First, these organizations have generally relied on donated content. And now everybody with a digital camera considers themselves a photographer, so and there is a ton of really awful, but free, imagery available. Most of the nonprofits we’ve worked with realize the power of strong documentary photography, but can’t come to grips with paying for it — even though these same groups will pay a decent amount of money to an PR agency or consulting group to utilize the donated images. There is only so much they can do with bad photography and most of these agencies really have no concept in how to use strong documentary material.
Second, you really aren’t your own boss. I don’t think any of us imagined at the start how long it would take to get a project started. In the newspaper business, you get an assignment, an hour later you’re shooting it, a few hours later you’re editing it, and a few hours after that it is in print and sitting on your doorstep. Not so in this new world. We have proposal meetings, then contract reviews, then board approvals, lawyer approvals … then perhaps you get the chance to work. Wéyo has proposals out that are over a year old and still in contract review, awaiting board approval. So, you have to have a lot of patience and take solace in the knowledge that what you are doing has the potential to change many lives for the better.
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I talked with everyone I knew and then went and talked to everyone I didn’t know. I found out what each person’s greatest need was and tried to find a way to fill that need. I made it a point to go everywhere with advertising and marketing material. I worked with some great photographers here in Arizona who gave me a chance to cut my teeth while I built a portfolio. I also built my own flash website. I don’t recommend this unless you have a lot of time on your hands. I also put together a print portfolio and started to shop it around to as many people in my community as I could get an appointment with.
I instantly jumped on getting my website together and I happened to use liveBooks. I also started a blog. This allows me to routinely update a photo area with what I am immediately doing at the moment. I joined several associations and jumped into the business end of photography concerning branding, copyright law, marketing, etc. I also started networking and using the various social media sites to get the word out, build new relationships, and keep the ones I always had. More »
Miki Johnson: How did the idea for Pro Photography Network come about and when was it officially launched?
Matt Randall: The idea came to me through various portals. Some from just brainstorming ideas and some from advice given to me about “doing what you do best.” Since I had managed the editorial photo department for 15 years at the L.A. Times and knew all of these photographers very well, it was just a natural thing to do. Let’s get them back together again so we can market their skills as photographers, and I’ll do what I like to do, which is logistics, financial innovations, and event planning.
MJ: How does the group work logistically? How are assignments handled?
MR: I will start by working with the needs of the client and confirming the who, what, where, when and why. Once I have the logistics of the shoot, I can work with the client and find the right photographer for their needs: male, female, bilingual, or any other special needs that require a photographer with a particular skill set.
I then send out a request based on the needs of the client to the pool of photographers that meet the clients criteria. Since we all have our Blackberry/iPhone devices, reaching the group is easy. I then hook up the photographer with the client. From this point on, the photographer can focus on being a photographer and doing what they do best. At the L.A. Times, we are always trying to find the best photographer for every assignment too. But the beauty of this approach is the client has more input up front when hiring a photographer. More »
So now’s your chance to ask. As Maren’s introduction suggests, her areas of expertise are varied, and she’s truly eager to help. Leave a question in the comments section, along with your website if you have one, and he’ll respond asap, also in the comments, so others can benefit from the good advice.
I founded Redeye in 2005 as a photo agency that supports photographers with both fine-art and commercial careers. I have always believed a photographer benefits from a multifaceted career, and I am interested in inspired work of any kind. Redeye currently represents six photographers, each with their own distinct photographic voice.
Before starting Redeye, I was a photo editor at Dwell and Mother Jones magazines, and consulted at various publications including Big, Chow, and GOOD magazines. I have also consulted with design firms and emerging photographers.
I love to edit and match up a photographer with their perfect job, path, or next project. Feel free to ask me anything and, if I don’t know the answer, I will make up something really good.
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Miki Johnson: How and when did you transition to commercial work after leaving your staff position?
Nader Khouri: Immediately after leaving the Contra Costa Times a year-and-a-half ago, I knew that I was going to be doing commercial work. I am shooting mostly food right now and many of my clients are branding firms and restaurants. I would love to be shooting food-related subject matter most of the time, but I am still building my business. I am also doing corporate/nonprofit work and am very thankful to some of my photographer friends in the Bay Area for giving me referrals during this transition. For me, this change isn’t happening overnight, and I don’t expect it to.
MJ: How did you present yourself to commercial clients? Were they drawn to your photojournalistic background?
NK: Most of my food clients have come from doing a lot of networking. I got to a point where I said to myself, “I’m sick of hanging around photographers.” So I got as far away from them as possible and started meeting people who I could potentially collaborate with. I had discussions with them about photography and gained their trust. My website was just a confirmation for them. I’ve gotten to the point now where I’m back in the loop of being around photographers. I became a member of APA and am using a lot of their resources. Also, I have done a ton of email marketing and I have to say, even in this day in age of Twitter, Facebook, and Adbase, seeing someone-face to-face is still number one for me.
MJ: Did you work with a consultant or rep to re-brand and find commercial clients?
NK: I studied marketing and it helped me go back and ask myself, “What am I passionate about?” and then set goals for myself. It also helped me focus on how could best serve my clients. I started hearing the word “partnership” more, and that helped me think more about how I can reach out to other professionals to meet my clients’ needs. Photojournalism and commercial work are both collaborative processes. Commercial work just has a whole host of different players. And I think that’s where photographers might end up getting discouraged.
During a transition, photographers need to take the time to understand the scope of the markets they are in and to identify growing markets. I constantly say to myself, “Even in this down economy, plenty of work is being done and plenty of money is being made.” Instead of learning video like many still photographers, I am spending my time researching my markets and making connections there. I think spending time on the content of my images is more valuable than the medium in which I shoot. If I have a client who wants motion, then I’ll hire someone to do motion. But I am still quite passionate about still images and don’t plan to change what I do anytime in the near future.
MJ: I notice that you have a strong “mission and values” section on your website. Has that helped you focus in on the kinds of jobs you want? More »
Miki Johnson: Why was it important to bring together recently laid-off photojournalists to connect with each other and hone their multimedia skills?
Paul Myers: The workshop aspires to create a grounded space for the participants, a space to create but also to reconnect with our intentions as visual storytellers.
The most important thing to walk away from this workshop with is an approach to multimedia storytelling. The journey is what matters.
This workshop had little to do with technical multimedia skills and in the process it set people up for success. Yes, we taught a bit of Final Cut Pro, some audio recording techniques, just enough to get people creating, so they see how easy this really is, how much fun it is to tell stories with these tools. I think many of the students will look back at this experience, the magic of this moment, and relate it to when they developed their first black-and-white pictures in a lab, watching in amazement as that blank sheet of paper transformed in front of their eyes.
This workshop opened the eyes of both participants and the leadership teams in several ways. The focus on technical skills that so many people in our field buy into is mostly smoke and mirrors. If only I knew Final Cut Pro or produce a video, I would not have been laid-off — this is so damaging to our field in terms of our credibility and our emotions.
Economic factors are driving reductions in the workforce, but with the change of technology makes many veterans in our field feel particularly hopeless. Many are arriving at a point in their careers where they are ideally prepared emotionally to tell important stories that really need to be told, but they feel like they no longer belong in the field. They are actively looking for work outside the field because they do not see opportunities for their work and no longer feel needed. This workshop was about understanding a long-term approach to multimedia storytelling that will enable our community to embrace this new form of story.
MJ: How many people applied to the workshop? Do you feel like the first year was a success and why? More »
Free time is a terrifying thing to have, at first. When I was a staffer, I talked about everything I was going to do and kept a list. The first week I had off from work, though…I sat staring at my computer just crushed by the overwhelming weight of freedom. So I set up a comprehensive list of everything I wanted to do and organized my days to have a loose rotation. If I have a week off while the Braves are out of town I rotate my days between:
(1) PHOTO DAY – Spent working on personal projects, screwing around with studio ideas, editing photos, researching things I want to work on, planning future projects
(2) FILM DAY – Working on scripts with my roommate, who is a writer, watching shorts, reading FilmMaker, MovieMaker and Film Comment, watching movies, reading about other filmmakers, researching
(3) TRAINING DAY – Log on to Lynda.com and choose something from SEO, Flash, Final Cut, PhotoShop, or any other program and learn something new — it’s been phenomenal
And on the seventh day of the week? Errands and finances: getting bank accounts into order, budgeting for the rest of the month, paying bills, buying way too many Magic Arms at Showcase Inc., etc. The key to my new career is constant growth, continuous learning, and striking a balance between paying the bills and doing what I want to do.
Business took longer to learn, but I read a lot and talked with others who were in business and sales. I listened to other photographers at workshops and conferences and sought out people in industries outside photography. I was like a sponge, soaking up as much information as I could. I then tried to immediately implementing what I learned.
Establishing my professional identity in a new community — we moved to a different city and I created a new business. I was known and well-connected in the Baltimore Washington community because I had worked as a staff photographer for the Baltimore Sun for 11 years. In Charlotte, where we’ve been for two years, people are still getting to know me and my work. My biggest challenge is to grow my client base, while getting to know Charlotte. A friend counseled me, “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” which has helped tremendously. Being patient has been key.