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Working with Non-profits

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.

Click here for a list of all other “After Staff” posts.

Many photojournalists love the idea of working with NGOs since it lines up well with their philosophy and style of image making. The reality, however, is that most NGOs have an unsophisticated understanding of visual storytelling and are used to getting photos for free. With that in mind, Chris Tyree and Stephen Katz, along with a crack team including other former staffers, founded Wéyo, a visual consulting firm and content producer for nonprofits. I knew the potential impact of inventive image collaboration from talking with Valenda Campbell, CARE’s senior photo editor, and Najlah Hicks, the founder of Do1Thing.
An image from Wéyo illustrating a program in the Dominican Republic that teaches young mothers pre-natal and infant care.

An image from Wéyo illustrating a program in the Dominican Republic that teaches young mothers pre-natal and infant care.

Chris Tyree

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.

A Wéyo image of George Washington University students who set up clinic care in an unserviced Rwandan village.

A Wéyo image of George Washington University students who set up clinic care in an unserviced Rwandan village.

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.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Have you been frustrated working with NGOs? Have you found any that have a more sophisticated understanding of visual storytellling?

Click here for a list of all other “After Staff” posts.

Starting something new almost always means doing some research. We’ve tried to make the job a little easier by pulling together several resources, including books, blogs, and RESOLVE contributors. This list is obviously not exhaustive, so we welcome your additions in the comments and will add them as they come up. Click here

Writing a photo grant

  • Foundation Center – Connecting grantmakers and grantseekers, the (epi)Center houses an incredible database — including “95,000 foundations, corporate donors, and grantmaking public charities in the U.S. and 1.3 million of their recent grants.”

Grant resources

  • NYFA – New York Foundation for the Arts

Lasting relationships with NGOs

  • NGO photography – British photographer Colin Pantall blogs about photographers taking initiative in their idea and approach to NGOs, and being creatively farsighted in seeking grant opportunities
  • NGOs to the rescue – Pop Photo’s simple answer to the complex question of why photographers are turning to NGOs for work: “Most photographers cannot solely depend on magazines and newspapers to fund long-term projects.”
  • Approaching NGOs – With a photojournalist’s methods and motivations, Mike Fox offers perspectives for working with NGOs
  • Convincing NGOs – Valenda Campbell, Senior Photo Editor for CARE, explains to RESOLVE how to persuade NGOs to collaborate on larger photo projects
  • NGOs and awardsRESOLVE contributor and conservation photographer Daniel Beltrá tells how his passion for nature and his alliance with Greenpeace grew into an award-winning career
  • NGOs and publishers – In his RESOLVE column, conservation and fine-art photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum describes his trailblazing publishing model, working with NGOs and publishers to create books that effect tangible change

Nonprofit reportage centers

  • IJNET – International Center for Journalists
  • IRE – Investigative Reporters and Editors
  • NECIR-BU – The New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University



An illustration from Anderson's piece on Free in Wired. ©Wired

There has been a tremendous amount of buzz lately around Wired editor Chris Anderson’s new book Free (which you can, of course, read for free). The basic premise is that if you give something away, more people will “purchase” it than at any other price point (even one cent) and then money can be made on that group, through advertising, secondary sales, etc.

There are big examples (like Google giving away all their services and making money off their associated ads) and smaller ones (like Prince giving away his CD in London’s The Daily Mail, boosting ticket sales for him and circulation for the Mail).

Rob at APhotoEditor predicted a few months ago, “I suspect [Anderson is] going to take a real thrashing on this one since it seems the tide has turned on free. All anyone is talking about these days is subscriptions, premium upgrades and advertising.” His prediction has largely come true, with the New York Times refuting most of Anderson’s points in its review. Malcom Gladwell makes a strong case against Free in the New Yorker as well, which Chase Jarvis referenced in a recent post, after invoking a small firestorm earlier this year when he posted about Anderson’s original Free story in Wired.

Obviously the big question here is, how does this apply to photographers? Craig Swanson of CreativeTechs makes a smart point in Chase’s “featured comment”: “generic stock image libraries are among the digital products already on a steady march towards ‘Free’…while…the availability of, for example, ‘Chase Jarvis’ is quite scarce these days. (Scarce items maintain and even increase their value). So I think this has a lot to do with how we manage our careers and art in the future. To maintain our value we must become our own monopoly.”

“To maintain our value we must become our own monopoly.”

I have talked to a lot of photographers and photo industry professionals about the importance of building an audience for themselves, building a reputation around quality work, industry knowledge, and personality. To do that, you often have to give away some things for free. Here are a few models that seem to be working.

Give away content, sell expertise
MediaStorm distributes its top-notch multimedia pieces for free, but makes a tidy sum on its workshops teaching professional photographers and journalists how to make multimedia pieces (and even some of those are free).

Give away general expertise, sell specific expertise
Consultants such as Mary Virginia Swanson and RESOLVE contributor Amanda Sosa Stone and Leslie Burns-Dell’Acqua, along with photographers like Art Wolfe, share their extensive knowledge for free online, knowing that people will pay for their consulting or teaching services once they have gotten to know and trust their work. (What Mary does might actually fit better in the above category, since she provides great information on her blog about events and deadlines, as opposed to generalized versions of her consultations.)

Give away your vision, sell your “monopoly”
It’s not surprising that Chase pulled out that comment about “becoming your own monopoly” or that he himself is the prime example. By constantly sharing his insights, expertise, even iPhones with his huge audience, Chase has created a kind of creativity factory with a built-in audience — clients are no longer just paying for his images, they are paying to be part of that community.

Give away involvement, sell the product
Photographer Simon Roberts has been keeping a detailed blog journal of his process of shooting, editing, and publishing his latest book, We English. Along the way he has done things to help his growing audience feel like part of the creation process, like offering free prints to the first 150 people who wrote him with an idea for something inherently “English.” Having a built-in, engaged audience like this can only help sales of his book and prints.

Give away the filter, charge for the content
This model has fewer proven examples but I think it has great potential. Since everyone is giving content away for free, what becomes valuable is a filter that you trust. PDN recently highlighted the importance of “digital curators,” like Flak Photo, Conscientious, and I Heart Photography, as the first layer of filtering, which galleries are now turning to for new artists. But these filter sites will have to become profitable themselves soon; one way could be for them to become distributors of the art they feature. Or they likely have some other things up their sleeves that I haven’t even thought of. (Stay tuned for a discussion with Flak Photo founder Andy Adams on this topic soon.)

Photography as a profitable business in some ways depends on individuals’ ability to flesh out these models and decide which one (or combination of several) works for them. What are the downsides to each of these? What other models am I missing that seem to work? Obvisouly there are many that don’t depend on the “free” mentality at all. Do you think those can hold out against the free content?


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