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August 12th, 2009

AFTER STAFF Expert of the Day – Amy Yenkin, Director of OSI’s Documentary Photography Project

Posted by Amy Yenkin

Amy oversees one of the most important photo grants out there, because instead of emphasizing just money or prestige, it focuses on results. Photographers applying for the Open Society Institute’s Distribution Grant are required to partner with an organization working in the community they’re documenting and to strategize how to create positive social change with their images. I’m sure she’ll have some great insights, therefore, into how photographers can work with NGOs to achieve their larger goals.

Amy Yenkin
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:

  • are deeply connected to the communities they document
  • are working closely with (although not necessarily for) the NGOs/advocates in the community
  • know their target audience and develop an innovative distribution strategy (not just books and art gallery exhibitions) best suited for reaching that audience
  • partner effectively with advocates to distribute the work

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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  1. August 12th, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Brett Wilhelm

    Many in photojournalism are worried about mere “survival” today. Beyond support for personal projects and the social gratification that can come from working with NGOs, how have you seen photographers you’ve worked with transform NGO work into financial return? Do you find that the editorial and commercial markets today are following NGO projects to discover new talent?

  2. August 12th, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Amy Yenkin

    Dear Brett,

    I cannot comment on editorial and commercial markets because that is not my area of expertise although photo essays that have begun as projects with NGOs have been published in major magazines and newspapers.

    If you are looking primarily for financial gain, NGOs are not the place. The photographers we support work with NGOs because they are committed to an issue and see these relationships as a mechanism to contribute their skills and talents to have a a greater impact.

    That said, we do believe photographers should be compensated for their work and some NGOs share this philosophy and have the means to pay for it. Others are not as evolved or well resourced. But even those who are well resourced are only going to supplement your income. Photographers who try to make NGO work their sole livelihood find it challenging. In the end they do it, because they care about an issue.

  3. August 12th, 2009 at 2:26 pm


    Hi Amy,

    Can you talk a bit about the fundamentals of working with an NGO? For the photographer who has never approached an NGO, what should they consider and how would they go about making contact? What type of support is possible, and what is the photographer expected to offer in return? Could you outline the basics such as average time working together, sharing of expenses, image ownership, etc. if it is possible to generalize?

    All the best

  4. August 12th, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Tim Wagner

    Hi Amy,

    I’ve worked with a wide variety of organizations – from shoetring startups to UN agencies – usually in parallel with paid assignments.

    From my experience, organizations often depend heavily on photographers to leverage the resulting images and stories – because of inexperience in usage planning, content sharing, staff time constraints, etc.

    On the other hand, working photographers tend to be constrained by shooting and editing time, while multiple channel distribution seems to take a back seat for non-profits.

    Towards that, how do you see grant making bodies supporting distribution on both sides of this equation? And how much weight are you giving emerging presentation vehicles such as social media?

    Tim Wagner

  5. August 12th, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Amy Yenkin

    Hi Erica,

    It is a little hard to generalize but here are some thoughts.

    You need to do some research. If you do not already have a track record working with an NGO or NGOs you will need to find the NGOs working on the issue that interests you. Or if you are planning to travel to another country to document a specific issue, you can contact the NGOs working there.

    Once you find the NGOs, you can contact the communications office/director and see whether they will let you come in and show your portfolio. They are busy and might just ask that you send some jpegs. It helps if you have a long-term project to show them, rather than single unrelated shots. Be sure to show them documentary work.

    If you have no prior relationship with them, but they like your work, you may need to be a little more generous with what you offer. You are trying to build a relationship but at the same time don’t want to give away everything. Perhaps they will help arrange contacts for you/give you access if you cover your own expenses and give them some images. They may buy a few pictures — but maybe not. Some NGOs expect photographers to give away their work. There are times when this makes sense: when you are building a relationship, when you want your work to be part of an advocacy campaign you care about, when it’s for a fundraiser, etc.

    If this is the first time you are making contact with an NGO I would not expect to get hired for a story with paid travel. You have to invest time/money into the relationship but if you are initiating a long term project, it’s good to connect with the lead NGOs regardless of whether they hire you or license/buy any images. If you build the relationship, and your work is strong, something will probably come of the relationship building.

    Photographers who have a long track record working with NGOs might partner on a longer essay but could also just be hired for a single assignment.

    In terms of ownership, that varies. Sometimes images are licensed for a period of time when they can’t be published elsewhere or they will be purchased outright. At OSI, our communications department does both.

    Hope that helps. If you’re just getting started and want some ideas, feel free to email me at OSI at

    Good luck!

  6. August 13th, 2009 at 6:49 am


    Thanks so much Amy,

    I am pulling together some resource information for photographers and this will help. Thank you for the offer to email with questions, I will formulate some more specific thoughts and then reach out to you.

  7. August 13th, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Amy Yenkin

    Hi Tim,

    I think you are right that many NGOs expect a lot from photographers beyond shooting. The best projects we’ve funded are those where the photographer is an advocate too — taking the pictures but also connecting the story to interested policy makers, publishers, government bodies, funders, etc. But they should not have to do this alone.

    In our funding we ask that the NGOs be more than just partners in name only. Meaning that they should be developing the advocacy plan together with the photographer. They are required to put up a financial contribution (which varies depending on the size of the NGO and can be in-kind as well) but in some cases also receive funding to offset the costs of executing the project.

    Regarding social media, we are very interested in supporting this as an alternative to traditional image distribution. We’re waiting for a really good proposal. Have one?

    Feel free to contact me with any other questions:

  8. August 26th, 2012 at 10:28 am


    Tammy these pictures are aosewme. The setting is perfect of course and Thomas could not be cuter!! What a beautiful family and mom-to-be!! You look great! I can’t wait to see Thomas’ baby brother As for boy names with a T I’ve always liked Terrance, Toby or Tate. Good luck! We love you guys! Mel

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