Mark Klett reinvents teaching–in the desert.

September 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Mark Klett always manages to be dressed for the desert and for the classroom at the same time. He wears earthy Keens, long shorts, and loose fitting, quick-dry, button-downs. Any time you see him he could be stepping out of an REI-dressing room, a faculty meeting, or a wilderness adventure special.

Then again, for Klett, the desert is the classroom. And never more so than since 2007, when he first began teaching a course he calls the Phoenix Transect Project.

“I wanted to do a class where the students were engaged in field work, on a directed project” he told me when we spoke last week. “Ideally, if I had my way, I’d devise a project where students would go out in the field for the whole semester. But nobody can do that. So to be realistic about it, I thought we could use Phoenix as a starting point. Because we’re all here—we can all get out in a matter of a half-hour and do something.”

Over the course of his career, Klett has photographed the landscape in a variety of ways, and often makes pictures in hard-to-reach places. He has built a number of his projects by researching old photographs of the landscapes across the United States (many from the US Geological Surveys done in the late 1800’s). He identifies the exact location in which an image was made, and then reconstructs the image close to 100 years later. In the project 3rd View, he repeated this process, re-photographing locations once more, to make a suite of 3 pictures of each place. In a different project, called After the Ruins, he looked at San Francisco in 1906 and in 2006.

As a Regents Professor at Arizona State University, he has taken students out into the Sonoran desert for years. It’s a harsh and exquisitely beautiful landscape that will stab you when you get too close. His camping cookbox boasts treasures that he has found on his trips: a spoon carved from Ironwood, a toothpick holder made from an empty shell casing, old Arizona license plates folded to make a cutlery drawer. Now he takes students into the wilds of the urban desert.

Mark Klett’s photographs depict the land, but they are about a lot of things. They are about the history of a society’s relationship with the places it inhabits. They are about change—slow changes and fast changes—that happen in a place. They are about government policies, ecology, the protection and use of natural resources, and changing social perceptions of the land. And by essentially photographing time itself, they change the way you think about how you fit into the world. There’s often more than a lifetime between one photograph and another.

The Phoenix Transect Project simultaneously highlights the many-layered nature of Klett’s own work, and allows students to reinvent it. It’s an innovative course that Klett has designed and been teaching for the last 4 years. It brings students and researchers from different disciplines together to do collaborative, multi-media research. The goal is to engage artists, researchers and residents in an extended dialogue about their community.

Each year new fieldwork is conducted, new participants are added, and the group chooses a new field problem. The projects are diverse. One student focuses on Home Tours–a fad where people open up their historic homes on weekends. (The video is fantastic.)

Another student photographs Phoenix Palms

Bryon Darby

and flight paths.

Bryon Darby

Someone else focuses on water: where it flows, where it doesn’t, and how engineering collides with the landscape.

Adam Thorman

And one student focuses on trash found in the bed of the Salt River, just east of Phoenix.

When seen together, the combined fieldwork of many years becomes a larger survey that creates a detailed portrait of a place evolving in time.

“It’s made the group of photographers think about how their work fits into other disciplines,” says Klett. And for the students coming from other disciplines? “I think it really opens their eyes to what photography can be about, and how they might use it in their work.”

Four doctoral candidates have participated in the course since 2008, and two are currently using their work from this class in their dissertations. One is including photographs in the written thesis for the School of Sustainability, and the other is curating an exhibition to accompany the defense of her research in the School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning.

A key component of getting a course like this going at ASU was for Klett to obtain affiliate status in a second department. That gives him the bureaucratic green light to mentor students working in other disciplines like anthropology, geography, or environmental science. He is now an affiliate professor of the ASU School of Sustainability. “That kind of thing isn’t going to happen unless the university supports it from the highest level. My understanding is that the president and the provost are really interested in that kind of thing, and supporting it actively.” Klett says. “It’s such a culture change…I’ve made these contacts in other departments—and I’d been here 25 years or more before any of that happened.”

This kind of course is quite a radical departure from the fine arts curriculum as well. Klett says that the presence of people from other disciplines has had a noticeable impact on the photographers.

“It’s made the group of photographers really aware of how their work enters into other areas; other disciplines; other dialogues,” he says. “And they realize that it’s kind of a bigger world than they thought it was when they started out.”

It also gives students a focus. Many people work intuitively, and this course helps add the framework to their pictures. Ultimately having a focus then leads to a larger group of pictures. Many students in the Phoenix Transect Project use their work from class as the basis for their thesis projects.

The course also teaches students how to collaborate. “These alliances form,” says Klett, around specific topics. Each student owns and promotes his or her own work, but there’s also an expectation that they participate in group exhibitions or publications, and that they draw attention back to the larger project.

“So it’s been a real eye-opener for a lot of them,” says Klett. “It’s been a very positive experience—people really love it.”

Last year, the group presented the project to the national conference of the Society for Photographic Education in Texas. It was the most highly rated program.

“I haven’t heard of anybody doing what we’re doing,” says Klett.

Papago Park–Walter J. Lubkin, 1907 and Mark Klett, 1993

Carla Williams: “We’ve gone past the discussion of race and not actually integrated that broader approach into our thinking about art.”

August 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

Carla Williams is an artist, a writer, and a professor of photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She also edits the Society of Photographic Education’s journal Exposure.

ENG: You’ve written a lot about race and photography, and that’s something I’m really interested in. Could you talk a bit about what you see as happening right now in photography regarding intercultural representation, diversity, and race?

CW: At this point in my career, I feel like a lot of my work—particularly my work with Exposure as an editor, and as a blogger—it’s sort of like a numbers game. I’ve intentionally taken on the role of someone who is obsessed with chronicling the artists who just keep getting left out of the broader discussion.

En Foco, led by Miriam Romals, and Dodge and Burn, by Qiana Mestrich–what they all do really inspires me.

There’s this segregation that happens—and I think it’s a necessary one—where you have organizations like En Foco who are particularly focused on any artist of color. African American, Middle Eastern, Asian, Latino—sort of “everybody else.” And my blog does the same—because it focuses on primarily African Diaspora artists. But when I took over Exposure, I was determined to see that every issue got balanced.

I’ve worked in this field for over 20 years and diversity is just dwindling. My partner Deirdre even called me yesterday and said, “I’m in MOMA and I’m looking at these books, ‘50 photographers you should know,’ and guess how many are women? 8. And guess how many are people of color? 2!” You know? The numbers were…startling.

It’s like, Really?! Who could consciously publish that in this day and age? Who could look at the entire field of photography and think this made sense? It’s just unbelievable to me that A) the author could conceive of it and B) the publisher could think, Yeah. Good.

So in a sense, my scholarship is less scholarship than it is archival work; making sure that I keep counting, keep taking stock of people whose work already exists.

I had a conversation with Fazal [Sheikh] about the problems of things that are solely focused on or determined by race, or gender, or that kind of thing, [and there are problems]. The mainstream discussions about art and photography will claim that we have gotten past that, but I think we’ve done exactly the opposite. We’ve gone past the discussion of race and not actually integrated that broader approach into our to thinking about art.

I think it’s become a much smaller field than I imagined it was when I entered it. And the possibilities just seem so much narrower now than almost 30 years ago, when I decided to major in photography. If I were a student now, I wonder, is that a field I would choose?

ENG: Why is it important to move away from this homogeneity?

CW: Well, it’s important for me because I am a woman of color, and I want to imagine myself in this field. I want to imagine myself as part of its history, as part of its present—as part of it. And so unless there are other people like me, I can’t imagine my own place.

And if I’m there, then I want everybody else there too. I mean, not to sound Pollyanna-ish or anything, but it’s really crucial. I can’t imagine being part of this discussion if I can’t turn to anyone and engage them with these same ideas about pictures, and what they mean, and how they operate.

So on a personal level it’s really important to me. And on a professional level, photography is such a huge medium. One of the things I’ve always loved about it is that it’s so accessible, compared to any other art medium. It functions in so many ways beyond just art. It is journalism. It is science. It is all these things. And the idea that you would continue to promote it as simply one narrow thing is just bizarre.  I can’t imagine why anybody would be invested in that, because there’s so much more to explore about it. There are so many different layers of thinking about it and approaching it.

ENG: And why is diversity decreasing in the field?

CW: I think a lot of it is market-driven. The way in which photography has gotten inflated in the last 20 years, and the way in which photographs have gotten so much bigger in order to enter into that art-collector’s marketplace—I think all of that plays a role.

And I think the way in which dealers market artists to collectors (and by extension, to museums) has really narrowed the way in which the market values particular kinds of work.

ENG: Yeah, I’ve noticed that. The art that’s in museums and being sold in the high-end galleries is often really different from art that is shown locally, in communities, as a way to bring people together. Can you explain a bit more about that?

CW: I always point to the Becher school—the photographers that studied with the Bechers at Dusseldorf Academy. The way in which all of that work hit the photo scene and particularly the marketplace created a shift away from work that was typically concerned with issues of representation, cultural issues. And a shift away from work which was more on the scale of traditional photo printing.

It’s work that reintroduced a particular modenist aesthetic in this postmodnernism. And it was work that shifted its scale to communicate more with painting and the traditional museum-based arts.

The market for photographs didn’t really exist before the 1970’s, and by the 1990’s it had really shifted. At that point photography entered the market with more aggressively editioned work, larger work, and work that operated more like painting and sculpture and those more traditional western art forms.

And so the work that I think of as “photography” as opposed to “art” is much more photo-scaled, it’s more community-based, and it’s attempting to operate at levels other than the collector’s marketplace.

I think now there is a lot of photography that just operates as “art.” And many of the artists who make it aren’t photographers, per se. They’re artists who work with photography. I come out of a tradition of people for whom the medium is really photography; people for whom It’s as much about the medium itself as it’s about the ideas and the subject in the work.

So there’s this split that happened. And I think it’s perfectly fine that it happened, but there’s not a tremendous amount of acknowledgement that both approaches remained vital. Because I think the tendency is to assume that the mold that dominates is the correct one.

And when you have photographic prints that start at $20,000-$50,000—there are not a lot of people who are going to sell at those numbers. The market just won’t support that. So you have this much more rarified realm of collecting.

I’m not really interested in art so much as I am in photography. That’s one of the reasons why I was particularly interested to work at RIT because it’s a school that has a photo program. It’s not a fine art program into which photography enters. It’s a photography program, of which fine art is a component. Although I am “fine art faculty,” one of the things that was really important to me was that it’s a school that has advertising, photojournalism and biomedical photography—all of that is within our college.

And to me, that’s what’s so great about photography—it has all these different kinds of applications, and fine art’s just one little part of that.

ENG: Tell me about some of the major issues you see going on in journalistic photography right now.

CW: It’s a shame if professionals get ousted by amateurs because you become a professional for a reason—there’s more to it than just picking up the camera.

But at the same time, it’s really dependent upon what your audience knows and expects and if your audience is increasingly savvy about its own ability to produce images, I think that really does shift the role that the professional photographer plays in the presentation of imagery, and in the presentation of information through images.

I find that in teaching, I’m more drawn to discussions about journalism than about fine arts because, in this moment, it’s more interesting. We’re facing this real shift in the way we conventionalize photographs in journalism.

Whereas in fine arts, anything goes. You can really make anything and it’s fine. People make daguerreotypes and digital prints, and you can attach an aesthetic and significance to all those choices. But in journalism those questions like, “What are you doing? and why are you doing it?” seem much more vital and necessary to ask.

I think we still do a fairly poor job of paying attention when people represent themselves. People travel more and we have a global economy, so people are coming into greater contact with other cultures, but we still have difficulty understanding the difference between being represented and representing yourself.

And those debates are tough. And it’s not to say that people who represent others can’t do a really terrific job of capturing the complexities and losses of a particular group. But I think, as a whole, that particular debate has overshadowed the necessity of people representing themselves.

One of the blogs that I have is about black photographers and publishing. Basically what I do is collect any book, anything that could be called a book, any publication by or about black photographers, and to a lesser degree (because of my budget), books about black subjects.

The reasons I do it are multifold, but one of them is that I want to make the books accessible. I want to create a small, circulating library.

And one of the challenges of that is I end up buying a lot of books whose images don’t interest me at all. In fact, the vast majority of the actual images I’m not interested in. But I’m really interested in who has made them and why, and why those get published and not others. And also, again, that counting thing. I’m counting everything that has been published, because so far the numbers are so small, in relation to the number of photobooks that have been published in total since 1844 when the Pencil of Nature was published.

And so what I have learned is that I can’t even consider the pictures in the way I would normally consider a photograph because that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that act of representation. And, in that instance, the act of reproduction in print form, and what that means. And then the pictures themselves are sort of secondary.

And that’s a weird thing to reconcile. But until the discussion is more broad across the spectrum of photographs and photography, I think it’s important.

It’s so much a part of our world, our innate curiosity about people. We like to look at pictures of them! We like to take them and we like to look at them. It’s what we do as human beings that have this tool—the camera. it’s just so much a part of understanding the world that we have to negotiate with it. We have to figure it out.

Greg Constantine on shoeboxes and statelessness

August 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

“A community becomes confident when it is recognized by other communities.” –Nubian Elder

Nubian family photo (circa 1940s)

How does a photograph get from a shoebox under the bed to the walls of an exhibition space? It takes a certain kind of vision, some good proposal-writing skills, a team of Nubian youth, and a lot of determination.

Greg Constantine came to photography when he was 34. He spent the first part of his career in the music business. Then he packed up house, moved to Asia, and started making pictures. These days, he’s involved in a multifaceted, multi-year, international project on statelessness called Nowhere People, done in part through collaborating with UNHCR, and using film (as in celluloid, not movies). I first learned about him last year, when he submitted a photo essay to PhotoPhilanthropy, in collaboration with Medecins sans Frontieres.

His work documents the struggles of ethnic groups around the world who have been denied or stripped of citizenship.

One portfolio within this project focuses on the Nubians in Kenya. I knew nothing about the Nubian community, so Greg gave me a brief history lesson (you can read more on the project website) and then helped me understand the various components of his Nubian project.

Nubians view Kibera as the homeland for the Nubian community in Kenya. Because many Nubians cannot find jobs outside of Kibera, some Nubian youth collect garbage to earn extra money. People buy the garbage bags and every Saturday, Nubian youth collect and remove them. They earn 30 KS ($.40 USD) per bag.

Basically, the Nubian community was incorporated into the British Army in the 1880s and brought from Sudan to Kenya in the late at the turn of the century. They fought for the British in the King’s Africa Rifles during WWI and WWII and played an important role in the development of Kenya and East Africa. Since Kenya’s independence, the Nubian community in Kenya has historically been unrecognized as a tribe of Kenya. Even though they’ve lived in Kenya for over 100 years, it wasn’t until the 2009 census that ‘Nubian’ was acknowledged as a tribe living in Kenya.

Unable return to Sudan, the Nubian community was given 4,197 acres of land by the British in 1912 to settle on. They named the land Kibra, or ‘land of forest.’ After askaris were demobilized, they used this land to farm and earn a living from. But after independence, the Nubian claims to title deed have been denied by successive governments. As hundreds of thousands of rural migrants flooded into Nairobi to find work, Kibra has been the place they were encouraged to settle. The small Nubian village of Kibra (whose population was 3000 in 1950) turned into Kibera (which is now home to around 1 million people, according to the BBC in 2009).

Four Nubian women sit on the green grass of an open field in the Laini Saba area of Kibera. Laini Shaba area was an old shooting range for the King's African Rifles. (circa 1950s)

In late 2008, the UNHCR provided Greg with funding to spend a month photographing and documenting the Nubian community who live in the Kibera slum.

As compensation for not returning to Sudan, the British gave 4197 acres of land to the Nubians to settle on. What was once the Nubian village of Kibra is now Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. All of their claims to land ownership have been denied by Kenyan authorities. Everyone living in Kibera, including the Nubian community are considered squatters.

“During that month,” he told me, “I would sit with families in their homes in Kibera for an hour or two, talking. And by the end of our conversation, they would have pulled out these amazing, old photographs from shoeboxes that they had never shown anybody outside of their own family. This documentation of the Nubian community was something that nobody had ever seen before. So the pieces of this project were already all there.

A Nubian woman holds a family photo of her grandfather as an officer in the King's African Rifles. He served for the British Army in WWII and held a British Colonial passport.

“The challenge for me was finding the funding to take all these pieces of the project and put them in one central location that could then be presented to the public in a variety of ways. And, importantly, I also wanted to be able to juxtapose these really old photographs that depicted the community’s situation in the past with my own documentation of the community now.

“Once I got the OSI grant in the beginning of the year, I worked with a team of six Nubian youth in Kibera who went from Nubian household to Nubian household, asking people to loan us these old photographs. I had been hoping to find about 100 photographs. But during the one month of the project, they found about 250 photographs that date back as far as 1912.”

Then the photographs were taken to a lab in Nairobi and scanned at high resolution and put onto a DVD, which the team sent to Greg at home in Southeast Asia. “They were incredible,” he said. “I went through and edited and touched up the images a little bit—minor dust spots and things like that. And I made a selection from those images to reprint and include in this exhibition.”

Nubian men of the King's African rifles relax in Kibra during a weekend after working at the barracks. (1940s)

In addition to the traditional exhibition he’s having at a gallery in Nairobi, which will travel to London next, Greg wanted to be able to deliver the project locally to the Nubian community in Kibera. (As well as the non-Nubian communities in Kibera.)

“Part of the motivation for doing the project was to elevate the awareness of the Nubian community amidst the broader society. Most people here in Kenya have no knowledge of the Nubians, and their contributions to Kenyan society, and the development of East Africa.”

Through utilizing these old photographs that families loaned the team, the project has incorporated the Nubians into the storytelling process in an innovative way. The project is designed to help them actively dismantle some of the stereotypes about them.

What was once the Nubian village of Kibra is now home to hundreds of thousands of people and is now Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. Once situated among bush, mango trees and green grass, this Nubian family's home rests nearly in the middle of the Kibera slum. The house is almost 100 years old and is one of the oldest homes in Kibera.

Greg also approached LiveBooks, in the US, and they agreed to donate a pre-designed website to the project, so that other people can see all the photographs, (since the exhibition included only 1/5th of the archival images). Those images have also been placed onto PhotoShelter, so that the Nubian community can access them and use them.

“I really embrace multimedia and online and new technologies,” says Greg, “But I also find that there are so many multimedia projects which consist of the photographer talking about their work. And I really wanted the Nubians to tell their story, and not for me to tell the Nubians’ story for them. And so the multimedia project we did only has Nubians talking, and it incorporates a lot of the photographs.”

Nubians played an important role in the development of Kenya and East Africa. Many of the first public services in Nairobi were manned by people from the Nubian community. British officers carry out a staff inspection in downtown Nairobi of the first Nubian group to be appointed by the Kenya Bus Service Limited. (1934)

He also printed a condensed version of the gallery exhibition onto huge sheets of white vinyl, which were displayed last week at the Kibra Secondary School in the Kibera slum.

Greg said that the Kibera exhibition, and the community engagement that went along with it, has been the most rewarding part of the project for him.

“It exceeded all expectations,” he told me. “We estimate that in the 2 1/2 days, some 2,300 people visited the installation. People couldn’t stop touching the photographs and pointing out relatives and ancestors in the photos that are no longer with us today. Parents were able to show their children who their great grandparents where and so forth.  I think the youth walked away with a renewed sense of pride in their community and also a renewed sense of motivation and responsibility to take what past generations have done for the community and move it forward to the next.

“It was an incredibly rewarding and amazing opportunity and one that I’m determined to duplicate for other stateless groups in my Nowhere People project.”

Meanwhile, the political struggle continues. The Nubians are still denied title rights to land and are still not fully recognized as citizens of Kenya.

Evaluating intangibles: what is the real impact of a community based photography program?

July 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

by Arena Phaphilom

Does learning about photography make your life better? If you’re 18, and have already been homeless, and in foster care, and been through major family disintegration—does using a camera or participating in a photography program make some kind of tangible difference for you?

That’s the central question for a community based photographer, and the organization that works with him or her. And it’s a hard one to answer.

I wanted to know how programs that work toward such intangible goals as inspiration, engagement, and increased self-worth measure their success. Since I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Joseph Smooke and his community based photography program with Fresno’s “The kNOw,” I asked him about how he and his collaborator Mai Der Vang have handled evaluating their work.

This term, they tried a new system. They put together a list of questions that they asked in the middle of the program, and then asked very similar questions again at the end. They asked the questions both on paper and in a discussion. It turned out that asking the questions halfway through really contributed to the program in a way they hadn’t anticipated. The evaluation itself prompted the students to think a little more deeply about what they were doing, and why. For Joseph seeing that increased self awareness, even in the students who hadn’t made a big push at the end, was meaningful.

by Gabby Vang

He told me, “In the final session that I did last week, I went around and I asked some of the evaluation questions. And some of the kids said, ‘You know what? I was just plain lazy, and I just didn’t work hard on this last project.’ And they wouldn’t have said that a few months ago, and that was really cool.”

Of course, there were students who said the opposite as well. “Others talked about how inspiring the class was for them,” said Joseph, “and how in each session they got more energized and inspired by it. And you could see that in the work too.”

“We start each session by getting together in a room and going through all the photos. And that last session, the first couple I looked at, I was so worried that maybe the program hadn’t inspired the students at the end. But I kept looking at them, and then I saw the pictures from the kids who really did put in the time…Oh my God, it was so extraordinary! They really pushed, and they did amazing work. Just amazing work.”

by Jaleesa Vickers

The evaluations are also a chance to learn about the kids—how they are doing, what their lives are like. In this particular evaluation, one of the questions asked how kids’ families reacted to them taking pictures. Many of the students responded by saying that their families didn’t know they took pictures or were not interested in their images. On the one hand, at that age my parents didn’t know everything about me either. But on the other hand, whenever I had something tangible to show them, like a photograph I had made, I was eager to, and they always seemed interested. So if I were facilitating this workshop, that small bit of information would become a point of reference for me, a moment where I could understand a tiny bit more about how my students’ experiences differ from my own.

In the end, you can’t really know if this learning experience is the one that helps a student tip the scale toward happiness or success. But I think both community building and education are just a series of many modest revelations and connections. It seems to me that a good evaluation helps to demonstrate that these moments took place, and meant something to the people who experienced them.

by Meme Garrido

Have you had experiences evaluating intangibles like this? I’d love to hear your perspective.

How a single photograph saved a river: Rock Island Bend, Tasmania

July 15, 2010 § 3 Comments

How much impact can a single image really have? Can it, for example, save an entire landscape?

Last weekend, I went to Tasmania! Oh man, that place is so cool. Talk about beautiful—whew! Ryan and I stayed in the guest-hut of a family that lives in a valley near Cygnet, south of Hobart. It was very tiny, made of sticks and stones, and surrounded by thumping wallabies at night. The milky way was so bright we barely recognized the sky at all.

Tasmania is a place that has been embroiled in socio-environmental controversies throughout the last few decades. I’ve mentioned Matthew Newton’s photographs of old-growth logging there, as well as Ricky Maynard’s gorgeous images about indigenous people, culture and conflicts in Tasmania.

During the weekend’s visit, my host, Peat, told me about another photographer who has had a major impact on the Tasmanian landscape, Peter Dombrovskis. I want to tell you the story that Peat told to me.

In the late 70’s, there was a movement to dam Australia’s last remaining wild river, the Franklin River, which runs through Tasmania. Now, if you aren’t already aware of these stats, Australia is a continent the size of the USA, with radically less water falling onto it or running through it. It has a population of 22 million, as opposed to the U.S.’s 300 million. Despite currently having the most water per person of any continent, that water is over-allocated (literally, more water has been allocated to different human uses than is available), leaving many of its aquatic ecosystems in distress—birds, fish, plants, trees and other animals that live in or around the rivers are dying off at a terrifying pace.

So the idea that the last remaining wild river on the entire continent (or near it, since Tasmania is an island off the southeastern coast of Australia) was about to be dammed inspired a huge backlash among the population.

A senator named Bob Brown began a campaign against the damn. And he asked a Tasmanian landscape photographer named Peter Dombrovskis to take a trip up the Franklin, and see if he could make some pictures. In the end, the campaign centered around a single photograph.

This image by Peter Dombrovskis became the cornerstone of a conservation movement in Australia. That movement gave rise to the Green Party, which has grown to become a major political force here. This picture galvanized protesters and public opinion, which eventually helped stop the dam from being built. How amazing is that?!

For some more info, I recommend watching this clip from “Wildness,” a film made about the campaign in 2002. There’s also a good summary on wikipedia, and an article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The space between: what does it take for nonprofits to USE photography effectively?

July 7, 2010 § 8 Comments

And how, as a photographer, can you help a nonprofit use your images? Is it enough just to donate photographs, or do you have a responsibility to help an organization actually communicate?

Once again, there are a lot of different answers to these questions, and they depend a lot on the specifics of the organization in question. Sometimes foundations are responsible for supporting organizations effectively. A grant will make a bigger impact if it isn’t just for a set of photographs, but also for the other elements of an effective advertising or awareness campaign. Sometimes it’s up to the organization to solicit pro bono contributions from professionals with the relevant skill sets. And sometimes it might be up to an individual–perhaps the photographer!–to put in place the other elements of a successful project so that their personal contribution is meaningful.

I had a great conversation this week with Burk Jackson, who has just started an organization called Creative Cares in Portland, OR, that deals with this very issue.

The idea is to create twin databases of people with skills to donate (photographers, videographers or video editors, graphic designers, web designers/developers, writers, art directors, public relations specialists, or project managers) and organizations with projects they need staffed. If you’re a “creative” you fill out this form. If you’re an organization, you apply here. Then Creative Cares matches up people and projects.

To me, this seems like a great system. PhotoPhilanthropy has been thinking through how to go about this as well. We’d love to hear your thoughts about what the best way to do this might be. (Or what’s wrong with other systems you’ve tried.)

Burk is a commercial photographer who took some time off last summer to spend with his kids, and ended up injuring his back and taking five months off. He got to thinking about what really motivated him, and the changes he wanted to make professionally.

He had done a little bit of work photographing for nonprofits, and he found it really exciting and satisfying. “The most amazing stories are out there,” he told me. “But the best work in the world is going unnoticed because no one is telling the story.”

Meanwhile, other people just weren’t sure how to get started. “I run into creatives and they want to give back, but they don’t know how,” Burk told me.

He also heard stories of photographers who had worked with nonprofits, but not seen any real gains come out of it. Some people had taken on long-term projects, only to have the staff suddenly turnover at the organization they worked with. New staff either threw away the images, didn’t know they were there, or didn’t see a way to use them. The photographers were discouraged.

Burk recognizes the importance of accountability on the part of a photographer—if you’ve solicited contributions for a photo project, you need to report on your progress to your donors. Burk recently raised $5,200 from friends and family to do a pro-bono project for a small nonprofit organization in Tanzania. He sent his supporters updates and photos, to let them know how he was spending their money. But the same is true of nonprofits as well. “There needs to be some accountability on the NGO side,” says Burk. “I thought there had to be a better way for creatives to connect with nonprofits and find funding,” while also being able to hold nonprofits accountable for doing something with the donations they (creatives) made.

Part of the reason images sometimes fall through the cracks is that organizations don’t have the rest of the marketing resources they need to use the pictures. You need to have strategists, writers, graphic designers—it takes a lot more to make an awareness campaign than a single photograph.

So who is filling this gap? Are there organizations out there, in addition to Creative Cares, providing this kind of marketing support or consulting to nonprofits? I’ve done a little research, and what follows is a list of leads (for individuals, for organizations, and even one for grantmakers). Please add more via the comments section, or email me with suggestions at (I especially need help with international resources—this list is heavily lopsided toward the U.S.)


The Taproot Foundation is all about “doing it pro bono!” They assemble teams of professionals to assist nonprofits with their projects. And they post frequently on VolunteerMatch.

CommunicAid helps nonprofits with their branding and communications. They are currently changing their name to BrandOutLoud and launching a new website.

Lots of independent marketing or communications consultants will donate time to a project if approached.

And Encore Careers help match people with meaningful jobs to create social change.



Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN)


InfoXchange Australia


Many universities have groups that are reaching out to provide services to the local community. In the Bay Area, for example, the Stanford Alumni Consulting Team provides pro bono consultants to nonprofits.

Compass Point Nonprofit Services

The Conservation Company puts out papers and writeups on capacity and does consulting for nonprofits and foundations.

GEO: Grantmakers for Effective Organizations is a network for foundations and nonprofits to make grantmaking more realistic and effective. They have a great video about themselves.


CreativeCares has the potential to become an auspicing organization for photographers, much like Blue Earth Alliance, so that a photographer can apply for grants in conjunction with a 501(c)3 organization. Since many foundations don’t want to fund individuals, but do want to fund the kinds of marketing and awareness raising projects that photographers are a part of, this is an excellent funding strategy to pursue.

Another matching service for photographers and nonprofits is Photographers for Charity.

Photographers who want to donate specific images to be sold on behalf of charitable organizations can do so via Photographers for Charity (same name as above, but different org) and Collect.Give.

Focus for Humanity has a $15,000 grant for a project done with an NGO. Submissions open September 1st and close November 1st, 2010.

International Guild of Visual Peacemakers is getting going—I just joined their newsletter to see what they’re about. (Incidentally, their facebook page seems to be working better than their website at the moment.)


Lights Camera Help specifically has a volunteer match as well, and their film festival runs July 29th-August 2nd in Austin, TX.


PhotoVoice helps people create participatory photography programs to empower communities.

“I think you should tell everyone to get in touch with each other,” says Burk. If you’d like to contact him, please do so at

When transparency and humanitarian aid clash

July 4, 2010 § 1 Comment

A little background

Last week, I wrote about NGO’s and photographers, and cited a paper by Kimberly Abbott (on the Nieman Journalism Lab website) specifically about the new trend in partnerships between NGO’s and journalists in general. In that paper, she makes a lot of references to the complex ethics of such partnerships.

Each side of this partnership has ethical issues to consider. Journalists have to worry about maintaining editorial control and maintaining their audience’s trust in the truth of their reporting. Abbott sums up those questions as, “Can journalists really maintain independence when there is a stakeholder involved? And will the arrangement undermine the audience’s trust in the media, no matter how altruistic the cause?”

On the other side, NGO’s have to be very careful not to compromise the health, safety, and well-being of both their staff and their beneficiaries. Abbott writes, “Long after any collaboration produces a story, NGO’s must continue to work on the ground. If there is a perception that a group is helping one side of the conflict or the other, the lives of staffers, especially nationals, can be endangered, along with their beneficiaries.

“Compromising neutrality can also mean compromising access to vulnerable populations, or risking the ability to work at all. Governments in many countries are often looking for reasons to shut down or silence NGO’s, and affiliation with the wrong news report can give those governments the excuse they need.”

I think she sums up these ethical dilemmas very well. When I was working for the IRC in Tanzania, a number of years ago, an incident occurred that put this very set of issues into perspective for me.

And an anecdote

Our office was responsible for the medical care of about 80,000 Burundian and Congolese refugees in northwestern Tanzania, housed in 4 camps—less than ¼ of the total number of refugees housed in camps in Tanzania at that time. There were somewhere between 6 and 10 different large NGO’s working in these camps in our area, and the UNHCR ran the show.

Security in the camps was provided by the Tanzanian police force. Police came from different parts of the country to staff the camps in six-month shifts. You’d have police from Zanzibar, then police from Dodoma, then police from Dar es Salaam, changing every six months.

According to my colleagues at the various NGO’s, this meant that crime spiked every six months, as police prepared to leave the area, and thus lost any interpersonal accountability for their actions within the community.

Soon after I arrived at my job, one of these shifts was about to take place.

One day a shooting occurred in one of the camps. A fight had broken out in the market, I heard. Somehow, a police officer had been shot.

The police then went on a rampage through the camp, “looking for the perpetrator.” (There was some speculation afterward that it had been a policeman who had done the shooting—the details I learned about the incident were all very confused.) They accosted hundreds (maybe a thousand?) people, and arrested 20. Those 20 were taken to the local jail and tortured.

Because our organization was responsible for all the medical facilities in the camps, one of the doctors I worked with was asked to examine and care for the prisoners. I spoke to him when he returned from seeing them. He found that people had had broken bottles inserted into their orifices, and bicycle spokes inserted into their ears.

It seemed to me, as a newly arrived “program assistant” that we should write about this—that the police should not be allowed to get away with this kind of thing. I started working on an article to be sent out to the head office, in New York.

Meanwhile the NGO’s all held a meeting. They discussed the issue, and what would happen to the various constituencies involved if word of this behavior got out.

On the one hand, the police needed to be held accountable, and this was a terrifying occurrence. On the other hand, if the police (and therefore the national government) lost face, and were made to look incompetent, it would be very likely that major changes to refugee policies would be enacted, perhaps even expelling people from the country (and pushing them back into the war they had fled from). The way stations were already ludicrously overloaded at that time, filled with people who were coming into Tanzania and waiting for official approval in order to move into a camp. Sleeping structures built to house 40 people were housing two and three times as many. Men and women were all crammed in together. Rapes were occurring. People had nothing to do and were despondent. All of those people were being made to suffer already because of Tanzanian politics. And the IRC ran the way stations—they were tied to and responsible for all these people.

The NGO’s decided not to release any information about the torture.

I deleted my article. I was aghast. But I could also see the reasons for their decisions. The long-term benefits to transparency seemed to outweigh the short-term benefits in theory, but in real life, it was impossible to choose to jeopardize so many lives.

That’s just one reason why NGO’s and journalists have to recognize and understand their differences, even as they find new ways to collaborate. Stories like this one need to be told, but it cannot always be the NGO’s who tell them.

And man, these situations are so incredibly complicated. I’m still trying to make sense out of these things…and failing.