Guest Article: Dream Globally, Act Locally.

In Guest Articles by David18 Comments


As a staff-shooter for a humanitarian aid organization I hear from a lot of photographers who want to know more about pursuing a career in humanitarian photography.  Most are a bit puzzled about how to get their start, and I can understand this.  It is definitely an elusive “market”, if we can even call it that, and I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few thoughts of encouragement for those who may be interested…

In the beginning, we all became photographers because we desperately wanted to shoot “something”.  And that “something” was our passion.   Maybe this “something” has evolved over time. Or maybe it’s the same as day one.  But whatever “it” is currently, I think it’s safe to assume that most of us dream of shooting “it” professionally.  At least we should.  After all, that’s what brings the greatest career and life satisfaction, and that’s when we do our greatest work.  Our passion might be to Save Darfur,  it could be to stop global warming, or perhaps we just love to document everyday life as we find it.   My point is that we all dream of exploring SOMETHING with our camera for the purpose of telling the world how we feel about it.   This is what we were created for as artists.  But how do we achieve this goal professionally?  How does one get paid to shoot their passion?

Usually my advice is to show THAT work in your portfolio.  Show the work you really WANT to get, not the work that you just happen to have.  (And yes, this goes for style as well as substance.)  But naturally, this advice presents a dilemma for those whose true passion lies in traveling to and shooting in distant locations- much less when that place is dangerous or inaccessible.   If we include the need to support a family while doing this, well then the odds are surely stacked against us.

And a classic Catch 22 follows:
“How do I get assignments to these locations without a portfolio to show in the first place?  And how do I get images for that portfolio without an assignment to take me there originally”?

My next response is to start where you are…

If giving a voice to those in poverty is at the heart of what you really want to do, then go to your local food-bank or homeless shelter and volunteer to do just that.  If documenting the plight of refugees in foreign countries is what fires you up, then focus on asylum seekers in your nearest city and look at their plight through your lens. If you dream of telling stories about our environment in peril, then find a local conservation organization & volunteer to do stories for their campaigns.   In fact, I recently did just that.  And it worked out better than I could have imagined.  Here’s my experience…

Through my local newspaper I learned of an initiative to designate a 25,000-acre National Scenic Area near my home.  This was an effort to halt a large logging project in a very sensitive area.  As a concerned citizen, I looked up the campaign website and noticed a serious lack of visuals.  I decided that a nicely produced video could really help get their message out,  so I volunteered to produce one for them.   I did this for two reasons:  1) Because I had been wanting to gain professional experience in video production.  And 2) because I am PASSIONATE about conservation & outdoor recreation-  it has always been a dream of mine to shoot that professionally.

It being my first attempt at producing a documentary meant that the final product was no award winner, but the organization was more than thrilled to have it.  Plus, I gained the production skills I wanted.  But perhaps most importantly, and the moral to my story, is that because of the exposure from that project I’ve landed a contract producing a series of videos on outdoor recreation for my local Tourism Development Authority.  Kind of my dream job- and this one isn’t just volunteer work.   Who knows where this one might lead?

So why did you become a photographer in the beginning?  What do you dream of accomplishing through your work now?  It’s good to dream global, but you’ve got to start local. Name your dream assignment, then figure out what you can shoot locally to put that same passion to work immediately.


matt_powellFor the past 7 years Matt Powell has been a documentary photographer for the Christian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse.  Based in North Carolina with his growing family, he is currently learning the ropes of video production and pursuing his reason for living.  View his portfolio at where he also keeps a blog aimed at inspiring other photographers to put their talents to work for good.


  1. Good advice. I’m still finding myself as a photographer and so far have not decided which direction I want to take.

    I do occasional weddings, working for other photographers, but have also done a few bits of commercial work and submit to an image library. I freelance. But your post has given me ideas for the future – perhaps its the inspiration I have been looking for.


  2. Awsome article! Brilliant work from Matt Powell… and so valuable information! I’m delighted! From now on I’ll keep an eye on your blog too.
    Thank you so much for your inspiration and thoughts.
    You made my day!

  3. This is really great advice that I never thought about for photography but I have practiced in my other world (the one that pays the bills).

    “Show the work you really WANT to get, not the work that you just happen to have.” As an HR person, I always tell people the exact same thing about their resumes. If you don’t want to do something in your next job, don’t put it on your resume. People will assume that because you’ve done it and you talk about it, then you must want to continue doing it i.e. it’s your passion.

    If you can communicate what you’d like to do–even if you aren’t perfect at it–you’ll be surprised how many doors it will open for you. Hard work and a great attitude can take you far in helping your global dreams come true.

    Thanks Matt!

  4. What great advice. I don’t have a dream to go to any exotic places. In fact, I’m happiest shooting at various locations right in my own backyard, Los Angeles.

    If people really look, I think they’ll be surprised at the great locations they can find only a stone’s throw from where they live.

  5. Excellent article. I’ve been thinking about some of this, starting by documenting the struggles in one’s home country. However, the article presents in a much organized matter than I would be able to think it least express it.

    Sharing the author’s experience is the icing on the cake that I find not only inspiring but very encouraging.

    And, great title. I feel like I should print it and hang it somewhere within constant sight.

    Thank you!

  6. David,
    Thank you for introducing us to Matt’s work.

    Your photography is quite amazing. Those are some beautiful portraits on your site. Your article offers some good ideas. Keep up the good work.

  7. Thank you to everyone who has read & commented on this post! I am so thankful to be able to connect with all of you. And thank you David DuChemin for inspiring us ALL with your talents! Onward VisionMongers!

  8. Agree wholeheartedly. From my experience, just get comfortable with the fact that at the start – it’s going to COST something. Then, even when you do get paid for an assignment, it’s still going to cost something if you’re still trying to move forward…

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  10. Thanks David for introducing us to Matt.

    Good advice Matt. There are lots of stories around us and I can see that finding ones that resonate with our passions and then working hard to research, gather, arrange, and tell them to the desired ‘audience’ is an important step. Even if initially the audience doesn’t respond in quite the way you wish you are at least honing your visioneering skills. All the best adventure journeys start from small steps out the front door, through the Shire, and on to destiny.

    Liked your site and blog. More great inspiration! So thanks again David for the heads up.

  11. I think this article has just become my own holy grail 😉

    Thanks so much. I always thought this would be the way to go, but hearing it first hand really helps!

  12. Hear hear, Matt! I agree wholeheartedly that jumping in and working on a topic you’re passionate about is the way to build a career that keeps you inspired. I recently did much the same thing with my passion for sustainable agriculture and local food – I contacted a local nonprofit called Appapachian Sustainable Agriculture Project ( – this is in your neck of the woods – I live in Asheville!) and asked if I could volunteer as a photographer. This led to paid photography work for them, a related multimedia project for a program that serves local veggies to senior citizens ( and coming up at the end of this month, a show ( My best advice to everyone: 1) Build your skills, and 2) Follow your hearts! Thanks for adding to the inspiration, Matt – the world needs it.

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  14. Thank you so much for this article. I really admire your work and have dreams of getting into humanitarian photography. This helps a lot, considering how complicated it sometimes seems to get into that field. Your work is inspiring and you are now one of my heroes.

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