Advice to the Humanitarian Photographer on Getting Published

A young boy in the village of Konadouga, Burkina Faso where the native language is Senara and the formal language taught is French. This is just a mile or so from the Ivory Coast boarder where rebels had been fighting.

Photographers for the most part are some of the most compassionate people you will ever meet.  They want to help organizations they encounter, but often find most of their photos never seeing the light of day.

Pretty often I am getting emails of photographers returning from overseas and having a collection of photos they want to share. They want to get the stories in front of people.

A typical email will look something like this:

“I would like to ask for your advice. I want to send the photos to different magazines and newspaper with the hope that the photos will help generate interest and donations for the organizations I covered. How should I approach these media outlets?”

Here is my advice for anyone wanting to do humanitarian photography and want to help those organizations by getting their work published.

Remember throughout that your purpose is to connect the audience to the subjects. If at anytime you forget one of these you will be unsuccessful. Why should your audience care? Why do the subjects need their story told?

Letzia stays at home and her husband works in the fields in Akil in the Yucatan region of Mexico.

Before your go

The time to connect with media outlets is before you go and not after for many reasons. The major reason is that had the media outlet knew you would be doing the coverage they could have given you valuable direction that would increase the chances of being published.

If you can write or do video as well then be sure and offer these skills as part of the package. I know many humanitarian photographers who offer some of these skills for their clients:

  • Twitter feeds while on the field
  • Blog posts when they return for the client 
  • Multimedia package
  • Audio recordings for the web

Very often an editor might direct you to cover a certain angle that would appeal to their audience. If you are really interested in getting interest for the organization then you do what you can to get the organization in front of the audience.

The story will change before you even go if you take time to reach out to as many media outlets as you can. It is quite possible that they may have a story for you to cover while you are there as well.

These boys are enjoying the stream just outside the village of Konadouga, Burkina Faso.  They were a little surprised at seeing the white man with the camera taking their photo.  In just ten miles we went through 30 different languages spoken by the tribes in the area. 

While you are there

It is rare that I have ever been on an overseas trip that the story we thought we were going to do doesn’t change after we arrive. In some form or another they will tell you that you just missed it or that doesn’t happen while you are here.  This doesn’t matter if you did all your research to perfection. Often people heard something different than what you said, or they just didn’t want to risk telling you the truth and you not come to help them.

Be sure you get names of people in the photos, the places you were when you made the photos and a good description of what is going on in the photo that isn’t always understood when looking at the photo.

Types of photos

Everyone smiling and looking at the camera are snapshots and memory joggers. For the most part this is not what the media is looking for at all.

I have written on the three types of photos: 1) “Literal” Snapshots; 2) “Artistic” Snapshot and 3) “Expressive” images that are taken for others and not yourself. for more about those three styles you can read this earlier blog post:

Feb 27, 2011
We all start with the literal snapshot and often revisit this stage of photography. These literal snapshots are primarily taken for the photographer. These photos are “memory joggers.” They help you remember the moment.

Here are some major mistakes photographers make while doing what they call is “humanitarian photography.”

I wrote about them before but I think this warrants repeating here again.

Street scenes in Tikul in the Yucatan, Mexico

Some clues that you have crossed the line into narcissism:

  • When asked why you are doing the photography your motivation is about you having a good experience.
  • When your conversation is all about the gear you are using. This is an indication of self-indulgence.
  • When you are evaluating a trip if you have that country stamped in your passport.
  • When you cannot tell the stories of the people you just met on the trip.
  • When you cannot explain how your photos are helping further the work of the people in the photos.
  • When you are taking people’s pictures and rarely have ever asked permission or care to ask permission.
  • When you ask people to look at your pictures.
  • When you evaluate the photos based on how artistic they are for your taste.
  • When you are pushing all the time to go with teams on trips.
  • Have a mentor and ask how well you are doing.
You really need to pause and be sure the reasons you are doing the coverage are for the people that need the help. The more you serve them it actually is more rewarding than serving yourself.

Mexican side of the border in Agua Prieta, Mexico which borders Douglas, AZ.

How to keep a healthy ego
  • You know your purpose for photographing on a trip.
  • You know the subject really well.
  • You have taken the time to get to know the people you are photographing.
  • You are asking permission to photograph people.
  • You always have in mind your audience when making photos.
  • You have people calling you to be involved in their project.
  • You are concerned that the photos you made are making a difference.
  • You are concerned about exploiting people and their situation for your personal gain.
  • Have a mentor and asking what you can do to improve.
  • You know when someone else would do a better job and you step aside for now.
  • You know you need to improve and feel the burden to improve for your client’s sake.
Night time along the Mexican and US border in the town of Douglas, AZ.
When you get back

Contact those who were interested in running your work. Maybe a quick photo as a teaser and then short message that you just returned. You will be getting your work to them by a certain time.

Some editors will have given you a deadline before you go. Always try and not only meet the deadline, but exceed it and get the material to them before they asked for it.

Be sure to explain if the coverage had to change and why. If they have traveled at all they will understand. What they may not understand is if it is not at all along the lines of what you talked to them about and in this case it might not run in their media.

You can always go back to all those editors who turned you down, which I highly recommend, and let them see what you have. They may change their mind.

Alternative to Check Presentation

Miyuki Ishida Johnson, Japanese teacher at Elkins Pointe Middle School, accepts a check Cranes for Kids run by Osh Kosh clothing.

Of check presentations this is one of my favorites. All the kids from the Origami Club came to the Osh Kosh clothing store with the teacher and all the Cranes they made. Visually this is quite interesting.

One of the main reasons I love the photo is my daughter is in the group photo. If I were thumbing through a publication this photo most likely wouldn’t make me stop to read the caption or the story.

A good lead for a story is as much about surprise as the content itself. If you are not careful you can pay more attention to grammar and style and forget that the audience needs to be entertained in order to keep them engaged.

The best way to ensure that your photograph doesn’t do what it is suppose to do is to use a cliché.

What is a photo suppose to do?

Why use a photo? Before you can answer that question you need to ask what are you wanting to accomplish. You may determine you don’t even need a photo, an article or a press release.

Sometimes the main audience you are trying to reach is so small you could just hold a luncheon and sometimes just meet with the people in person.

When the purpose has been decided that you need to communicate a message and the audience is best reached through website, printed piece of through social media you know that people respond to photos more than they do to text.

The most common mistake made at this point, which leads us to the check presentation photo is the assumption that any photo will do. 

You may think because you have seen so many check presentations that this is the best way to communicate your message. It is use by more people than other options, therefore it must be best is illogical.

What is the check for?

The best question you can ask to help you move to a better photo is to ask what the check is for.  

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Guest Conductor Arild Remmereit and Sergei Krylov as guest violin soloist spend some time with the students from Elkins Pointe Middle School Orchestra answering their questions. Due to gifts to the music program students have the opportunity to meet some of the world’s best musicians.

Which would you rather use, the photo of the students getting time with one of the best violinists and orchestra conductors or the check presentation to the school administrator that helps support these type of opportunities?

Even a setup photo can do a better job than a check presentation photo. Would you stop and want to read more about this photo? If so, then it is successful. I can see this used to help talk about a Catholic School that is expanding to include new grades in the fall due to a gift helping the school add more classrooms.

Series of photos

Why only think about one photo? Sometimes a series of photos will help tell the story even better. 

When Seth Gamba started teaching orchestra in north Fulton elementary schools he had very few instruments. due to gifts he was able to buy some electonic orchestra instruments. This really made a difference for the students excitement about music.

Besides the expression helping communicate excitement, for most of the public they have never seen electronic viola. So there are some visual surprises with this photo that help communicate what a check presentation helped to fund.

I think the intensity of the student playing and the look of the strange instrument, which is an electronic cello, help communicate how a gift is helping the arts.

This is an electronic violin.  Again seeing middle school students this engaged in school is exciting.

Now while the photo is a better visual surprise than a check presentation, a good writer will help drop in other surprises.

One study done at Georgia Tech found that the only thing that had any significant impact on retention rates and graduation rates was if a student took music classes. Tutors, Greek life, taking courses to help improve study habits, and everything the school could test didn’t have any significant impact other than music.

Can you see how working this into the caption can help the development office raise even more funds than a check presentation photo?

Next time someone suggests a check presentation photo, remember to ask what the check is for and suggest a photo that communicates the purpose of the gift.