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.

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.

Ending childhood malnutrition in Rwanda for Catholic Relief Services

Last year I had the chance to go back to Rwanda and spend one week filming this wonderful family as they cared for their daughter, cooked meals, ate together and socialized with their neighbors. At the end, they gave me bunches of fresh garlic and I gave them a stack of photos. Such good memories. This video came out a couple months ago as part of Catholic Relief Services’s annual Rice Bowl campaign.

When to put down the camera

Aasima and her children by Laura Elizabeth Pohl
(This post originally appeared on NGO Storytelling.)

Years ago, I spent one week photographing a story on Aasima, a single mom raising two young children in Virginia. We came from such different worlds yet we shared an intense, common experience from our past that helped us forge a quick bond and a strong trust in each other. That trust meant Aasima allowed me to photograph every part of her life from day one. It was the first time someone granted me such complete access. It was an amazing gift for a photographer.

But I didn’t photograph every minute of every day I spent with Aasima and her children. It was more like 60% photographing and 40% talking and hanging out. I put down my camera a lot, reminding myself of something numerous grad school professors, photo editors and mentors had told me over the years: treat your photo subjects as people first.

It sounds so simple, right? Yet sometimes, in the quest for amazing, storytelling images, it’s easy to lose sight of this fact. You see two half-dressed kids playing in a mud puddle at sunset and first you think, “Great picture!” and you click. Second you think, “How did my taking that photo make that person feel?”

Ever since my time with Aasima, I’ve made it a point to think of the latter question first. There are so many pictures I haven’t taken because I’ve instead chosen to shuck corn with farmers or chat about chores with a mother or dance with women at a community meeting. Putting down my camera means I miss pictures. It also means I gain perspective and I listen to stories. I feel that being present without my camera in front of me makes me a better person and storyteller.

When I was hanging out with Aasima, being present without my camera meant I ended up learning things about her that I don’t know about my closest friends, and vice versa. It wasn’t because I was trying to get a good story; it was because I was genuinely interested. We stayed in touch for a few years after I photographed her for the story.

My best stories still happen when I focus on connecting with the people I’m photographing and filming. It will probably work for you, too. So try putting down your camera and having a real conversation with the person you’re photographing. See how it changes the way you look at each other. See how it changes the stories you tell.

Photo caption: Aasima Hajja Spruill readies her children Avemaria, 4, and Zaheir, 2, for school in Norfolk, Va. © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Giving gifts – or not – to subjects of humanitarian stories

Rwanda boys holding photos by Laura Elizabeth Pohl

(This post originally appeared on the NGO Storytelling blog.)

It’s one of those things I wasn’t sure about for a long time: should I give gifts when I’m filming or photographing? Many organizations I work with have firm policies about not giving money but no clear policies on gift-giving. And yet, in the work I do, I spend hours and sometimes days filming a person going about their daily life. Even though I try to stay out of the way and I don’t set up shots (though sometimes the client does), my presence obviously changes the rhythm of the person’s day. How can I not thank the person with some small gift?

One of the hardest parts of this situation is that even if the person I’m filming understands he or she won’t be getting money or anything else in exchange for participating, friends and neighbors often believe the person is getting big money or gifts. Because why else would someone consent to such an intrusion? One time neighbors yelled at the family I was filming that they would come rob the family after I left — this according to the translator I was working with. The would-be robbers didn’t follow through, thank goodness. Still, I think a lot about the impact my mere presence can have on a person and a community.

So, I try not to give presents that someone else might want. In the past I’ve given pens and markers and food. But several months ago I hit on a present that perfectly fits with what I do and that no one will want to steal: photographs. I bought a Fuji Instax mini 8 camera, which is like a Polaroid camera, and I immediately give pictures to the people I photograph. I even give pictures to neighbors and kids hanging around. (Often there are lots of curious children eager to look into my camera!) The Fuji Instax film is a bit pricey — about $1 per developed picture — but it’s worth it to me. I like being able to give a unique present to the people who allow me to spend so much time with them.

(Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl)