SmileTrain – Images from Malawi

You may recall that about a couple of months back, I published a teaser on my website about some work I’d recently done for SmileTrain in Malawi. I said that if you sign up for my newsletter, I would soon be sharing a fuller version of the story with you. Well, if you signed up, that’s what you can look forward in this month’s edition, the final issue of 2013. And if you can’t wait for the newsletter, you can CLICK THE IMAGE below to view all 103 images in the full gallery. Usage rights may be purchased for all of these images, but note that the photographer must be credited and reference made to SmileTrain’s work.

IMG40201 SmileTrain   Images from Malawi

CLICK THE IMAGE to explore the gallery.

Dr Caspillo, United Nations Volunteer (UNV)

The man pictured above, proudly wearing the SmileTrain T’shirt, is Dr Amiel Caspillo. He is the brilliant young man who led the surgeries I observed during this assignment. For over four years, he has been living thousands of miles from his home nation (the Philippines), serving the people of northern Malawi as a United Nations Volunteer (UNV).

This is not a job one does for the money (as you can tell from the title). I got a very clear sense from Dr Caspillo that it’s a calling he’s following out of passion for and belief in the cause. I could see it on his face as he sat with his patient Alick, above. Just another example of the kind of person I keep meeting along this path I started to tread back in 2010 when I decided to become a visual storyteller. People who follow their passions, and in so doing help to make the world a better place.

Follow your passion – Don’t just take it from me!

I do what I do because I took the decision a couple of years back to follow my passion. I was unhappy with what I was doing in my professional life before that, so threw my hat over the wall and trusted that I would be able to do what it would take to make a success out of something I knew I’d find far more fulfilling. Today, I’d like to introduce you to someone else who’s following his passion. Not only that, but he’s made it his business to encourage others to do the same. He’s also a dear friend of mine. Ladies and gentlemen: Mr Abhishek Kumar.

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If there’s one thing that Abhishek’s serious about, it’s the importance of following one’s passion. He recently recited a verse by Firaq Gorakhpuri to me which, translated from Urdu into English, goes something like this: “Oh my friend, you have indeed achieved a remarkable feat. You did your schooling, you went to college, you worked, you got your pension and you died”. When he first read this about a decade and a half back, he says he experienced the ‘wow, I get it’ feeling that changed his life for the better. That was the moment when Abhishek resolved to look beyond the path that had been laid out for him by his family and wider society, and to look deeper, inside himself, for purpose and fulfilment. What he found was that he derived an immense amount of satisfaction from helping people to learn and grow, so he embarked on a career as a trainer.


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Fast forward a few years, and Ripples Learning Services was born. In partnership with his brother Animesh, Abhishek put his heart and soul into Ripples. With grit and determination, they steered their new startup through the recession that came in the wake of the global financial crisis, a time when most Indian businesses slashed their training and development budgets. Though he heard numerous voices saying “throw in the towel, get a regular job”, he stuck with his passion. Ripples emerged at the other side and continued to grow. About a year ago, it moved into its own four-storey building, which employee Anna Royan is welcoming you to above with the traditional Indian ‘namaste’ greeting! A couple of weeks back, Ripples celebrated its fifth birthday.


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It is not so much running a successful business that gives Abhishek a buzz as it is training itself. He is in his element while designing novel programmes and while on his feet in front of a group of participants. In fact, it goes beyond even this. He is driven by the simple desire to touch people’s lives and make a difference. To do this takes more than imparting one’s wisdom: it means really engaging them.


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I’ll allow these images to speak for themselves on his ability to do that! Yes, a sharp sense of humour and the ability to entertain are very helpful. But I feel that a trainer is most empowered to have a strong impact when s/he is fired by his or her own passion. This is how Abhishek is able to, as his company’s catchphrase puts it, create ‘ripples of change’.


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“There are two questions you must ask yourself about any potential job”, Abhishek recently told a gathering of around 1,000 fresh graduates from Christ University in Bangalore. “The first one is, ‘will it prove interesting to me and give me joy?’; the second one is, ‘will it help me make a difference and lead to positive change in the world?’. The first is about ensuring happiness in your life. The second is about creating your legacy, which is what people will one day write in your obituary”.


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As I was after deciding to become a humanitarian photographer, Abhishek has clearly been able to place ticks in both boxes with his chosen career, and he remains eager to help more and more people do the same. Fuelled by this passion, Ripples continues to grow; here, Anna counsels a prospective student on the range of options that the company can offer her. And earlier this month, Ripples launched its latest training programme, a ‘train the trainer’ certification course for learning and development professionals who aspire to be facilitators. Through this, it will surely be possible for Abhishek and Ripples to multiply the passion as it prepares and equips many more trainers to go out into the world!


‘Visual Peacemaking’ by Camille Bromley

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.

humanitarian photographer + CSR 09 IMG 8526 Visual Peacemaking by Camille Bromley

Visual Peacemaking


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.“

Being a humanitarian and CSR photographer: an interview

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.


On the ethics of being a CSR photographer

Can an ethically-minded humanitarian photographer also work for big business? Are the roles of NGO photographer and corporate photographer mutually exclusive? A lot of humanitarian photographers seem to think this way. As if, in serving the non-profit / development sector, they’re working for the ‘goodies’; and as if selling their services to corporates would mean ‘selling out’ to the ‘baddies’. At the same time, they know only too well that it’s hard to pay the bills while serving NGOs alone. NGOs simply don’t have the budgets, more often than not, and the increasing competition on price from photographers new to the trade who’re willing to shoot on a pro bono basis is far too tempting for many an NGO’s Head of Communications.

So the humble humanitarian photographer tends to look for other ways to bring home the bacon. Many find wedding photography to be a good earner. Others make great money from photography tours, where they take budding amateurs to far-flung corners of the world and teach them some of the tricks of the trade. And then there are those photographers who know how to make the Internet work for them, and use it to sell eBooks on improving one’s photography, prints of their fine art work, online photography workshops, etc.

I’m in no sense keen to denigrate any of these strategies. I just hope to see as many photographers as possible able to say that they are following their passions with a minimum of compromise. As I’ve shared elsewhere on these pages (see here and here), I strongly believe that each one of us should do whatever it takes to follow our passion, refusing to accept that what gives us the most joy can be boxed into a small corner of our life for whenever we can devote our ever-diminishing time to it. It therefore makes me sad to say that so far, every humanitarian-cum-wedding photographer I’ve ever spoken to has told me s/he does it simply to ensure s/he can make ends meet between NGO assignments. I wonder how much pleasure those photographers who spend the bulk of their time developing eCommerce products derive from the endless hours on their computers, hours that I know I’d far rather be spending out in the field with the beneficiaries of life-changing projects. Again, if they find the development of those products just as enriching an experience as visual storytelling then I couldn’t be happier. But I really wonder… .

So what’s my own personal solution to this conundrum? I must admit that I know precious few photographers who’ve found they can make a decent living from serving NGOs alone. Those that do tend to make other sacrifices, such as living in countries where the cost of living is lower than it is in their countries of origin. My own solution brings me back to the question I posed in the first sentence of this piece. My answer to this question is “yes”, and I hope my Marxist-Leninist grandparents will hear me out before turning in their graves.

In addition to serving non-profits, I also work with businesses’ corporate responsibility departments in both the social and environmental domains. These folks label their work in many ways: corporate social responsibility (CSR), corporate citizenship, ethical compliance, social and environmental sustainability, responsible business, etc. I’ll just call it ‘CSR’ here for simplicity’s sake, and define it as a form of corporate self-regulation integrated into a firm’s business model with the goal of not only taking responsibility for its actions but also giving something positive back to society, the environment and other facets of the public sphere.

Open any big company’s website and you’ll find that it’ll have a section on what’s its doing to prove its worth as a ‘corporate citizen’. Needless to say, many people have a great deal of suspicion for these CSR activities, often for exactly this reason: they see it as no more than a public relations exercise. “They’re pulling the wool over our eyes, covering up the damage they’re doing by focussing our attention on the so-called ‘good’ they’re doing”, they say.

 On the ethics of being a CSR photographer

Spoof Vedanta ‘faking happiness’ campaign.

I don’t doubt that this happens. The most recent (and shocking) example I’ve seen of this is Vedanta’s ‘Creating Happiness’ campaign in India. Recently, every ad break on TV seems to have been featuring their promotional video for this, and I’ve seen it ‘liked’ and shared all over Facebook. This PR exercise has evidently gone extremely well for Vedanta! The otherwise unaware masses have come to believe that this is a loving, caring, fluffy, hug-worthy corporate citizen; yet the evidence has led many to suggest that it has a profound contempt for human rights and environmental best practice. Its alleged violations in these areas have meant high-profile court cases have been brought against it, while it has sustained powerful criticism from Survival International, Amnesty International, the British and Norwegian governments, the Church of England and others, and seen the likes of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Marlborough Ethical Fund, Millfield House Foundation and PGGM ridding themselves of their Vedanta shares.

So is this company ‘Creating Happiness’ or ‘Faking Happiness’ (left)? It’s not for me to say, but the controversy is something I clearly need to be aware of as I go about my work. At this point, I think I need to make a confession. A couple of months back, a close friend mailed me to suggest I reach out to Vedanta and offer my communications services. At that time, I didn’t recall the name. So I composed an e-mail and fired it off. When the subject then came up in conversation with another friend, a look of consternation crossed his face. “Robin, I really don’t think you want to be associate with that company!”, he exclaimed. I hurriedly did my homework, somewhat past the deadline, and my stomach turned. The incident forced me to take a cold, hard look at my approach. Clearly, I could not regard CSR activities simply as something like NGO work within the corporate setup.

As a professional who’s sworn himself to contributing to making the world a better place through his photography, are corporates’ CSR departments an appropriate client group? I still say “yes”. I do not sign up to the belief that all corporates are evil, and that their CSR activities are no more than gloss to distract our attention from their dastardly deeds. To assume that all are as unscrupulous as Vedanta have been accused of being, and should therefore suffer our wrath, is to discount a great deal of positive work that’s being done. Even if the driving agenda is more about overall corporate image, we cannot deny the billions of dollars that are passing directly from the hands of businesses and their employees to worthy causes, often under the supervision of highly reputable charities, and the difference this money makes where spent wisely.

For my part, I can do several things to ensure I’m supporting only those companies that merit my assistance. For starters, I now do my research on companies’ backgrounds and ethical status. A simple Google or Wikipedia search on Vedanta is so revealing. There are also other resources, such as CSRHub, which use multiple sources to index companies’ CSR performance. Beyond this, there is also the type of work that I will do. There are multiple ways that I can assist a company with CSR communications that are eminently uncontroversial. For example, I can help them communicate to their employees, educating them about the projects they run for the benefit of society and the environment and encouraging them to donate through payroll contribution schemes; I can also help them communicate to beneficiaries to improve their understanding of projects being implemented. For those companies who are evidently outstanding corporate citizens, I am happy to help them publicise the news of the positive difference they’re making. After all, wouldn’t you rather buy the cola of a company that goes out of its way to work ethically and responsibly as compared with one that’s willing to stamp on the little people and plunder the Earth’s resources in an unsustainable manner in order to make the most profit possible from your cola? This is the kind of informative advertising that I aim to contribute to as I follow my passion while working with big business.