Yesterday, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Camille Bromley for an article she’s researching on humanitarian and CSR photographers. She’s kindly given me permission to reproduce my answers in full here.
1. How would you describe exactly what you do? What is a humanitarian or CSR photographer?
This is a tricky one, and I think that many photographers in my line struggle to give themselves labels. I’ve changed what it says in my e-mail signature multiple times, and I was recently forced to commit to something a bit more permanent when I got my new business cards printed. I described myself as a ‘Photographer and Communications Consultant’, but listed ‘Humanitarian / Social Issues, Environment / Climate Change, Travel and Culture’ separately under my company name. Yes, all that’s very catch-all, but the fact is that I’m hard to pigeon hole.
I have to say that I struggle to embrace the term ‘humanitarian photographer’, which is one used by many who shoot in the developing world for non-profits. ‘Humanitarian’ does not cover the full range of causes that I make images for, but who’s ever heard of a ‘development photographer’? I’m not a photojournalist, and actively try to distance myself from this term because it makes too many people think of war photography, suffering and pain. This is not what I’m about. What I’m about is hope, and showing the difference organisations and corporate responsibility initiatives can make. I’m keen to show people’s dignity in difficult situations, and also our common humanity. In that sense, I’m a ‘visual peacemaker’. What this all boils down to is using photography to contribute to processes of change for the better. Or, to quote the mission statement on my website, I “communicate through powerful and evocative images that serve as tools in building bridges, fostering greater understanding and ultimately making our beautiful world a better place to live in”.
On top of all that, I’m also into travel in a big way. ‘Travel photographer’, now, is also an awkward label. What is ‘travel’ for one person is ‘home’ to another. Perhaps ‘world photographer’ is more like it.
2. Where are you based? Where do you work primarily or where have you worked?
Since I started this career, my ‘base’ has been wherever I’ve laid my rucksacks. And, I suppose, my laptop. I’ve felt like a bit of a rambling ‘global citizen’ for a while, and it’s taken me from India to Egypt, Kenya, Senegal and now back to India. For a while now I’ve been wanting to sink some roots, though my career will continue to mean travelling far and wide (which is what I want). I would just like somewhere to keep coming back to, and also recognise that it’s high time I cleared my stuff out of storage with my long-suffering aunt back in England.
My intention is to set up a short-term base in Bangalore, India. The bulk of my development-related knowledge comes from South Asia, especially India, where I’ve lived off and on for six years now. The bulk of that time was spent doing PhD research, and my knowledge of the Indian social context and social dynamics has made me of great interest to India-oriented NGOs and CSR initiatives. The fact that I can make images grounded in this depth of understanding, and also that I communicate with all manner of stakeholders with ease in field settings, has become my unique selling point. Having said all this, even once I have a base in India, I will continue to be available for commission globally.
3. How long have you been in this field?
If you mean photography, then almost two years so far. But what I do has a very significant social research element, something I’ve been ‘in’ (though in a more academic capacity) for most of my adult life.
4. Can you give some examples of NGOs or companies you have done assignments for? Do you have a preference?
So far, I’ve mostly worked for development organisations, including local and international NGOs, United Nations organisations, bilateral donors, foundations, etc. CSR is a new area for me; since beginning to target the sector, I’ve had a lot of very positive conversations on probable future assignments with corporates. It’s too early to start declaring names, unfortunately! Of the ‘big names’ among the non-profits, I can list Save the Children, Mercy Corps, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Peace Corps, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and HOPE foundation.
Who do I prefer? Well, I’m delighted to say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with every single client I’ve had to date. However, as any ‘humanitarian photographer’ will testify (and as I’ve also discussed elsewhere), it’s hard to make a living working purely for non-profits simply because there isn’t enough cash in many of their pots to sustain oneself as a freelancer. I have found it disappointing that exciting projects I’ve designed for potential clients have had to be turned down solely for financial reasons. The corporate pot seems to hold more promise, and having the freedom to work on projects I have great passion for without worrying about being able to pay my bills suggests greater overall satisfaction should be possible. I’ve often said that I want to shoot only on those subjects I care about, and do not wish to ‘sell out’ into genres like weddings, fashion, etc. or into teaching, eBook writing and so on in order to make a living (as so many other photographers do). CSR looks likely to be my means to this end.
5. Why did you decide to get into this field? What drew you to it?
My first ever journal post was on this topic, close to the beginning, and it’s been a journey ever since. Essentially, I was growing increasingly dissatisfied and feeling more and more unfulfilled in my previous incarnation as a social researcher. With a PhD and several years of experience under my belt, I was finding it harder and harder to work where I wanted to work. By that, I mean that I wanted to be in the field. I’ve always loved being where the action is, getting my hands dirty. In contrast, I’ve never been a great fan of slogging away on Word documents. As a ‘Senior Researcher’, I was expected to draw up detailed proposals, design research methodologies, give these to lower paid staff to carry out in the field, analyse the data they gathered and pull it all together in a wordy report (which I frequently wondered who would ever read). My PhD field research days in the chawls of Mumbai, Delhi’s Tihar Jail and rural parts of Punjab were becoming increasingly distant memories, and this frustrated me tremendously.
Meanwhile, travel and photography had long been hobbies I’d pursued in my spare time. After several years of wondering what I could do instead, the retrospectively obvious finally hit me like a tonne of pleasant-feeling bricks during a ten-day Vipassana meditation intensive. No sooner as I was off that course, I started sinking all I had in terms of money, time, network exploitation, etc. into becoming a photographer. I’ve never looked back!
6. What was your previous career? Do you feel that this prepared you for humanitarian/CSR photography or led to it in some way?
As mentioned under 5. above, I was a social researcher previously. As a photographer now, I use the skills I developed in that capacity in virtually every development-related assignment I get. Though I used to feel I was tramping around in the wilderness for a long time back then, I now see clearly that I most definitely wasn’t wasting my time!
7. What is rewarding about your work? How do you feel during an assignment? What drives you?
It’s wonderfully rewarding to know that the images I love capturing can directly make a difference to people’s lived realities. The link between pictures and people’s lives being improved might not seem immediately obvious. What’s great about my work is that my images are not just intended to make spaces look prettier. I’m commissioned to create images that are powerful and compelling, with the intention that they should ‘speak’ to those viewing them and provoke them to act in a certain way. This might mean convincing a high-net-worth individual to donate to a foundation, a bilateral donor to renew a grant or a company’s staff to sign up for a payroll giving scheme. It can also mean assisting an organisation in getting its message across to its beneficiaries, as in the case of convincing people of the merits of hand-washing before meals or using a mosquito net to prevent malaria. As any marketing professional knows, compelling images are worth their weight in gold when it comes to persuasion and behaviour change.
As clichéd as it sounds, it’s my desire to make a difference that drives me in what I do. During an assignment, I derive great joy from spending time with those people my work will ultimately impact upon. I usually get to do this with the support of NGOs that work in the field and are known to the beneficiaries I’ve been asked to meet, and this helps me become something close to an ‘insider’ far quicker than I ever could as an individual trying to research or shoot on a topic alone. The rapport-building skills I developed as a social researcher help me further, and I just love being invited into people’s homes, sharing a laugh, playing with children (or pet dogs!) and sampling home-cooked food. The one thing that I find cannot be beat is the smiles and laughter of children growing up in ostensibly deprived circumstances. They almost always get such a thrill from being photographed, and delight in crowding around the LCD display to inspect the result. And then dash back into position, squealing with pleasure, to pose again and again.
8. What primary challenges do you face?
Being a one-man-band is not always easy, and I would love to be shooting more and doing business development less. For now, it’s a necessary evil, and I’m doing my best to embrace it. In time, I hope to grow and contract out such things as website maintenance and image keywording to others. I would also like to collaborate more, such as with specialist writers, graphic designers and filmmakers. For now, at least I’m reaping the financial rewards of offering a one-stop shop; ultimately, however, I’d like to focus more on my images. Other than this, some of my other challenges include the issue of not having a base (though I hope to resolve this one soon), my adamance that I will make a living from my passion and my passion alone (which is happening, though it’s not come easily!) and the bureaucracy associated with setting up a business in a country that’s not my own (I think I deserve a degree in paper chasing).
9. Would you agree that humanitarian photographers are confronted with a division between their motivating vision and what actually pays? How do you personally reconcile this?
From what I’ve seen, virtually all of them do. This is especially the case for those who choose to maintain homes in Western countries and wish to be able to pay their mortgages, bring up families, pay off education loans and meet all the other costs of advanced economy living. All this, and they are also aware that shooting fashion, weddings, corporate gigs, the glitterati, etc. pays five, perhaps ten times as much. Even travel photographers have told me the same thing. It’s not just about NGOs having insufficient communications budgets, it’s also about the sea change that photography has been through since the era of mass communications and digital imaging. Stock photographs are available for a dime a dozen these days, it seems. Tens of thousands, both pros and amateurs, submit their images to the BBC, National Geographic and the like every single day. And that’s not to even mention the damage that microstock companies have done to photographers’ earning prospects. I don’t know a single other photographer who makes a living shooting ‘humanitarian’ and nothing but. Either they shoot other better-paying genres as well, or they teach courses, lead photography tours, write eBooks… one photographer I know even plays the stock markets. How do I personally reconcile this? Through CSR.
10. Considering our contemporary market forces, must a photographer compromise between his/her passion and salary? Perhaps you have an observation on the larger economic incentives at work?
I fervently believe in following one’s passion. I cannot understate the personal benefits I’ve reaped since finding a means of doing this. Not a day goes by when I don’t see and hear of people in dead-end or unfulfilling jobs, drudging through from nine to five and constantly counting the days till the weekend or the next holiday. Surely life’s too short for this? Granted, at least I’ve discovered my ‘element’, the point where my passion and natural talents combine. For many, this is close to a lifetime’s search. I feel privileged that I discovered mine at around the age of 30. Now, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to follow it and nothing else.
Perhaps I’ve been fortunate. I had savings in the bank when I started down this road, so was able to pay my costs of training (though I’m mostly self-taught), equipment and travelling to and living in the various countries in which I’ve worked, especially as I pursued unpaid personal projects and pro bono assignments at the outset. Some extremely kind people have also helped me out along the road, particularly by providing roofs over my head in several countries. I needed this cushion during the time it took to build my portfolio and website and demonstrate my credibility. The biggest whack came recently when my camera and best lens were stolen, and my insurance did not cover the circumstances, forcing me to dig deep for (better) replacements. I know that many others would hear all this and say there’s just no way they could do the same, especially with mortgages, loan repayments, etc. (which I do not have).
I know it might be tough, but I disagree with the notion that one must live as a pauper as a humanitarian photographer or else find other ways to earn that take time away from shooting for good causes. At the most, the latter can be followed as a temporary means to an end. I’m living away from the UK for the time being primarily to keep my costs down while rebuild my financial reserves. The point is to get oneself into a position where one can pursue what one loves wholeheartedly. Where there’s a will, there’s a way: that’s something else I believe in strongly. Yes, some sacrifices might need to be made in the short term… but heck, they’re worth it! Beyond this, in order to sustain oneself, there’s a very clear need to innovate and do something that few others are doing. Admittedly, that’s becoming harder and harder to do as the field becomes increasingly saturated. Perhaps it means plonking oneself in a part of the world where others are not doing something one is able to do. There is always a way.
On larger economic incentives, yes, this can be a conundrum. As people get older, they tend to want to be more comfortable. It becomes harder to take a decision that will reduce one’s living standards, even if it only needs to be temporary. This is coupled with the fact that our financial responsibilities tend to increase with age. So the trade-off appears to be more significant. It does not help that house prices continue to rise way faster than inflation, while NGOs’ budgets continue to decline. So… how strong is your passion? Again, I say: where there’s a will, there’s a way.
11. Can you elaborate on your strategies for keeping your ethical integrity while working with big business?
I wrote on this recently in my online journal. The bottom line is that I’m ready to work with companies that really are serious about being good corporate citizens, not those that just want to pay lip service to this idea because consumers are increasingly demanding it. I especially want to ensure that I never support businesses that wish to gloss over the damage they’re actually doing (I gave one prominent example of such a company in my article).
To ensure I’m able to maintain my ethical integrity, I research businesses’ records using the Internet, particularly resources like CSRHub. Once I’ve ascertained that the company concerned and I are on the same page, ethically speaking, I then seek ways to work with them that cannot court controversy. Above, I cited the examples of promoting employee charitable contribution schemes and communicating about programmes to beneficiaries. Another example could be providing striking imagery to help businesses market products sold at little or no profit to bring positive change. There are many other possibilities, and while I keep generating ideas, I also enjoy hearing and developing those that CSR and marketing executives suggest to me during our regular meetings.
Where I am certain that a business has an exceptional ethical record and know that its corporate responsibility efforts are making a particularly fine impact, I’m happy to help that company tell the world about the difference its work is making. I know that I for one would prefer to buy from those companies that are putting something back, as opposed to those that are doing more harm to the world than good, and I see my role in such cases as feeding into informative advertising.
12. In a blog post you mention the need for photographers to carefully examine the motives of the companies that employ them; to do their research. I suppose this applies to NGOs as well?
Ideally, it should. One tends to take for granted that NGOs’ intentions are honourable. On the whole, I think they are. Where some fall short, however, is in their methods. I am certainly cautious, for example, about those who still tend to try to make a difference simply through giving handouts without making an effort to help develop the capacity to stand alone after their withdrawal. I am also disinterested in working for organisations who tie their aid in with efforts to prosthelytise, because I feel that this is like bribing people to subscribe to one’s beliefs. This is not to say that I will not work for faith-based organisations; more than enough of these are doing great work that is not conditional upon changing one’s religion.
13. Relatedly, do you believe that corporate CSR departments can benefit a population in need of development as well – that they can do as much good as NGOs are reputed for? What’s your take on the impact NGOs versus for-profits can make in the development effort?
Yes, certainly. Many CSR departments work through NGO partners in any case, making them simply another type of player on the funding scene. They are also recognising to an increasing extent that it can do them more harm than good to misrepresent what they do to an increasingly vigilant public, especially with watchdogs and ratings agencies auditing the impact and genuineness of their work. I’ve additionally noticed that many former students of Development Studies, Social Policy and the like, who followed such curricula owing to their desires for careers wherein they could make a difference, are finding their way into CSR positions and are leading strategic thinking there. So I think the will to have a big impact is certainly present in more than enough corporates.
As for the impact that NGOs versus for-profits can make, I think it’s certainly possible for for-profits to make an even greater impact, especially as they tend to be held back by fewer impediments, such as (albeit well-meaning) reporting requirements that are so time-consuming for under-resourced organisations. On the other hand, NGOs can often claim other advantages over corporate CSR departments, and this is probably not the place to pit the prospects of one against the other in too much detail. Ultimately, I think the answer is that it depends on the situation.
14. Is there a community of humanitarian or CSR photographers, or is your work mostly solitary?
There is a growing mutually-supportive community of ‘humanitarian photographers’, and we interact extensively. I am tremendously grateful to this community for the support it gave me as I was exploring this territory. Pretty much nobody jealously guarded their territory. Rather, they welcomed me wholeheartedly and guided me whenever I asked. Now I’m in a position to offer the same to others, and give back at least as much as I was given. However, not all organisations and certainly few corporate CSR departments realise that we are even called ‘humanitarian photographers’, so often don’t know how to find us and often wait to be contacted directly. There is no community of CSR photographers, at least to the best of my knowledge. Most CSR departments seem to source photographers from creative agencies, and often these photographers do not know the territory that well.
15. Can you name some of your personal influences?
Above all, I’d say the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers (IGVP) in general.
16. Who else do you collaborate with during assignments, if anybody?
I collaborated with a young Egyptian who was just starting out in photography back when I was pursuing a personal project in Egypt during their unfolding revolution. It’s a little early to go into details, but I’m also in ongoing talks with a Bangalore-based company about a collaborative arrangement wherein I will work mostly on still imaging, while they will provide video services.