How nonprofits can work with professional photographers

September 10, 2013

One of my favorite bits of summer reading had few words and lots of pictures. I wasn’t being lazy…I spent far longer pondering the images from Nina Berman’s outstanding photo essay on rural Pennsylvanians forced to live with the consequences of fracking than I do reading a dense Atlantic Monthly piece. The pictures were haunting in a way that wordier tomes on the evils of rampant oil and gas development have never been. The beautifully lit shot of a farmhouse at night set against a backdrop of nebulous, industrial hell looks like a scene out of science fiction.

We’ve been thinking a lot about imagery at Resource Media since we launched Visual Story Lab, our own guide to using imagery for social change. We advise advocates to become comfortable doing their own photo documentation; sound advice in a day and age when we are all carrying a pretty good camera around with us during all of our waking hours. However, it struck me that Berman’s poignant photos could only have been captured by a professional. I could wander the wilds of Pennsylvania with my iPhone for the rest of my days and never come up with the images that so moved me in this piece. So many of the issues we work on need this caliber of visual treatment.

I decided to contact Berman and get her take on how she views work like this and how NGO’s can approach professional photographers like her. Berman is best known for her books and photo art exhibitions documenting the impact of war and US militarism. She says organizations like Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders (which have employed her agency, NOOR) “get it” that an independent eye can see things that advocates steeped in an issue 24/7 will inherently miss. “Advocates tend to take pictures that are one-dimensional,” Berman says, “Pictures that speak to the choir.” In the case of the Pennsylvania gas fields, it took Berman some time and some scrapped photos to understand what was so unsettling about the scenes she was shooting. Ultimately she realized “People felt trapped. They felt violated and they couldn’t escape. People would say that over and over and that’s what I tried to capture. Anyone, whether they are an environmentalist or not can relate to feeling trapped.”

Berman had some other great advice for NGO’s who want to engage a professional for their images.

  1. Don’t assume the budget is out of reach. For $5,000 you can often cover travel expenses, prep time and a few days in the field and get some truly memorable images.
  2. Make sure the photographer you hire cares about the issue you are documenting. Even a good photographer can produce run-of-the-mill images if they see it as just another day at the office.
  3. Provide good information and spend time briefing the photographer. But don’t micro-manage. No shot sheets. Let the photographer go through his or her own process of discovery. “There has to be some suspension of control,” says Berman. “I need an organizer, not an art director.”
  4. Use your high quality photos in multiple ways. Most NGO’s just focus on their websites, narrowing the pool of viewers. Photo exhibitions can be great gathering places for sharing information, hosting panels and building your network of supporters.

In our visual storytelling guide, Seeing is Believing, we urge NGO’s to avoid stock photos and visual fluff, which are unemotional and leave people unenthused. Work like Berman’s is the opposite end of the scale…and may be well within your reach.

Scott Miller

Photo courtesy Nina Berman of NOOR Images. Her work, Fractured: The Shale Play, will be exhibited at Photoville in New York and is on view at Ithaca College.