Thomas Patterson of Mercy Corps on How He Hires Photographers
Thomas Patterson is an award-winning photojournalist, multimedia storyteller, editor and content manager for the international relief organization Mercy Corps. He is based in Portland, Oregon, and specialize in multimedia projects for editorial, corporate and non-profit clients around the world.
NGO Storytelling: How did you get started in nonprofit and humanitarian storytelling?
Thomas Patterson: I come from the newspaper and photojournalism world, so I’ve always been interested in people, how and why we do what we do, and our relationships to each other. I wanted to work on stories with more national and international importance, so I started volunteering as a photo and video editor at Mercy Corps in 2013. I had long admired the agency’s optimism and efforts toward transformational change — a results-based belief that a better world is possible — and I wanted to be a part of it. The next year I took a buyout from my paper and began a Graduate Teaching Fellowship at the University of Oregon, whose Portland campus is right across the street from Mercy Corps’ global headquarters. For my graduate school thesis, I built a multimedia project focusing on a Mercy Corps program that helps women prisoners about to be released adjust to the outside world.
I joined Mercy Corps’ Creative Team full-time in August 2015, and my purview includes managing our extensive brand portal and photo library, and hiring content gatherers to add to it. Photography is such an important tool for us to show donors and the public-at-large the impact of what we’re doing in more than 40 countries around the world each day — helping people triumph over adversity and build stronger communities.
NGOS: How interesting that you volunteered for Mercy Corps before being hired full time. I often advise people not to volunteer unless they’re getting something out of it — like a chance to learn a new skill — or unless all the other people working at the organization are also volunteers. Why or why not would you recommend volunteering as a way to get “in” with a nonprofit’s photography department?”
TP: I agree that volunteering should be done only when it’s mutually beneficial, and I was specifically told not to volunteer in hopes of getting hired on. I really believed in Mercy Corps’ mission, and felt I would gain valuable skills in the non-profit world, so I was happy to contribute.
NGOS: How do you find the photographers you hire at Mercy Corps?
TP: We have a pretty full roster of contributors for international work, as we need to rely on photographers with a track record that we can trust, but I’m always looking. Word-of-mouth goes a long way in this industry, because it’s so small. There’s a solid overlap between the editorial and NGO worlds, of course, due to us often working on similar stories, so I notice who’s making quality work in the NYT and other national outlets that may translate into our visual language. And I love Blink.la and have hired several photographers from there at short notice.
Too often, a photographer will show me a portfolio that features beautiful images that we would never be able to use. I can’t hire a photographer unless I see evidence that he or she can deliver what I need, not just pretty pictures.
NGOS: Besides the ability to take professional pictures, what qualities and skills are you looking for when you hire a photographer?
TP: We photographers have a not-entirely-unearned reputation to be divas… I really appreciate flexibility, curiosity, a can-do attitude and timely, thorough communication! Much of the work we do takes place in really difficult circumstances at the ends of the Earth, so it’s important that a photographer can be creative and do excellent work even when things are not going according to plan. And if they’re not going to plan, please let me know in real-time so we can work together to find solutions.
NGOS: How do you prefer that photographers market themselves to you — phone call, in-person meeting, an emailed story pitch, something else? Why?
TP: In-person meetings are always best, but Portland, Oregon, is a bit far-flung for many of our contributors. Barring that, I prefer email or Twitter to phone calls as I’m often away from my desk: email@example.com / @pattersonphoto
TP: I really like Instagram, but Twitter is even more of a pull for me when a story is attached to the visual work, as I’m interested in the photographer’s translation and explanation of the story. Also, I follow a lot of photo editors and editorial outlets to see what they’re sharing, as well as other NGOs to see what issues and visual tactics they’re exploring. The UN, UNHCR, NYT, NYT Magazine, National Geographic, The Atlantic, Washington Post and even NPR have awesome social media accounts dedicated to each publication’s visuals.
NGOS: What advice do you have for photographers trying to create a business relationship with a nonprofit, including yours?
TP: Like most NGOs, we have a visual brand that aligns with our mission. For instance, one of our agency goals is to bring big ideas and bold action together with local insights in the field, so the photography we want to use usually checks the boxes of “bright,” “bold” and “connected.” I may love to shoot moody monochrome chiaroscuro in my personal or editorial work (and I do) but we wouldn’t use that in a Mercy Corps marketing campaign. Too often, a photographer will show me a portfolio that features beautiful images that we would never be able to use. I can’t hire a photographer unless I see evidence that he or she can deliver what I need, not just pretty pictures. Similarly, sometimes someone will pitch me a photo project from a part of the world Mercy Corps does not operate. Even if I really like the story, I can’t offer a platform if the story is completely disconnected from the work we do.
So the advice I’d offer boils down to this: deeply research the organization for which you wish to work, and tailor your pitches and work samples to their vision. Many photographers can take great pictures; fewer can use those pictures to tell a cohesive, evocative story; and fewer still can cohesively, evocatively tell someone else’s story in a brand marketing framework. This was definitely an adjustment for me as I left journalism to join an NGO. I’d also recommend signing up with Blink.la and keeping your location updated, as we sometimes need quality photography at short notice.
NGOS: What is the most challenging part of your job, and the best part of your job?
TP: Many places we work are extraordinarily unsafe. The recent Aleppo crisis in Syria necessitated extreme caution, as our team members lived under constant fear of bombings. Trying to get photography from people in such tragic conditions is nerve-wracking, to say the least, and surely not near the top of the list of their concerns. Even in more stable parts of the world, the logistics can be tricky: for instance, getting people where they need to go after their flight in rural Niger was cancelled at the last minute, and the next flight isn’t for several days.
On the bright side, it is very fulfilling when photographers come back from a trip with powerful, iconic imagery we can use creatively to tell the Mercy Corps story.
(Top photo caption: Lorena, 11. Colegio Antonio Jose Uribe in Bogota’s Las Cruces neighborhood. “Spaces to Grow” is a Mercy Corps program that offers a fun, informal environment for 5,000 children ages 7 to 15 who are at risk of being taken out of school and forced to work. All of the children come from broken homes and some have been sexually abused. Bogota, Colombia. All photographs courtesy of Mercy Corps.)