Regular readers of these pages will recall that a couple of months ago, journalist Camille Bromley interviewed me on being a humanitarian and CSR photographer. On 18th June, the first of two resulting pieces was published by Catalysta. You’ll find the article here on their site, but for your convenience I’m copying it below.
Any marketing professional knows that a single compelling image speaks louder and truer to the rushed and information-bombarded public than a thousand descriptive phrases. Visual imagery is powerful in its ability to persuade, create emotions, and change behavior—and this is just as true of organizations devoted to the common good as it is for product advertising. NGOs, non-profits, and charities need professionals who can visually communicate their mission and the results of their efforts. In response, a small but growing field of “humanitarian photographers,” as they are often called, dedicates their creative talents to the interests of the development sector.
Humanitarian photography is anything but a strictly defined field. The backgrounds and skills of these freelancers are diverse, as are their clients and locations. Robin Wyatt is one such self-invented photographer, having worked extensively in India but also in Egypt, Kenya, and Senegal for organizations including Save the Children, Mercy Corps, USAID, and the United Nations Development Programme. His work covers humanitarian and social issues, environmental and climate change, and travel and culture. “What I’m about is hope, and showing the difference organisations and corporate responsibility initiatives can make,” Wyatt says. “I’m keen to show people’s dignity in difficult situations, and also our common humanity . . . What this all boils down to is using photography to contribute to processes of change for the better.”
A better term for his profession, Wyatt suggests, is “visual peacemaker,” citing the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers (IGVP) as a major inspiration. He chose to become a photographer after becoming frustrated with a career in social research. An epiphany hit him like “a tonne of pleasant-feeling bricks” during an intensive vipassana meditation: he could combine his background in social research in India and knowledge of development with a love for travel and photography. “I fervently believe in following one’s passion,” he says. “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?“ He immediately dedicated all his resources, time, and efforts to photography and began coming up with initiatives and pitches to contacts at NGOs.
However, in a pattern familiar to those who dedicate their careers to ethical causes, Wyatt found that vision alone cannot pay the bills. According to Wyatt, weddings, fashion shoots, or corporate gigs are far more lucrative, paying five or even ten times the rate that a non-profit can afford. Development organizations function on tight budgets, and often money can simply not be allotted to non-essential creative communications, however beneficial it might be to the organization’s image and support network (Wyatt’s photographs serve his clients in many ways, from procuring donations and grants to communicating messages to people about hand-washing or malaria prevention).
Many professional humanitarian and travel photographers, finding it impossible to support themselves exclusively with assignments that follow their specialization, turn to more mundane work, teach, or lead photo tours to supplement their income and allow them to continue what drives them. Wyatt, however, is hesitant to take time away from the work that really matters. To find a solution to this division between his personal and professional visions, he carved out a new niche for himself in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) photography.
Currently, Wyatt says, most CSR departments in for-profit companies and corporations commission photographers from creative agencies that may have little experience on the field in developing countries. He is prepared to offer his services to those who are in line with his values, “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.”
Wyatt also sees big potential impact in the scope and reach of CSR activities, as companies are becoming increasingly aware that genuine actions for social justice and environmental sustainability will be appreciated by consumers. These companies could become major actors on the development scene. Wyatt says, “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.”
What is heartening beyond the superb creative talents of Wyatt and other visual peacemakers is Wyatt’s insistence on a full commitment to his ethical goals, to doing and continuing to do work that makes a difference in the world. He has proven that it is possible to achieve professional success as a photographer while staying true to a personal creative vision: “In order to sustain oneself, there’s a very clear need to innovate and do something that few others are doing . . . There is always a way.“