James Roh on Photographing Cause Marketing Stories
NGO Storytelling: What’s your personal and professional background?
James Roh: I’ve wanted to be a photojournalist since high school so that part was never a mystery. After I graduated from Ohio University’s VisCom program, I worked at the Daily Herald newspaper in Provo, Utah for a few years. I loved photographing for a newspaper but often didn’t see a future in photojournalism as papers closed and layoffs occurred regularly.
As a result, I took my storytelling skills to the outdoor industry and began taking on commercial gigs. This is how I met the folks at Cotopaxi, an outdoor gear brand based out of Salt Lake City. I had done a little bit of work for them prior to leaving for a three month trip to Nepal - where I discovered they had a partnership with a local NGO. I pitched the idea of visiting the NGO to take photos, using my background as a journalist as proof that I was competent, and the chief impact officer at the time signed on. Ever since that assignment, I have focused my career on helping for-profit companies promote their humanitarian and impact initiatives via storytelling.
Looking back, my goal has always been to help people with my photographs, and although this is a roundabout way, I really do think doing impact storytelling for companies helps encourage customers to support businesses that utilize corporate social responsibility business practices. This includes ethical supply chains, grant making, volunteerism, and fair treatment of employees.
“Realistically speaking, capitalism and consumerism aren’t going anywhere and so it makes sense to use these impact stories to drive informed purchases that will benefit people, communities, and the environment.”
NGOS: What obstacles have you faced in this job and how have you overcome them?
JR: The more I do this work, the more I realize that taking photos is often the easy part. The rest can be the real challenge - such as travel logistics, doing research, finding stories, gaining access, working through language barriers, and staying healthy in the field.
One ethical dilemma I’ve had to confront is using imagery of less fortunate people to seemingly encourage purchases. It doesn’t always sit well with me to take a photo of someone, often in a disadvantaged situation, to be used in a catalog for products that aren’t always necessary. Couldn’t that consumer just use that money to donate to an NGO? Yes. The answer is almost always yes. However, realistically speaking, capitalism and consumerism aren’t going anywhere and so it makes sense to use these impact stories to drive informed purchases that will benefit people, communities, and the environment. At this point, I am a strong believer in the power of using business as a force for good. I can certainly see both sides of the argument though.
NGOS: To dig a little deeper into your ethical dilemma: How do you explain to the people you're photographing how their photos will be used? And how do you deal with issues of consent? Do you ever give gifts, buy meals, etc. for people and why or why not?
JR: That’s a great question and I wish I had a solid answer but like most things, it depends. I love working with Cotopaxi because I’m in meetings with the team discussing plans, stories, and how they will be used. So ideally, that will be the case and I can have a straight answer to my subjects if they ask. Many times I’m with an NGO partner that they’re well acquainted with so in a way, I’m utilizing the trust the NGO has with the community, which thankfully, hasn’t been an issue yet.
As for consent, I like to have my stories preplanned before arriving at the location, if possible. If the point person can identify stories ahead of time, then someone already will have consented to being photographed and it’s not an issue. But regardless, I try to have a point where I am introduced to the community so everyone knows what I’m up to.
During some assignments where it’s challenging to meet everyone upfront, I will have a note written in the local language explaining who I am, what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and that they are welcome to say no if they don’t want to be photographed. This was especially helpful when I worked in Myanmar since even basic Burmese phrases were very challenging for me to learn.
Coming from a journalism background, giving and receiving gifts is strictly prohibited but this becomes a bit blurred for me as it’s not 100% true fly-on-the-wall journalism. I certainly attempt to pay for meals but often times, it is a culture’s source of pride to provide guests with a meal and hospitality. (Sometimes it’s good to learn how to politely say “no more, I’m so full” in their language, especially in Nepal!). So it’s hard to judge but at times, but I’ll ask translators if they have cultural advice and take their lead. Gift giving can be a bit tricky depending on the context but I have done it, including by giving prints of photos I’ve taken. A friend/client/mentor of mine has asked me several times to find a way to give back while traveling on assignments and so I’ve held photo workshops a few times for either community members or NGO staff. Ideally, interactions in the field should be two-way and not solely extractive.
NGOS: How do you respond when organizations say they can't pay you what you're asking to be paid?
JR: To be honest, the usual sticking point is convincing companies they need me to tell their stories in the first place. Responses might include - “We put this info on our website so customers know” or “We’re going to spend our marketing budget on product” or “We already have “Label X” on our product,” etc. I think the employees responsible for the company’s impact models are usually on board from the start, but it can be a challenge with marketing teams who may not even know this type of storytelling is an option. The truth is that most customers don’t comprehend what these initiatives do. I would argue that they deserve to know!
For example, I worked with Wholesum Farms, an organic Fair Trade produce company this summer in Mexico, Arizona and California. Fair Trade sounds nice, but what does it actually mean? Most people can’t answer that and to be honest, the technical side of implementing it is a bit complicated. But what isn’t complicated is teaching the public that by buying this Fair Trade pepper, you are helping improve the quality of life for the community that grows that pepper; Fair Trade provides funds for a school bus, eye glasses, healthcare, playgrounds, home repairs, etc. A photo and caption create that connection much easier than explaining the actual business structure.
Most of my work that actually comes to fruition comes from referrals, word of mouth, or from clients seeing my images being used in another company’s impact report. That said, I am making a big push this year to see if I can successfully reach new clients via a look book mailer — a small book to show some of my portfolio and have clients get a feel for what I can do for them.
NGOS: Any advice for people who want to work as humanitarian photographers?
My biggest advice is to come into these assignments with as much compassion and respect as possible and be aware of how your images depict people and places. In this line of work, I don’t think it’s ever acceptable to lose sight of the implications your actions and the resulting photos can have.
Respect also looks like learning as much as possible about a situation prior to arriving at the assignment. Before I went to Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan this spring, I read several books on the refugee crisis, including one on international refugee policy. This puts the location and situation into context and (hopefully) prevented me from asking basic questions that could have been perceived as ignorant or a waste of the person's time. Other things can make a big difference too, like learning a local language enough to greet people, say thank you, and may I take a picture. At the very least it shows you’re trying to be respectful and are taking an earnest interest in their culture - even if you say it all wrong and get laughed at. Ultimately, the goal is to help people, so treat every interaction with that in mind.
James Roh is a freelance photojournalist based out of Salt Lake City. He works part-time with Cotopaxi producing visual cause marketing stories for the outdoor gear company; it’s a client he landed by pitching them before a three-month trip to Nepal. Roh loves combining his passions for storytelling, social issues, outdoor adventure, and international travel. You can see his work at www.JamesRoh.com and on Instagram at @James_Myron_Roh. He’d love to connect with anyone in this line of work so feel free to shoot him an email at James@JamesRoh.com and “especially reach out if you’re traveling through Utah and have time to grab a coffee or go for a hike!”
Top photo caption: A llamera shows off one of her baby llamas in the Altiplano of Bolivia. Cotopaxi uses llama fiber in some of their products and wanted to explore the supply chain firsthand as well as have content to go along with marketing the product. Photo © James Roh.