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.
For 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 www.mattpowellphoto.com where he also keeps a blog aimed at inspiring other photographers to put their talents to work for good.