PAY UP! Photographers and NGO's and $$

June 28, 2010 § 8 Comments

Should photographers be paid to work for NGO’s?

Well, YES! And no. I mean, of course! Except…sometimes not.

This is a complicated question.

From an organizational perspective, on the one hand you have a scenario like this: a large, international NGO with a significant marketing budget needs to make pictures to chronicle and advertise its work. It has a few different options.

  1. It can hire a photographer.
  2. It can work with volunteer photographers.
  3. It can encourage its employees to also take photographs as a part of their work.

If you look at the International Rescue Committee, for example, they make use of all of these strategies.

On the other hand, you have a tiny organization based in a rural area, without access to technology, or sometimes even electricity. This organization has very limited ability to photograph itself, and very limited funds. This kind of organization has options as well:

  1. No photography will be used in its work.
  2. It can find a volunteer photographer.
  3. It can fundraise, perhaps even with the photographer, in order to pay for the project.

And all organizations have a—perhaps inappropriate—mandate to keep their administrative costs much much lower than their program costs. I.e., donors these days seem to want the money they give to go “straight” to benefits for the clients, not to paying for the desks, equipment, marketing and employee salaries of the organization. That trend tends to put undue pressure on organizations’ marketing budgets to stay low, making them unable to hire a professional photographer. (For more on this problem, check out this paper called the Nonprofit Starvation Cycle in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.)

Now let’s look at the photographers’ perspective.

Some photographers, as journalist Yves Choquette said in his comment to me on PhotoPhilanthropy’s Facebook page, have a day job. They are happy to volunteer their time, and don’t need to be paid. With the increasing popularity of photography around the world, the skill and knowledge about how to make pictures has increased. There are a lot of people who are not professional photographers who can make excellent images in the service of organizations.

There are also career photographers. Some call themselves artists, some call themselves journalists, but for all of them, photography is at the center of their professional identity. Those people need to make money, and they need to be valued. The society at large needs to recognize the importance of the work that they do, if they are going to be able to keep doing it.

However, the industry that has existed around photojournalists over the last few decades is shifting dramatically, as many industries are. I’ve written before about the music industry in relation to photography and the internet, because I think we are seeing successful journalists innovate, just like successful musicians.

One of these innovations is the NGO/journalist partnership, where the traditional client/service provider relationship is being replaced by a mutually beneficial partnership, in which money plays a slightly different role than it has in the past. I just read a fantastic summary of the rising trend of journalists collaborating with NGO’s to produce international news pieces, written by Kimberly Abbott on Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab website. “The picture emerging,” Abbott writes, “is one of journalists who are trying to find new ways to tell important international stories and NGOs that are adapting to meet that need.”

She goes on to say, “An editorial red line the media would have considered completely taboo to cross just a few years ago might be more palatable today as the financial pressures on news organizations continue to mount. Similarly, an NGO offering time, staff or funding to help a news organization might have once seemed far outside of its mission, but today it is an important part of maintaining a voice in a competitive field and ensuring that stories that affect so many lives still reach U.S. audiences.”

There has been a big discussion amongst photojournalists this week on the Lightstalkers discussion board around how much photographers hired by NGO’s should charge. It’s a discussion worth having multiple times, because there is no one answer—it really depends on each specific scenario. The comments posted there strike me as level-headed and practical. I found them well worth reading—they helped me gain a sense of what my own work might be worth. I think both photographers and nonprofit representatives should read them.

PhotoPhilanthropy pursues a few different strategies for supporting photographers and nonprofits.

We help match up volunteer photographers who want to donate their time or design a partnership, and NGO’s with small or nonexistent marketing budgets. The goal is to draw attention to social issues that are going unnoticed. That work is not meant to replace existing media, nor is it an appropriate type of project for all photographers or all NGO’s. It’s simply one of many ways to go about telling stories.

PhotoPhilanthropy also gives grants to photographers who have been able to carry out these kinds of collaborations with NGO’s (whether paid or unpaid) in order to provide social and material support to those people who are trying to use photography to make a difference.

In my own photography, I take a different approach all together. As someone who fits in no conventional categories as a photographer, I actually create long-term partnerships with nonprofit organizations, and I fundraise on behalf of myself and the org.

The benefit to me is that the organization doesn’t control me, or my images, or how I tell the story I want to tell. However, I do want their collaboration, so part of our relationship or partnership agreement is to allow them to influence the project. That ends up benefiting me as well—I learn about the issue I’m covering by communicating effectively with the organization, and I’m forced to think more carefully about the impact my work has on the individuals I photograph.

Of course, the big down side to working like this is that the relationships I build and the fundraising I do don’t pay all my bills, only some of them. So, for now, I’m also a photographer with a “day job.”

Sometimes nonprofits hire photographers. Sometimes photographers volunteer for nonprofits. Sometimes the two entities create a partnership funded by a foundation. I think these are all valid, useful, socially beneficial ways for photographers and NGO’s to interact.


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§ 8 Responses to PAY UP! Photographers and NGO's and $$

  • Julia Smith says:

    Thank you for this post – it’s giving me a lot to think about. I volunteer with a few nonprofits in NYC and DC, and I wonder about how to make the switch if I decide to pursue photography as a paid freelancer or full-time. I’m wondering, Eliza – when you set out to partner with the nonprofits, how do you deal with legal issues such as photo releases? Do you and the NGO both collect release forms of everyone you photograph?

  • Nancy Clarke Cole says:

    Thank you, Eliza, for this post and for pointing out that “it depends”. It depends on the photographer’s situation, the charity’s situation, whether or not this is a charitable event for the photographer or whether it is a business transaction for him/her.

    All are valid, and I am saddened to see that many photographers responding here are taking absence of payment as a judgment as to their worth. The two are completely disconnected. If a donor wants to donate talent, services, items, or time, by whatever motivation, they are allowed to do so AND retain their position as valuable, just like the lawyers who donate pro bono services, and countless other examples. The level of response advocating against donation of talent & services here is surprising and saddening for both non-profits and for photographers.

    Through this, however, it is clear that many photographers are making connections with non-profits in the interest of social change, by whatever arrangements they negotiate based on their circumstances, and at PhotoPhilanthropy, we look forward to continuing to reward those efforts.

  • Eliza Gregory says:

    Hi Julia,

    I work it out with the nonprofit each time. I definitely need to be included in the legal release, so sometimes we combine forms, so that a subject only has to sign one. In other cases, the organization mandates asking for permission after the image is made, and that is trickier. I basically just try to build trust between me and the organization, and me and the subjects, while also trying to protect my freedom to actually make and use my pictures. So it’s a little different with each organization, and I work hard to remain open to their needs.

    One of the things I do to facilitate this process is create a partnership agreement early on, where I identify what I am getting out of the collaboration, and what I am putting into it, and what the org is getting out of it, and putting into it. I’ve found that really helps us understand where we are both coming from. A lot of orgs have never worked with an artist before, so there’s a high learning curve on both sides. Sometimes it takes a lot of patience!

  • Yves Choquette says:

    Hello Eliza,

    First thing, I’m a he not a she LOL It’s ok I use to it now. When people see me in person they got a huge shock as I really don’t look like a sexy blonde lol. Thank you for the article, it clarifie lot of points. I think that my worry and this is also the case of lot another professional photojournalists, is that amateur photographers will do any any photogs job just to have their names on the credit board or to see their names and photos in a magazine. When I cover events, I see lot of photographers with their little cameras. How do you recognize them as amateur? very easy, they mostly don’t have any ethics, they have nothing to loose. I always have my press card hanging around my neck covering events. If I act unprofessionally and someone complaint to my organization, they probably won’t accredited me anymore, depending on what the case is. Amateur photographers don’t have this worry, they step on my feet, they yell at police or at demonstrators, etc. Well they don’t give a dam, they won’t loose their jobs. Of course it is not all of them but most of the times, it is 90% of them. Talking about the NGOs, I agree with you, some of them, they really can’t pay for a photographers. Well, if I’m in Africa and a local NGO ask me for a couple of hours volunteering, I would never refuse, I did it many times (not in Africa, never being there).

    On Facebook you were very happy about Peer water exchange because they volunteers two photographers and I understand you. Me I think I will never help them as they don’t respect their engagement. They were suppose to pay for all my expenses for an upcoming trip in Africa for two projects but I never had news from Rajah until I saw on your FaceBook thread that he got two photographers for free. Sorry but this is not honest from him. I know there is a ton of amateur photographers waiting there ready to invest all their saving to go helping an NGO and this is very nice from them but looking at the resulting work, not sure it is what the NGO was expecting for. If you want photos to raise funds, you need pictures that will reveal all the emergency of the moment, that will have an impact and this is can be accomplish by dedicate your life to what you love and not just by an ego trip to satisfy your fantasy.

  • Eliza Gregory says:

    Yves! So sorry! I have fixed the gender issue. OOPS! Apologies!!!

    I think you raise great points here–there is definitely something to be said for the professionalism and integrity of someone who knows what they are doing. It’s really up to NGO’s to do a little research into what kind of experience they want when they work with a photographer, and what kind of results they are looking for. I agree that there is a big difference between someone who is trained and experienced, and someone who isn’t. It’s just that in the current climate, I think there are situations in which both amateurs and professionals are the best option for a particular nonprofit.

    Thanks so much for asking great questions and for directing me toward the conversation on LightStalkers! Please keep in touch!


  • Richard Lord says:

    As a professional photographer with over 20 years of experience working extensively with NGOs, I am often approached to donate services. My replies:
    1. Do you work for free?
    2. Does your designer work for free?
    2. Does your printer work for free?
    3. Does your webmaster work for free?
    4. If I were to donate my services, could you guarantee that my photos would be presented only in print publications/websites that are at an equivalent level of professional quality as my photos?

    If the answer is yes to all of the above, I evaluate whether the organization’s mission is one to which I wish to donate. Would I make a cash donation to it?

  • Evoco says:

    Very informative and useful article. i really enjoy reading your blog

  • […] PAY UP! Photographers and NGO’s and $$ – PhotoPhilanthropy’s Blog, written by Eliza Gregor…. Posted in Business, […]

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