So you wanna be an NGO Photographer?
Updated: May 27, 2019
Quick Tips to Survive the Chaos
One photograph changed my life. It was a photo of Lillian, a nurse in Africa who was on her deathbed, though her deathbed was a cement floor covered in blood and faeces. "Nobody deserves to die like this" I said to myself. I didn't know it at the time but Lillian was the reason why I went into the depths of Nigeria, to help lay a foundation for this small organization ACRT, and ultimately help people suffering from HIV/AIDS.
There are plenty of opportunities to photograph for an Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). And you can be a big part of developing their visual identity to raise awareness in their fight, whatever it may be. If you are passionate about people, the environment, or wildlife there are so many possibilities for photography. Though they may pay little to nothing, there's no question that these grassroots organizations are making waves, and out there on the edge. That's exciting. In my first assignment, I was working with people suffering from HIV and AIDS in Nigeria, which was totally out of my comfort zone. But then I saw Lillian's photograph and heard her story, comfort was not an option, and my life changed.
Get your visa to get into the country well in advance - actually having a letter of invitation from the host organization helps you at customs. Do your research about the organization and what they expect from you - Where you are going? Climate, culture, food, transportation, currency. What will the final outcomes be? This should be determined beforehand if you are volunteering, and make sure you get the rights to use all the photos. Take model releases with you and someone will help fill them out as you photograph. Other NGO's may want to use your photos - you have to decide how far you are willing to go with that.
Be alert at all times and try to stay with your group to be safe, and don't go into dark secluded places, especially at night. This is all common sense stuff. The separation and hiatus of one team member can cause a nightmarish issue in foreign countries. Stay healthy and drink plenty of water, sometimes food is scarce so I bring energy bars and peanuts to snack on. As I found out in Nigeria they like all of their food ultra spicy and hot, so bring imodium. Take time off at regular intervals and get plenty of rest to get energized. Earplugs are a godsend in big cities and great for rural areas too where a donkeys, roosters and other obnoxious creatures rule the early morn. Obey the laws and especially respect the customs and culture of your hosts - there may be some rituals that you are not aware of - like eating strange foods when you are invited into someone's home. One last don't: Snapping airports, banks, military bases and people with guns: big no-no.
Smile at someone and they'll open right up to you. Try it, it really works on any continent (well maybe except for the people with guns). Say hello (learn the language) and ask them if you can "snap" them. You have now connected with them on another level and they will surely tell you their story, and let you photograph them. Sometimes you may be briefed about a situation before it happens, but that is rare. You (and your gear) will be thrown into situations you never dreamed of - so be alert, this is the exciting part of it. You never know what is going to happen especially in unstable countries where democracy is non-existent. Learn to go with the flow and improvise - be flexible. Occasionally put the camera down, interact with people and ask questions and you'll enjoy the experience even more, and so will your subject. Quality over quantity is my motto.
Trust your instincts.I learned this my first time in the Kalahari in Botswana learn to anticipate - if something feels wrong, it probably is - if something is going to happen, it likely will. I do have numerous "I can't believe I didn't get that" moments, due to not trusting my instincts. If you're ever in a bind with authorities sometimes playing the tourist card gets you out of a jam.
Be Spontaneous. Some of the best shots I take are on a whim without thinking too much and fiddling with gear. You may have to be the director at times and pose people, so be prepared to shoot quickly and in low light. If space allows bring a tripod or monopod as many of my photos through the dark villages of Nigeria were taken handheld at 1/8 th of a sec. I like to experiment with slow shutter speeds and panning/zooming too and 1/30 at 800 sensitivity is a good starting point. It makes my photos more interesting and abstract, especially with wildlife.
Be compassionate.Photographing and talking to women who were dying of AIDS in a filthy hospital ward wasn't what I expected. In any developed country this wouldn't be happening I thought. But what could I do right now for these women? This was new to me - watching people die and feeling completely helpless. Respect their privacy, they are human, touch them and ask them how they are doing and if you can do anything for them, get them some water, some food, help them go to the bathroom. You may be asked to do things you are not comfortable with. You will know what to do, you are a compassionate human.
Take it Easy. Remember it won't be easy, but the challenge of working in the field, the pace, the conditions, the uncertainty, the lighting and likely the food are all a challenge, but vehicles for growth as a person, as a photographer.
Tell a story to the World
My photos are used for all facets of marketing and promotions: brochures, websites, posters and other printed visuals. I have found that the most powerful forms of communicating my photos are Multimedia Presentations and Public Engagement Events, where you can personally connect with your audience. The impact of your work and the experience of your trek will be insurmountable when they hear it firsthand.
I never really thought of the impact that my work could have. People were informed, emotionally charged and inspired, willing to help and get involved.
I think to myself how many people will see this photo and ask the hard questions like "What can we do?" We can't change the world overnight, but you can make a difference with your talent. Doing this challenging work already solidified what I knew; that being in the field is where I wanted to be, connecting with people. Something you rarely get driving a desk in a modern office environment.
Finally, leave a little time to recover when you return home - believe me, it's hard coming home from an overwhelming experience - you may even start questioning yourself after the high of your assignment wears off. But in no time you'll want to go again, this time wiser and more prepared. But beware: I was so inspired after traveling to Africa 6 years ago, I never actually returned "home." After Nigeria I went to Peru to work with kids, then to Bolivia to work with the President and then to Haiti after a devastating earthquake to work with the Saint Boniface Haiti Foundation. I never could have imagined these opportunities if I didn't take that first gigantic, scary leap.
So if you decide to do this remember - It won't be easy - but the rewards are worth it. You and everyone that sees your work will come out of it with a greater awareness of the world - and yourself. And the photos you take will be a huge bonus.
Photographers are some of the most compassionate and giving people I know. I do believe that our work is changing the world.