How I convinced one nonprofit that storytelling was worth paying for

Note: This blog post first appeared on NGO Storytelling.

I hung up my cellphone and wondered if I had just ruined my chance to get my humanitarian photo career going.

A nonprofit director, who found me through an old college professor, wanted to send me to Laos for one week to write stories and shoot some photos about his organization’s education projects. The adventurous side of me leapt at the chance to travel and jumpstart my humanitarian storytelling career, but the practical side of me that had been a working journalist for almost 10 years balked at the lack of payment. The organization wanted to cover my expenses, nothing else.

“We have absolutely no money,” the director had said on the phone.

“I’ve been writing for almost 10 years, plus I’m a professional photographer and can shoot video stories,” I had replied. “Can I come down to meet you in person and talk about your needs and how I can help?”

We made an appointment for a couple days later at the organization’s downtown Washington, D.C. office. I put together a portfolio of relevant work: a video, an audio slideshow, and a bunch of photo and word stories that I designed into good-looking print layouts. I created a sheet of marketing possibilities for all the storytelling assets they would get from me: blog posts, fundraising letters, photo exhibits, online photo galleries, PowerPoint presentations and one-page explainers (this was 2008, so no social media strategy yet).

I was stumped regarding what to write on my financial estimate sheet. I didn’t yet know about calculating my cost of doing business as a basis for figuring out my creative fees. If I got this job, it would be my first humanitarian photo assignment. A friend recommended I contact his friend Jamie Rose, now of Momenta Workshops, then a fellow D.C. photographer like me. Over coffee, she advised me on the bare minimum I should charge, and how to consider things like copyright and licensing fees in my estimate.

The next day, I put on a dress, slung on my backpack and bicycled down to the nonprofit’s office (I was trying to save money). I spent an hour listening to the staff’s needs and explaining how I could help. Everyone looked at my stories and photos with interest. They asked a lot of questions. But no one said anything when it came to my financial estimate sheet. It felt like an insurmountable obstacle. I got a vibe that this opportunity was not mine. The director said he’d call me within a week.

Exactly a week later, I was eating noodles with friends when the director called. I walked outside the restaurant to talk with him, not excited, not anxious, certain he’d be telling me something like “good luck with your career.”

Instead, he told me my budget looked reasonable and I should get myself to the Laos Embassy as soon as possible to apply for a visa. I was stunned. The director had told me just 10 days earlier that he had no money. While it’s true that many nonprofits have no money for marketing (which is what storytelling usually falls under in a nonprofit’s budget) the director of this particular nonprofit hadn’t understood the value of paying someone for photos, video and writing – until I presented compelling reasons why. What I learned that day is, if you ask, you may just get what you know you’re worth.

How have you convinced a nonprofit to pay you for your work?


Photo caption: Students at Phonsavad Secondary School in Phonsavad, Laos, flocked to the school during vacation for a chance to use one of the school’s 11 computers. Some students waited as long as one hour for their turn to practice typing or get on the Internet. © Laura Elizabeth Pohl


Remembering resilience after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines

Resilience is the first word that comes to mind when I think of the residents of Tacloban in the central Philippines.

Three years ago this month, they survived the strongest storm ever, as recorded at landfall. Typhoon Haiyan killed 10,000 people in the Philippines and left tens of thousands homeless there. A few months after the storm wreaked havoc, I spent a week getting to know some of the survivors and the people helping them rebuild their homes: a woman swept away by a wave who hoped her mother and son were alive; a woman who cried when, post-typhoon, she found her house filled with debris; and a shelter engineer dedicated to rebuilding sturdier homes. Everyone seemed so strong and determined, but I know they struggled. As I interviewed people, I often thought about how I would respond in their situations, what I would hope for and dream of. No more storms? Impossible. Stronger homes? Yes. My community around me, helping me through a difficult time? Absolutely.

This video I produced for the one-year anniversary of the typhoon shows a bit of how people helped each other in the typhoon’s aftermath. A man repairs holes in a corrugated steel roof. Another man helps kids fix and raise up an outdoor basketball hoop. I wonder how everyone I met in the Philippines is doing now. The country continues to be pummeled by strong typhoons. Is everyone still resilient and helping each other? I hope so.

Things I’m throwing out #4: Cassette tapes and metal suitcase

From the series "Things I'm Throwing Out" by Laura Elizabeth Pohl Photographed in August 2016
Like many photographers, I work on personal projects that don’t necessarily lead to financial gain or have any relation to my regular, paid work. It’s been a couple months since I posted anything from my most recent project, so I’ll reintroduce it.

Things I’m Throwing Out” is my documentation of all this stuff I’ve accumulated over years and had troubling getting rid of. I recently realized that the reason I hang on to this stuff is because I like seeing the items and remembering the stories behind them. So I’m photographing these mementos, writing little stories about them, and then periodically posting each item on this blog. Then I’ll donate or throw out the stuff. I don’t exactly aim to become a minimalist. I just want to stop lugging around boxes and boxes of random belongings whenever I move (for the record: 20 times since graduating from undergrad, seven of those times to other countries).


Item #4: Cassette tapes and metal suitcase

One of my earliest memories related to music is sitting outside with my family’s portable tape player and listening to a Kenny Rogers tape over and over to memorize all the song lyrics. My favorite was “Lucille,” the song about the woman with “four hundred children and a crop in the field.” I always wondered about those “four hundred children.” What house would be big enough for them? How did they get around?  Did they have to share all their toys? (The correct lyric is “four hungry children.” But I wasn’t the only one who heard it wrong!)

I started accumulating cassette tapes around the time I memorized all those Kenny Rogers songs. First I bought a Madonna tape and then a Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam tape (pictured above). My sister and I made up dances to these tapes, listening to our favorite songs over and over, often having to rewind a little, hit play, fast forward a little, hit play, rewind again, hit play. You might remember how it was.

When I got this metal suitcase a couple years after I started buying music, I thought I’d use it as an actual suitcase. Turned out the weak clasp made it unpractical for that purpose. Then I realized the suitcase would be the perfect container for my cassettes. I toted my music collection to different houses my family lived in and to college, where my first roommate told me my Linda Ronstadt tape made her think of her mother.

It’s been years since I owned a tape player. Some of the cassettes in this suitcase I’ve rebought as CDs and then as digital tunes. It’s funny for me to look at all the music in this case and see how my tastes have and haven’t changed. There’s no Kenny Rogers in this suitcase because that was my Dad’s tape, but I still love the song “Lucille” and yes, I do have it in my iTunes. Sometimes I still sing “four hundred children” for old times’ sake.

From the series "Things I'm Throwing Out" by Laura Elizabeth Pohl Photographed in August 2016


Three ways I stay motivated while working at home

© Laura Elizabeth PohlThis was my “home office” when I lived in Cape Town, but more often than not, I sat on the sofa or worked in the library (and still do).

Sometimes, when I’m editing a video alone at my desk in the corner of the living room while trying to resist all the snacks in the pantry, you know what? I miss working in an office.

Don’t get me wrong: I love making my own schedule. I’m happy I’ve been able to build the career and the life I have. But I miss being in a place filled with smart and interesting people who are game for bouncing ideas around or popping by my desk to critique a video. An office can be a great source of focus and motivation – when you’re not being pulled into useless meetings, of course; I don’t miss those.

Working out of my home, I’m super focused and motivated 85% of the time. For about 10% of the time I’m less focused but still working hard. Then for that last 5% of the time I’m refreshing my email nine times a minute and gobbling all the snacks in the pantry and dusting the inside of my floor lamp while agonizing about getting motivated to work. It’s terrible. (To clients or potential clients reading this: Fear not! I bill only for the time I actually work, not the time I agonize and dust and eat and refresh and repeat.)

So, yes, sometimes it’s hard to stay focused. Here are three things I’ve found help motivate me when I’m working at home:

1. Do as much work as possible before noon.
Morning is the time my mind is most uncluttered. I can focus, especially if I hit my desk by 6 or 7 a.m. When I work a solid four or five hours before noon, I don’t feel bad if my afternoon isn’t as productive. And believe me: a four hours working at home is equal to six or seven hours working in an office because I’m not being interrupted by chit-chat and meetings – just a slightly needy cat.

2. Schedule a call or a date with a friend.
Every day I communicate with people a lot, but it’s almost entirely by email. If I didn’t schedule human interaction on my calendar, there are some work days – even weeks – when I wouldn’t talk to anyone but my husband. He’s a wonderful, interesting human being. But it’s not healthy to converse with only one person a day for days on end. So I try to talk with a friend or meet someone for lunch/coffee/chatting at least once a day.

3. Work at the public library.
Sometimes I need a change of scenery. A lot of other people who work from home do, too. This is partly why coffee shops make a killing. But I don’t want to to buy an overpriced drink just to work in new surroundings. So the public library is my go-to workplace when I can’t stand sitting at home anymore. Surrounded by books and an atmosphere of studiousness, I feel energized to be productive. A bonus at my neighborhood library is the free and fast Internet (I follow these tips for browsing safely on an open network).

Fellow work-at-home folks – what do you think? How do you stay motivated when working from home?

How to write a great photo caption (and why it matters)

Photo captions by Laura Elizabeth Pohl
(Note: This post originally ran on NGO Storytelling, where I’m a co-editor.)

A few years ago I worked on a nonprofit project that required using pictures from an organization’s archive. I searched through file cabinets stuffed with a few thousand pictures, almost none of them labeled with so much as a year, never mind a name, place or context. I would have given anything for a descriptive sentence scribbled on the back of the photos.

I ended up picking a few dozen pictures that I guessed would work for the project. Then I met with a retired long-time staffer who identified most of the people, places and activities in each photo. It was a fun meeting — I loved hearing this person’s stories — but it was a really roundabout way to get caption information.

Captions — they’re not just for National Geographic! They convey vital information about who’s doing what, when, where and (sometimes) why. Solid captions paired with interesting photographs can spark a reader’s interest in a full text story. Without captions, people draw their own conclusions about a photo. Why leave people hanging?

It takes time to write a good caption, but the payoff is big: a recent eye-tracking study funded by the National Press Photographers Association in the United States showed that “the longer or better developed a caption, the more likely it was to receive attention. Most captions were read to completion, as people looked back and forth between caption and image, establishing context.”

So how can you write a solid caption?

• Name the main people in the picture. Yes, this does require that you already know and/or take the time to get everyone’s name when you photograph them. When I’m working, I always carry a small notebook with me for writing down names and other caption information.
• What is happening in the picture? Try not to use too many adjectives like “best,” “biggest,” or “most incredible” unless you have facts to back up these words. Otherwise, it sounds like hyperbole. Consider spelling out acronyms, especially for projects and initiatives that might not be well-known outside of your organization.
• Where is the action taking place? If you can, name neighborhoods, cities and definitely states/provinces and countries.
• Why is the action or people in this picture worth the viewer’s time? Give context.

• If there is more than one person in the picture, name the people from left to right, but don’t begin the caption with a list of names.
• Decide whether you will use present tense or past tense for describing action in all captions and then stick with it. I’m partial to present tense for describing action because this is what I did as a photojournalist.
• Write a caption that is its own mini story unique from the text story that accompanies it (if there’s a text story with it).
• Include a quote in the caption, if appropriate.
• Ensure all spellings and facts are correct.

Metadata is digital information like camera type, shutter speed and yes, caption information, which is stored with the photo as long as it lives; it’s like the writing on the back of a physical photo.
• Free software for adding caption information includes Google Photos and Flickr. The pros of these are that they’re free with easy-to-use interfaces. The cons are that it can be tedious to enter each caption one by one and you may not want your photographs stored online where everyone can see them or where there’s a possibility of being hacked. Adobe Bridge is also free, and a more professional option that doesn’t store your photos online.
• Paid, professional software for adding caption information includes Photo Mechanic (this is what I use) and Lightroom (this is what Crystaline uses). The pros are that these allow you to batch process files for captioning as well as renaming files and adding photographer’s names and copyright information, tag selected photos so you see only the ones you want to see, and in the case of Lightroom, color correct your pictures. The cons are that they are not free and there is a learning curve that can feel steep for some people.

Photo captions by Laura Elizabeth Pohl
Here are a couple caption examples to help you. I made these up, so please don’t think these people or organizations exist!

• OK caption: Charity Mwihia teaches basic nutrition to a couple mothers as part of ABC Nonprofit’s BEAN project in Kenya.
• Better caption: Charity Mwihia, a community health volunteer, teaches basic nutrition to (from left) Joy Rono, Martha Kirubi, and Elizabeth Muchilwa, as part of ABC Nonprofit’s Better Eating and Nutrition (BEAN) project in Nyanza, Kenya, on August 5, 2016. The project promotes growing and eating mushrooms, black beans and kale to combat malnutrition in a country where 25% of children under age 5 are stunted, or too short for their age. “I didn’t know mushrooms were so easy to grow and so nutritious. They also have a good flavor, which my kids love,” said Kirubi.

• OK caption: ABC Nonprofit’s president speaks at an annual conference in Lincoln.
• Better caption: Lisa Stone, the president of ABC Nonprofit, speaks about the organization’s work at the annual “Fighting Malnutrition” conference in Lincoln, England, on August 5, 2016.

When I was working with all the archived photos, I don’t know how the project could have progressed without the staffer full of institutional knowledge. Captioned photos would have been a much quicker way forward.

Top photo caption: This is a captioned photograph in Google Photos.
Bottom photo caption: Pictures as they appear in Photo Mechanic.
Screenshots and portraits by Laura Elizabeth Pohl.

Time vs money: What I did on my summer vacation


Earlier this year, when my husband and I decided to move back to the United States, we agreed on one thing: we wanted to spend the whole summer with our families before settling down somewhere. We didn’t want to work much (I knew I’d be editing videos as part of a long-term contract, so we’d have income). And we wanted to really get to know our nieces and nephew.

We were lucky to have the luxury of choosing time over money, and we are happier for it, just as the research shows – and as these pictures show. Of course, the photo thing that happens whenever my husband and I go away together happened this summer, too: it looks like he hired a professional photographer to document all his fun times. But I had fun, too! Walks in the woods, outdoor concerts, one-on-one chats – what a wonderful summer.




Niece and uncle in New York on Saturday, June 25, 2016. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl