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April 9th, 2009

Long-term NGO collaboration – Phil Borges and CARE

Posted by liveBooks

Valenda Campbell, Senior Photo Editor for CARE, worked with renowned documentary photographer Phil Borges to create Women Empowered, an exhibition and book that highlight the importance of empowering women in indigenous communities — something Phil has long advocated and CARE has increasingly focused on. In this post Valenda discusses how CARE collaborates with Phil and other photojournalists to help them produce images that help the organization most. Check out our other discussions about the importance of making sure the photographer’s and NGO’s goals align and reaching new audiences.
Esperansa, 9, is the first girl in her family to attend school. Her mother, Catarina, although illiterate, leads a group of eighty indigenous women in their struggle to gain gender equality and end racial discrimination in Ixtahuacan. Like Rosa, they have chosen to confront the injustices they face.

Esperansa, 9, is the first girl in her family to attend school. Her mother, Catarina, although illiterate, leads a group of eighty indigenous women in their struggle to gain gender equality and end racial discrimination in Ixtahuacan. ©Phil Borges, courtesy CARE

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.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Do you have experience working with NGOs? Did they define what images they needed well?

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