Saving the World…One Photo at a Time
How three very different photographers use their cameras to make a difference -- and how you can do so, too.
It can be a pretty decent hobby and a reasonably rewarding career. But photography has a remarkable ability to be more than that — to be a force that moves people.
The history of photography from its earliest days is filled with photographers who have used that power to spark reform in urban slums or to save endangered creatures and their habitats. Think of Jacob Riis, whose 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, led to the closure of police-run poorhouses in New York City. Or William Henry Jackson, whose pioneering landscape photographs helped spark the creation of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872.
This tradition is stronger than ever today. We talked with three photographers who take very different kinds of pictures and champion very different causes. What they have in common: an ability to use their cameras to heal the world. Their work and stories are on the pages that follow. And for some ideas about what you can do, turn to page 110.
Like many Americans, photographer Stephen Wilkes was riveted to the news in August 2005 as the disaster of Hurricane Katrina unfolded. But unlike many people, he continued to track developments in the months afterward. “I never stopped following the story,” says Wilkes, whose photos often make the covers of major news magazines. “And at the six-month point, when general media had moved on to the next crisis, that’s when I felt like it was a really good time to go down” to the Gulf Coast.
It was an appropriate place for Westport, CT-based Wilkes, who’s “drawn to places that have been forgotten.” He’s probably best known for his five-year project photographing the abandoned hospital wards of Ellis Island. His photos helped lead Congress to appropriate $6.5 million to preserve the buildings.
So last March, Wilkes headed for New Orleans. At a town meeting of survivors — those who remained — he found something unexpected: “There was a thread throughout all the people I met, one of hope,” he says. “They had an unflinching sense of hope that they could rebuild their lives against all odds. I decided to take portraits of these people in the context of their homes and of what they were experiencing.”
He spent the rest of that five-day trip with an assistant in an SUV packed with photo gear, crisscrossing New Orleans’ devastated Lower 9th Ward and Holy Cross neighborhood. He met people who were surrounded by ruin but smiled at what had been spared.
By the time he returned in July, he had used photos from the first excursion to win backing and an exhibit from the World Monuments Fund. That group also suggested he include Bay St. Louis in Mississippi, where Katrina’s storm surge had wiped out all but six of 500 waterside homes.
On both trips, he listened to the survivors; their stories often led to the photos. Melanie Mitchell, in Bay St. Louis, told of coming back to a home obliterated except for its fireplace and chimney. But she looked up and rejoiced — because the storm had left her wedding gown draped in a neighbor’s tree. Wilkes photographed Mitchell in the remains of her home, holding the dress.
By fall the exhibition was up at the World Monuments Fund in New York, with hopes for it to travel and be posted on the web. Marty Hylton, WMF’s initiatives manager, says visitors call Wilkes’ work “compelling” and may be moved to action.
Wilkes believes his photos will build support for restoring and rebuilding. And there’s another message, put forth by one of his subjects, Mark Houan: “In every disaster there’s a bit of grace, if you can find it.”
Sometimes the call to action comes over the phone. For Shannon Eckstein, a Canadian photographer who’s currently based in Toronto, the voice on the phone was a friend asking her to volunteer to shoot portraits at a gala benefit for a nonprofit organization.
Eckstein resisted, but the friend pressed her. She dutifully photographed at the benefit for Operation Rainbow Canada, whose medical teams provide free surgery and health care for children in developing countries born with cleft lips and palates.
She wasn’t thinking of a long-term relationship. But as Eckstein learned about the group and ran into its founder, Dr. Kimit Rai, a local plastic surgeon, repeatedly at various events, she started thinking about her own work. Her business, photographing children and producing high-quality black-and-white prints, was successful and rewarding, but she wanted to go beyond that. “I just felt like I needed to do more with [photography],” she says.
So Eckstein approached ORC with a proposition: She would go on one of their missions to photograph and use the images to publicize their work. “They hadn’t received a lot of media attention, and I just knew I could handle the job,” says Eckstein. “It involved children, in a third-world country in which I had a lot of experience living and traveling. And it was a story that I thought hadn’t been told, and needed to be told, but in a gentle way.”
The organization agreed. To pay her way, Eckstein raised money through a benefit party of her own. Soon she was off on the multiweek trip to a border town in northern India with 24 other members of Operation Rainbow. Getting there took three days.
Families from all over the region brought their children, and Eckstein came prepared. She had a ready smile, lots of time, and child-friendly goodies like stickers and bubble-blowing materials. Unlike the nurses, who might only see the kids in pre-op or post-op areas, she could follow the kids and their families through the whole process, getting to know them. Eventually the nurses realized they could call for their photographer to help settle a nervous child.
The trip, she says, “exceeded every expectation I had. The ORC team was incredible to work with. Every day they humbled me because of their incredible spirit, sense of team, and dedication to what they were doing.”
Two of Eckstein’s prints were accepted into an Australian photo competition, Women’s Eye on Peace, and she’s hoping to do similar work for other organizations. “I just feel like I need to do something a little more socially conscious,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of money and I don’t know what else to do. Photography is the only thing I have to offer.”
“I thank God for every hour, minute, second I’ve ever spent in Alaska,” says photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum. “It’s like nothing else on the planet. I’m out there floating rivers, and backpacking, and kayaking, and doing amazing things in amazing places.”
But unlike many other adventurers, Los Angeles-based Ketchum has a special connection with wild places: He’s played a critical role in preserving them. In December 1986, Aperture published Ketchum’s book, The Tongass: Alaska’s Vanishing Rain Forest. It marked the start of an intense three-year lobbying effort that included giving a copy to every member of Congress and led to the signing of the Tongass Timber Reform Act in 1990. The bill, which had been stalled for years, passed with a 99-0 Senate vote, preserving more than a million acres of old-growth forest and creating five new wilderness areas.
Ketchum’s book, which he co-wrote with his first wife, Carey, “did the advocacy job for us,” says environmentalist Steven Kallick. He remembers how he and his colleagues would fill their backpacks or suitcases with copies when they came to Washington. “It was like bringing ammunition to the field.”
Recently named by Audubon as one of 100 people “who shaped the environmental movement of the 20th century,” Ketchum had studied photography and initially worked as a curator. An outdoorsman, he shot several nature projects and curated a photo exhibit for the National Park Foundation. But he wanted a way to combine his photographic skills with his strong views about the environment. He says, “What I really aspired to do was find a way to make them serve each other.”
He found the way with a commission to shoot the Hudson River. “I seized that as an opportunity to view it just not as some sort of pretty guide book, but as a commentary about the 400-year history of the river,” Ketchum says. “And to photograph industrial sites and blue-collar towns and all that other stuff as inclusively as the beautiful, restored forests and the still-existent wetlands.”
The project, which resulted in a book and exhibit, had a success he didn’t expect: A ferry landing-turned-industrial-dump was restored to a lovely park because of one of his prints.
Now Ketchum is focused on Bristol Bay southwest Alaska, where he says a gold mine threatens the nation’s last great wild salmon fishery. He’s also involved in the International League of Conservation Photographers, top photographers who work with leading scientific groups to explore the natural world.
“There are so many ways to use [photography], and so many interesting ways to make statements with it,” he says, “that there can’t be enough concerned people responding.”
Some photographers have the vision to see a problem in society or the environment and focus on it, creating a body of work that brings major reform. But most photographers looking to make a difference in the world will find there’s already a nonprofit group, whether a charity or nongovernmental organization (NGO), in their area of interest. Working with an existing nonprofit may be the best way to go.
|Amnon Gutman****James Hall|
Many groups raise money through print auctions and sales, or through auctions of services such as family portraits. Donating your photographs this way translates directly into cash for charities.
Another way to help: Volunteer as a photographer. From small neighborhood groups to big international ones, most nonprofits need photos for everything from newsletters to advertising to thank-you gifts. Not every project requires a huge commitment.
Amnon Gutman, a freelance photojournalist based in Israel, takes time off from work to shoot in places like Mozambique and Uganda for nonprofits. For instance, the Israeli Medical Association sent him to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to document work being done there by Israeli doctors. In Kampala, an American student volunteer at one of the main hospitals told him about a team of social workers who go to the slums to track former hospital patients who need follow-up care. He spent two weeks with the team, photographing daily life in the slums in order to call attention to the plight of Uganda’s poor, many of whom are suffering from AIDS and tuberculosis.
“My main purpose was to be able to make things happen with my pictures,” Gutman says, “meaning that even if one person donated money to the organization and by that saved one life, then it was worth it.”
How to connect? It can be as easy as a phone call. That’s how James Hall, a photographer from Fairfax, CA, began to set up what turned into a two-and-a-half-month trip working for a variety of NGOs in Cambodia several years ago. “It totally launched my career,” says Hall.
His website, 88zero.com, links to an article he wrote for Transitions Abroad on how to volunteer as a photographer for an NGO overseas. He recommends starting your search for an organization with a visit to interaction.org, the website of InterAction, the American Counsel for Voluntary International Action.
But if it can be easy to connect, there are some practical considerations to look into first.
One is money. Are you going to donate your time, or do you expect financial help? It might seem a no-brainer if you’re looking to volunteer for free, but some photographers argue that your photos will get more attention in the organization and be put to better use if it costs the nonprofit something to get them.
If you’d like the group to cover expenses, you’ll need to produce an accurate estimate of just what those expenses will be. If you cover everything, your expenses probably will be tax-deductible, but you won’t be able to take a deduction for your time and services.
Working with a nonprofit can be incredibly rewarding. After all, how often do you get a chance to do something you love and leave the world a little bit better place at the same time? In the end, you might change not just the world but yourself.