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How to Do Good with Your Camera

If you were to ask me about a specific time in my life when photography made a significant impact, I would say the fall of 2011. For my birthday, my husband surprised me by taking me out for lunch at a tiny burger dive, and then stopping in at the local art museum. He’s not exactly an “art-lover” per say, so I was a little confused by the move… until he explained what they were showing.

There was an exhibit with every Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph since they started handing out in the prize in 1942. Each photo was blown up huge on the wall, with a long description from the photographer hanging next to it. I remember him telling me not to plan anything for that evening, and instantly I knew why: I was going to read every single one of these descriptions.

Photos of war, of celebration, struggle, heartache, starvation, triumph. I couldn’t take my eyes away. These photos were beautiful, powerful, and gut-wrenching. Particularly the “vulture photo” by Kevin Carter (Look it up, because there is no way I’m posting it here). The description next to the photograph was written by a good friend of Kevin’s since Kevin had committed suicide just 3 months after shooting it. That picture will haunt me for the rest of my life.

These Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, they made you feel something, made your heart ache and tears well up in your eyes. They aren’t meant to be seen in passing, commented on and then never referenced again. They stick with you, forever.

That’s the kind of photographer I wanted to be, then and there. I wanted the camera in my hand to make a difference. A real difference, to someone, somewhere.

That difference doesn’t have to mean shooting from a helicopter in a war-zone. It just means using your camera to make something near you just a little bit better. If you’re interested in using your camera for a little more this year, here are a few ways to get started.

Start Local

Baby steps are still steps. A great place to look to make a difference is in your own community.

  • Volunteer at your local charity to photograph a charity event. They can use these photos for their newsletter or to post on social media, and hopefully gain more people for next year’s event.
  • Hit up your local animal shelter. It’s been proven time and time again professional photos help animals get adopted faster. A picture of a scared dog, in the back of a dark kennel, with red eyes surely doesn’t do him any favors. Bring him out in the sunlight and snap a few photos of him playing fetch. The faster the shelter moves animals out, the more they can bring in.
  • Dole out free family photos at your local homeless shelter. Many families go their entire lives without decent family photos. Help Portrait has a great program for getting started in this area.

Work With an Established Organization

There are some amazing organizations out there doing unbelievable things. Of course there are a few organization pretending to be charities and really just taking in money, but let’s just skip over those hell-holes and focus on the good ones. PhotoPhilanthropy is a great place to point you in the right direction. There you’ll find photographer resources for working with non-profits as well as tips to get your own photo essays and projects off the ground. A few other amazing photography related organizations:

  • Photographers Without Borders is another fantastic program, that allows you to sell your photos with the money going straight educational purposes of the country the photo was taken in.
  • Operation Love Reunited is an organization that gives military families free family photo sessions before a family member is deployed. Get involved by filling out an application here.
  • Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep is an organization that offers free remembrance photography for parents that have lost their newborn babies. These are often the only photos parents have to remember infants who have passed.
  • Flashes of Hope offers free portrait service to children with cancer, giving them ownership of their new identities.
  • 100 Cameras works to give cameras to kids in marginalized communities to help them tell their stories (that’s the extremely condensed version of course, they do much more than that).

These are just a few on a very long list of amazing organizations. If there’s another cause close to your heart, seek out a non-profit for that cause and email them! Very few organizations will turn away free photos, especially good ones that really help their cause.

Create Your Own Project

Just like Photographers Without Borders, you can also sell your own photos and decide exactly where the money goes. You can also complete your own photo essay, bringing awareness to a topic or cause you are passionate about.

You can work with a gallery or local business to print and hang photos in an exhibition. Use social media and shared networking (both of you combine email lists) to spread the word. See what other companies would like to get involved. You might be able to get the catering for a show donated, or part of the publishing costs covered for small book. Many companies are open to the idea of donating goods or services if project proceeds are going to a deserving cause.

Give a Free Class

Photography allows people to tell stories that would otherwise remain silent. You don’t have to teach your entire craft – just an introductory class at a high school or community center. Have a free class at your studio where you show kids how to use an old hand-me-down camera they bought at a yard sale. This may not seem like much to you, but you’re giving someone the ability to express themselves and create something entirely their own, which can be a drastic turning point to their lives.

Donate the Proceeds

Often the easiest and fastest way to get involved is to sell some of your current photos as prints and donate the proceeds. Even just simple landscape shots can go for something.

Another option is to use your skills and current market to donate a day’s worth of client proceeds. If you’re a wedding photographer, maybe the cost of one wedding per year is donated to a cause near to your heart. As a family photographer, you could have one day a year where the fees from any session scheduled on that day goes straight to charity.

Just Do What You Can

It’s all up to you to decide what you’re doing with your time. If you aren’t in a situation to donate an entire weddings’ worth of fees, than by all means, don’t do that, but if you can afford to take one day a month and shoot a few photos for the local humane society, than do it. Every little bit counts.

The bottom line is we tend to take our cameras for granted more than we realize. After years in this business, we can forget how powerful of a tool it is. Even if you don’t think a few photos will make a difference, chances are, they probably will.


About the author: Jenna Martin is the founder of PhotoFern.com and a fine art and underwater photographer based out of Billings, Montana. After acquiring her Master’s in Psychiatric Rehabilitation, she made a drastic career change into the field of photography where she has been producing surreal images ever since. You can find more of her work and writing on her website and blog. This article was also published here.


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