On Being a Humanitarian Photographer
Editor’s note: This is adapted, edited and condensed from my personal FAQ about being a humanitarian photographer.
Q: I’d love to become a humanitarian photographer. How do I get started?
A: Getting into this field requires having a relevant photo portfolio. I recommend you build this by photographing stories right in your backyard. Pick an issue, find the right person to photograph and shoot the heck out of the story. Truly get to know your subject. Understand the issue.
If I were getting started out again and I specifically wanted to work overseas, I would apply for a job or fellowship that gets me into the humanitarian communications world with some administrative support, salary/stipend and benefits. These positions aren’t all 100% communications, but they’re enough to start building a portfolio. A few programs I wish I’d known about when I started in this career are: Kiva Fellows, Global Health Corps Fellows, Catholic Medical Mission Board volunteers, and Habitat for Humanity international volunteers. I’m not endorsing these programs or organizations. I just think they could be good starting points for a humanitarian photographer.
Q: Should I work for free to get started as a humanitarian photographer?
A: I don’t recommend volunteering – let’s call it what it really is – unless the organization for which you’re volunteering is made up solely of unpaid workers or if you will reap a big non-financial benefit (Crystaline has written about this a lot for NGO Storytelling, see here and here). You’ve honed your craft and you’ve paid big bucks for gear and insurance. If an organization values your photography enough to want it, then the organization should pay you.
Q: How did you get to this point in your career?
A: A lot of hard work, disappointment, diversification of my skills, great mentors and some luck – luck that I’m from a country that embraces people making multiple career changes and luck that I used to live in a city with a strong photography and NGO community (something you may be able to find or create in your own city). You can read more about my career trajectory in this blog post I wrote, “My Path to a Humanitarian Photography Career (or What I Did When Photography Couldn’t Pay the Bills.”
Q: There must be some downsides to humanitarian photography work. Most difficult experience ever?
A: I’ve written about this experience extensively, most recently on the Everyday Projects blog. Here’s the short version of the story: I once photographed young, vulnerable people who were not actually at that time receiving help from the organization that sent me to photograph them. The organization didn’t tell me this – or perhaps didn’t know this – before it sent me on the shoot. I was in the middle of nowhere with a wisp of a cellphone signal every several hours and no Internet access. I couldn’t contact the organization to discuss alternatives or at least advocate for these young people to be included in the organization’s future plans. The young people were hopeful that my photographs would help them, but I knew – or at least had a strong feeling – the photos would not do anything for them.
I came home crying from that assignment. I felt terrible: I and the organization had used those young people. I had compromised my values. I vowed never to do it again. I did what I could to help the young people on my own. I also let the organization know how I felt and I badgered them to help the young people. The organization said it would help. I’ve verified as best I can that this is true.
Q: How about your most positive and memorable experience?
A: I worked with a friend and colleague, Sara Fajardo, on a story about chili farming in Malawi. We spent one fun week filming and photographing this super-nice woman, Violet Mponda, and her family and neighbors. One day Violet walked about 5km to sell her chilies at the local market and of course Sara and I followed her with our cameras. But actually, we ran ahead of her to film her walking toward and past us. Violet was amused as we ran up and down dusty hills, far ahead of her, lugging cameras and tripods to film her doing this mundane thing she does all the time. You can see the final sequence of Violet’s walk in this video from 2:10 – 2:24.
Q: What’s your favorite country you’ve worked in?
A: It’s a bit like asking who your favorite child is, isn’t it? Every country is unique and lovable in its own way. I enjoyed working in the Philippines because everyone was so friendly and kind, which I found especially amazing since most people I met had just lost their homes and some loved ones in the strongest-recorded hurricane ever. Zambia was a great place to photograph because of the wonderful healthcare workers I met, many of whom work very long hours in remote areas to improve their country’s health system. In Burkina Faso I was mesmerized by the desert’s beauty and the constant stream of people riding their bicycles against a backdrop of sand trails, bare trees and wooden huts.