Monday, September 9, 2019

7 FAQs about being a Humanitarian Photographer and Storyteller


Over the past few years I’ve been receiving a reasonable amount of messages from people that would like to know a bit more about humanitarian photography and storytelling as a career. I love hearing from you - what an honour! During this particular season of life though, it’s hard to reply to every single one in depth like I’d like to – so here goes! My attempt to answer the most frequently asked questions via blog. Please feel free to reach out if there is anything else I’ve forgotten!

1. How did you get into humanitarian photography/storytelling?
I remember having an interest in photography as young as 7 years of age. I used to feel like something couldn’t be fully remembered unless it was captured – frozen forever in time by the click of a finger. By the time I reached high school I’d had a few more of those, “have to grab it” moments and so decided to take photography as one of my options. It was there I learnt the art of using a film camera and developing my own images in the Darkroom. I graduated from university 14 years ago with a Bachelor of Communication Studies majoring in Public Relations and Advertising Creativity. At first, I did fashion, beauty and lifestyle PR for agencies and worked in both New Zealand and Dubai. Then, in 2010 my husband and I moved to Uganda and I worked “in-house” for the first time. I found the experience so rewarding and loved getting to know and focus on one brand.

During that season in Uganda, I met two people that changed the course of my life forever. Firstly, a former child soldier called Ivan, and secondly, my sponsor child Whilifred. When I got home to New Zealand I began volunteering with Tearfund/Compassion and a year later was offered the Media and Communications Manager role. Just before I started, I did two six week hobby courses on photography that were really significant in teaching me about the digital age of capturing images.  I had switched from fashion weeks to famines and am forever grateful I did.  

2. How did it all begin?
My first day on the job for Tearfund was 8 years ago in Kolkata, India. I was there to meet with some of the 2 million kids in our care through child sponsorship and to meet with an organisation doing undercover anti-trafficking work. The next week, my boss had a family emergency and had to race back to New Zealand. Before she left she looked me up and down and asked if I would be willing to go into Bangladesh to capture some stories and images for Tearfund’ s next campaign.  I said yes. The next day I found myself on a flight to Dakar where I landed into a country that was mid coup and swarming with UN peacekeeping troops before being driven 8 hours into the depths of the jungle.  In Bangladesh I showered with a cup and a bucket, slept in a house with no door at the entrance or to my bedroom and was the only white person some of our 30,000 micro enterprise beneficiaries had ever seen.

That first trip was the beginning of what would be the adventure of a lifetime. Since then I have had almost every immunisation on the planet for every possible tropical disease. I’ve travelled to 37 countries and worked for over 50 incredible NGO’s, charities and non-profits both photographing and interviewing the people that benefit from those programmes. My work has taken me to some of the most challenging environments documenting famine, refugee settlements, post war environments, child sponsorship, micro-enterprise, trauma counselling and disaster zones. My job is to bring the amazing work of these organisations to life.

3.How did you jump from working in–house to going freelance?
After three years at Tearfund, Tim was offered a job back in Uganda. I was grateful to work out an arrangement where I would stay on with Tearfund/Compassion part time and work from the field. This is still my arrangement to this day. Being based in the field meant having a lot more opportunities to travel (cost effectively) thrown my way. It also caught the attention of the Integral Alliance (a network of 27 aid and development agencies). A couple of them started contacting me to see if I might have capacity to photograph/tell stories for them. I did! After working for about 10 different NGO’s I decided I should probably get a bit more professional and set up a website. Over the last six years living here in Uganda it’s been incredible to network with a huge range of incredible organisations – most of whom are looking for help to bring their work to living colour. Because I am someone with a Western eye that lives locally here in Uganda, the organisation doesn’t have to pay $1500-2000 in flights just to get me to the location. I mainly travel to Africa/Middle East and there is so much work to do that I take on about 1 in every 3 jobs offered.

4. What do you shoot with?
I own a Canon 5d and Canon 6d and shoot with both most trips.
I own a 24-105mm Canon lens, 50 mm Portrait Canon lens, 16-30mm Wide Angle Canon Lens and a 70-300 Tamron telephoto lens.

PLEASE KNOW, I am the most low-tech photographer you will ever meet. I don’t own a flash, reflector, ND filters or any fancy equipment
. I’ve used the same camera for almost 5 years and the last time I bought a new lens was 2 years ago. I do this for a reason. It’s because I want things to look as real as possible. I don’t want to manufacture or over compensate for what is naturally there.  I don’t want things to feel fake, overly posed or overly edited.  I want to fly under the radar wherever I go just a small backpack.

5.Advice for anyone wanting to get into this line of work?
  1. Hone your craft. I did two six-week night courses at a university for two nights a week and it was the best investment I ever made. My lecturer taught me how to solve the technical problems I’d been having and that honestly set me free when I first started out! Even to this day I am consciously trying to get better year on year and take active steps to do so.
  2. Study/Learn something wider than just photography. It would be a rare NGO/non-profit/charity that would be hiring a  full time “photographer” in-house. They would probably be hiring a Creative Manager or a Communications Specialist in which case photography might be one of the core competencies. Next to photography, I’d say that being a good writer would be top of the list for many of these organisations.
  3. If you only want to go freelance consider having a ‘core’ business ie:family photography and then doing humanitarian stuff on the side to relieve pressure.
  4. Give of your time. Find a local NGO in your community that might benefit from having a gift of some complimentary photography. Start there and if you like it, perhaps try offering that to a smaller NGO overseas that you have an existing relationship with.
  5. Consider living in a developing country – this has been huge for me. The cost of flying a Westerner from the USA or Australia to a developing nation is astronomical. It helps a lot to take that part out of the equation.

6. What’s it really like?
I’ve suffered near burnout, got pneumonia, gained weight, lost weight, got more wrinkles and grey hair than I should and had a lot of sun damage done to my face. I spend myself, but I do it for a cause I believe worth spending myself on. What keeps me doing this kind of work is primarily my faith in a God that asks us to be his hands and feet on the earth. A God that cares deeply for this heaving mess of humanity. I’ve never taken one photo or story for granted and I am in a constant state of prayer in the field as I try my hardest to bestow dignity whilst showing tremendous human need. am forever grateful to be used to raise awareness and much needed funds for those that truly need it. There’s nothing I would rather do. I am humbled beyond belief to be entrusted to do it.

7. Does it pay well?
No. If you want to get rich, this is not the field to do it. I work for charities that have to account for every single dollar that goes out the door. Not only that, but I WANT every single dollar possible to go to their beneficiaries who need it far more than me. I have tried really hard to find a personal balance for me where I feel like I’m being paid a fair wage for the work I’m doing (and it’s worth it to be away from my kids) whilst also feeling like I’m not ripping anybody off. But then, why settle for cash when joy is on the line.


Xo
Helen



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