Q: You have the best job! How can I be a humanitarian photographer, too?
A: I do have the best job. I love my work and all the perks that come with it, like traveling to new places, meeting interesting people, and learning firsthand about issues that I would otherwise know about only through the news. Plus, I get to do good with my photos. So I absolutely understand the attraction in becoming a humanitarian photographer.
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 you don’t have the focus and drive to work on a story near you, then how will you succeed in a different culture with a different language in a different climate with a myriad of unforeseen challenges?
If I were getting started out again and I 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. 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. I wrote about this in detail in this blog post.
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, “What I learned when photography alone couldn’t pay my bills.”
Q: There must be some downsides to humanitarian photography work. Most difficult experience ever?
A: 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 absolutely no cellphone or 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. For more on this issue, my dear friend and fellow humanitarian photographer Crystaline Randazzo has written about what happens when you give up your ethics for a paycheck.
On a lighter note, I’ve slept in some mighty uncomfortable beds and endured some long drives on terrible roads. Luckily I’ve never had malaria – yet.
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: Why don’t you set up shots?
A: That’s not my style. I come from a documentary and photojournalism background where you absolutely don’t set up situations, you just let life naturally unfold and document what’s there. Also, I think it’s annoying and disrespectful to people being filmed or photographed to ask them to reenact situations over and over. They’re busy people.
Q: Can I be your intern or assistant?
A: I’m rarely in a position to hire either an intern or assistant – it’s up to the client’s discretion and budget – but I’m happy to meet you for coffee or answer any of your questions via email or Skype.
Q: Who are some other excellent humanitarian photographers?
A: This is where I get to brag about my friends and other photographers I admire! My first two recommendations are people I’ve already mentioned in this FAQ: my good friend and storytelling partner Crystaline Randazzo, who lives in Nepal, and my friend Sara Fajardo, who lives in Peru. Other great freelance humanitarian photographers include Jake Lyell, Esther Havens, Christena Dowsett and Oscar Leiva. I also admire Cyril Ndegeya, Mussa Uwitonze and Glenna Gordon.
Q: My nonprofit literally doesn’t have any money. How can we get professional pictures and videos for our website and marketing materials?
A: If your organization literally doesn’t have any money – meaning all of your employees are volunteers – then I might consider working with your organization as my one pro-bono project for the year. Please get in touch and introduce yourself but understand that the pro-bono arrangement has to be beneficial for me in some way, such as adding a new issue to my portfolio or a new skill to my toolbox. We can also talk about other ways you can get high-quality visuals.
Q: How do you price your work?
A: There are a few variables that go into what I charge clients.
– Does the client seem organized and easy to work with? If yes, I charge less. If no but I know I can manage the whole project (if the client will let me) or think I can help the client get organized, then I charge more. Otherwise I’ll turn down the job. Organization is important to me because disorganized clients can make my life unnecessarily chaotic and stressful.
– What kind of shoot will this be? Is it only photography or video as well? Does it require lots of verite shooting or is it lots of interviews with just a bit of Broll? Will I be editing video, too? Does the client want me to write stories? If so, how many? How quickly does the client need all the deliverables?
– What kind of rights will I have to the photos and videos afterward? Does the organization want a copyright buyout – which costs more – or do I maintain copyright ownership? Is it work-for-hire but I can use the photos and footage to promote myself? Will I be licensing images to the client for xx number of years?
– Will this client become a repeat client? If it seems unlikely, then I sometimes charge more.
Q: Can I use your photos on my blog, Facebook page or Instagram account?
A: I own the copyright to most of my images, so the answer is “no” unless you clear your request with me first. If in doubt, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: What gear and software do you use?
A: People love to ask this question. Just a caveat that gear doesn’t make you a good photographer. It’s your brain and how you think and see the world that make you a good photographer.
2 – 5D Mark II
1 – f/4L 24-105mm
1 – f/1.2L 50 mm
1 – f/2L 135mm
1 – 550EX flash
1 – Set Pocket Wizards
2 – 28” reflectors/diffusers
1 – 15” softbox
1 – Rode VideoMic
1 – Set wireless Sennheiser mic
1 – Sennheiser ME66/K6 super-cardioid mic
1 – Rode pistol grip shock mount
1 – Zoom H4N
1 – Gorillapod tripod
1 – Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod with video head
1 – Steadicam Merlin II
9 – LP-E6N rechargeable Canon batteries
8 – Rechargeable Canon AA batteries
1 – ThinkTank belt with three pouches
1 – ThinkTank Airport Airstream rolling bag
Many different plug adapters and battery chargers
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.