Why Photographers and Authors Should Embrace Anti-Piracy Bills

At the risk of being widely unpopular today, I am going to come out and say I support the SOPA/ PIPA anti-piracy bills now in Congress designed to battle Internet piracy.

Piracy and copyright violations are serious, international, multi-billion dollar issues that require serious, effective laws.  While those who don’t like SOPA are complaining about  the unrealitic “censoring” of YouTube videos, a “broken Internet” and the “potential for abuse,” authorities are pursuing and taking down Internet criminals with complex, multi-national investigations and police raids.

Piracy doesn’t just affect the music and movie industry, it affects anyone who creates original content and earns their income and livelihood from it, like photographers and authors, artists and bloggers.  Piracy directly affects me.  SOPA truly will protect and assist independent creators and innovators in important ways – this is not political smoke.  Most of the claims that the anti-SOPA critics are making about censorship, the threat to a free and open Internet, and the potential for abuse are unfounded, grossly misleading, and have no basis in the actual legislation.  And many of the most common claims that are being repeated across the Net are simply false.  But more on that later.

When one steps back and views the bigger picture, there is also a tremendous amount at stake when it comes to media companies who produce and fund the content vs. Internet companies who wish to take the content and deliver it all for free (and make money for themselves in the process).  One important issue is that when someone who creates quality, original content can no longer be  compensated or make a living at it, there is no longer an incentive to create quality original content.  This article talks about a fascinating book called Free Ride – How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back by Robert Levine, which addresses this larger issue.

As both a photographer and an e-book author, I have been, and continue to be, dramatically and negatively affected by Internet piracy in several different ways – the same type of piracy that SOPA aims to bring accountability to.  Over the past couple months, I have spent many, many hours stumbling across, searching for, sending copyright infringement DMCA notices to, and monitoring websites that have stolen my photos and e-books and are using them on their sites for their own profit.  I rely on the infringing sites to comply once they are notified, but I must verify this myself and contact their ISP if they do not comply.  I am forced to police the content of sites that belong to, are run by, and which create income for somebody else.  I, an independent author and photographer, am responsible for policing the entire Internet against those who violate my rights.  That costs a lot of time, effort, and money.  When I am forced to spend my time doing that, I am no longer pursuing my income-generating job, and that job and income could collapse as a result.  I am thrilled that Congress is attempting to do something about this by cutting off access and sources of funding to illegal foreign sites doing business in the US and bringing the same accountability to them that currently exists, by law, for domestic sites.  And by forcing websites to be responsible – God forbid – for their own content.

Not only is it wrong and illegal for someone else to profit off of your copyright protected work, it can directly impact your own income and livelihood.  For a content creator, SOPA helps your bottom line when everyone is held accountable to the law and the law is enforced.  For a website who profits off of others’ content and/ or the advertising revenue it brings them, SOPA hurts their bottom line when they are held accountable to current laws, already in place.

Regarding e-books, while some claim that those who illegally download a book were never actually going to buy it, will never read it, and that it actually helps promote sales, I can assure you that in my experience none of that is true.  Piracy directly and immediately impacts sales and income, and threatens to put an end to my livelihood that I very much enjoy and wish to continue.

Regarding photography, I have an unexpected example of how piracy affects me, but it is one that can easily affect any photographer with a website who relies on Google searches to drive traffic.

When the Nikon D5100 dSLR camera came out, I took a quick picture of it sitting on its box, and posted to my blog and Flickr.

Nikon D5100 kit unbox

This photo began appearing in Google searches, and led people to my blog.  Thousands of people.  It is my most viewed photo on Flick, for better or worse.  When people come to my blog, led there by this photo, I can tell them about my e-books and maybe sell a couple.  I can help them decide which camera to buy, recommend one, and perhaps earn a small affiliate commission for the sale.

But then other websites stole this photo and began to use it on their sites to promote sales and income of their own.  Some even put their own watermark on my image.  Soon, when people did a Google image search for the D5100, they continued to click on my popular photo, except it now led them to someone elses’ site.  My original image, leading to my site, disappeared from Google search results.  My blog traffic and sales were immediately impacted.

On a bit of a side note, I have nothing against Creative Commons and sharing photos for artistic and creative use.  I don’t choose to use it, but others have had great success with it.  But the proper or legal use of Creative Commons has nothing to do with SOPA.  SOPA comes into play when the Creative Commons license is violated.  What happens when someone takes your photo, maybe puts their watermark on it, uses it on their site to create or earn income for themselves, and does not credit you or link to your site?  What happens when your photo, as posted on their site, appears now in Google searches and leads people to these illegal sites and not yours?  This is no longer your photo being used according to the Creative Commons license, and your traffic and income can be immediately and directly affected.  DMCA is already in place to address this, as long as you do the policing and monitoring and rely on the infringing site for compliance, but SOPA will help assist you from having to be the one to spend your time, money, effort, and aggravation to monitor and address this type of infringement on a daily basis.  Monitoring and policing keeps me from creating and writing, what I would rather be doing and what I need to be doing to continue my livelihood and income.

I came across an anti-SOPA site that is filled with many of the completely false claims that are being touted today, and I would like to address them:

“SOPA would hold websites liable for all user-posted content.”
Yes, exactly. Any company is responsible for its “content” (however “content” may translate to the physical world or other types of companies) and for the activities it is facilitating. It is that way in the physical world, and it is no different on the Internet.  In the physical or Internet world, one is not free to engage in or facilitate illegal activity – this is already the law.  But it costs time, energy, and money to monitor one’s own company or site, and websites are currently getting a free ride on this.  SOPA merely enforces the current laws.

“That means sites like Google, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter would be required to monitor everything posted by their users or risk being shut down.”
As these sites are not “foreign websites dedicated to the facilitation of the illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit or pirated goods” they will not be “shut down.”  Yes, that is what SOPA addresses: foreign websites selling pirated goods, not Justin Bieber videos on YouTube.  But yes, they already are responsible for the content on their sites, by law, as they should be.  That is simply copyright law, already in place.  US websites can already be taken down for illegal activity.  SOPA brings the same standards to illegal foreign websites aimed at US customers.  SOPA will hold websites responsible for violating the law rather than making the copyright holder have to find them, request a takedown, then monitor their compliance in perpetuity.

“Passing SOPA would give the U.S. government the power to censor the entire internet”
No, not true in any way shape or form.  The bill has nothing to do with censorship because it addresses only illegal activity – piracy to be exact – and there is no First Amendment right to illegal activity.  The bill includes the same due process protections provided in all civil litigation in federal courts.  And while Google is making a big show of SOPA “censorship” with their black bar today, note that they have never made the same homepage protest against actual, ongoing, real Internet censorship in China and other oppressive countries.  This seems to confirm that it is not “censorship” they are really protesting, but rather that they are irresponsibly abusing their power and reach to promote fear and misinformation of a bill that could affect them in a very different ($) way.

“Stifle innovation, scaring off new startups without the resources to monitor everything posted on their sites.”
No, quite the opposite. Having one’s income and livelihood stolen from them stifles innovation and startups.  Putting loads of time and effort into creating a company and products and then watching as thieves steal these products and profit from them…that stifles innovation or the desire to set out on that innovative course.  If innovative start-ups include websites, actions or activities that break the law, yes, they will be stifled.  That is simply the law that currently applies to any business.  Illegal activity is supposed to be stifled.

“Clamp down on Americans’ free speech rights, subjecting them to criminal prosecution for posting film clips or covers of famous songs on YouTube”
First, if you read the SOPA legislation, you will quickly see that this statement has nothing to do with SOPA.  It can’t even be labeled as a distortion, it is just flat out nonsense (see “foreign websites…sale of pirated good” above).  Second, in terms of other already existing laws, there is no First Amendment right to theft and illegal activity, period. Copyright infringement is already part of the law now, and is already enforced by courts – SOPA doesn’t change this in any way.  Infringing someone’s copyright, an illegal activity, is not covered by free speech rights.  Never was.

“Fail in its goal to stop copyright violations online—the bill does not cut off pirates’ access to resources, so they will be able to continue business as usual.”
No, that is not its goal.  That is addressed by DMCA and copyright laws already in place. SOPA’s goal is to prevent these sites from profiting off of others’ content and creations, and it will do exactly that.  Pirates can not continue business as usual if they cannot reach potential customers and if their sources of funding are cut off.  First they will be notified, then they will be afforded due process, and if they don’t comply with the law and are ruled to be illegal, their sites will be blocked from access by users in the US or US advertisers, banks, or credit card processors will be forbidden to finance their illegal activity.

“SOPA breaks the Internet.”
Critics claim that SOPA will “break the Internet” and its protocols because it would result in not everyone seeing the exact same page when they type in an address.  When a site is legally blocked by SOPA, someone in a non-US country will still be able to access the infringing site, but no one in the US will.  This exact blocking or redirecting already occurs with the most egregious of illegal websites, though few realize this or wish to come to their defense.  A similar blocking or redirection also happens when a computer and/ or web browser contains anti-virus or “cyber nanny” type software and one tries to access a known or suspected bad or “mature” site.  A computer without the software can access the potentially damaging site, while one with the software displays a warning and cannot access the site.  This has been occurring for 18 years or so and has never before been described as a “broken Internet” as far as I know.  So the next time you are at work and are blocked or redirected when you type in “slutty-teens.com” please be sure to call for an Internet Blackout to let everyone know that the Internet is “broken” and that your request is not being resolved to the same IP address as when you use it at home.

There are many other arguments that support SOPA and refute the claims that anti-SOPA critics are making.  For example, this article explains how SOPA is not censorship, and how it adds nothing in that arena that is not already in place and already being used by the courts to battle illegal activity:

Realize that the huge sites that are against SOPA are those that will have their bottom line affected.  Not only are they sites that use the content of others for their own income and profit, but with SOPA it will cost them time, effort, and money to comply with laws already in place.  It will affect the advertising income some sites gain from the abundance and popularity of illegal websites driven by pirated content.  While these sites today are using fear and misinformation of the baseless threat of censorship and the threat to a free and open Internet, consider what their real concerns are.  As with any company, including myself, their concerns are their bottom line.  SOPA helps my bottom line when everyone is held accountable to the law, and it hurts their bottom line when they are held accountable to the law and must devote resources to complying with existing law.  A free and open society does not condone, support, and promote illegal activity, and neither should a free and open Internet.

a few hours later…

The anti-SOPA arguments keep coming in today, and I still don’t buy them.  If you have illegal content on your site, you are legally responsible for it. That is already the law. SOPA provides a means to enforce the law, rather than all these sites now getting a free ride for law-flaunting. I find that a good thing. Just because YouTube is YouTube and Facebook reaches millions doesn’t mean they don’t have to abide by the law – even though this is a separate issue because SOPA actually legally addresses foreign websites not domestic sites, holding them to the same takedown standards that are already, currently in place for domestic websites.  But there are compliance issues that will affect domestic sites, so to that I reply:  many companies, large and small, need to dedicate money and manpower to compliance so that they abide by the law, and they are held accountable when they don’t. Businesses and companies do this on a daily basis because it is their legal responsibility.  Why should Internet companies be exempt?

Why does everyone want to hold Internet companies to standards, compliance, and enforcement that are more lax than those of every other business or company?  Is there a lesser degree of what constitutes a violation of the law on the Internet?

The piracy issue needs to be addressed.  SOPA / PIPA are the current proposals designed to address it.  They are still being shaped and modified, and I hope all involved can write them into an agreeable form that is acceptable to me and to most others.  I support their work through this process and I hope to support the final result.  If you haven’t even attempted to read the text of the bill and are relying on hype and hearsay for your information, I encourage you to actually read the bill and see what is in it…and what isn’t.


Becoming a Humanitarian Photograper – After the Self-Assignment

I wrote a popular previous post about How to Start Out as a Humanitarian Photographer. It discusses one of the important initial steps of this endeavor: the Self-Assignment. The self-assignment – a volunteer trip to work with and photograph an NGO or non-profit – should help you determine if humanitarian or travel photography is something you really wish to pursue. And if so, it helps you to gain experience working in the field, collaborating with NGOs, and preparing for future assignments. Once you’ve completed and returned from that trip, there is much more to be done!


Editing: Your first task is to select the best images out of the hundreds or thousands of digital images you took, and then to edit and optimize those images. If you are not already adept at working with Photoshop and/ or Lightroom you need to learn the programs and begin to gain proficiency. There are numerous books for this, so try to find the ones that work best with your learning style. Some of the ones I’ve found most helpful are the books by Scott Kelby and by Chris Orwig:

The Adobe Photoshop CS5 Book for Digital Photographers by Scott Kelby

The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 Book for Digital Photographers by Scott Kelby

Adobe Photoshop CS4 How-Tos: 100 Essential Techniques by Chris Orwig

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2 How-Tos: 100 Essential Techniques by Chris Orwig

These and other helpful photography related books can be found in my post on Essential Digital Photography Books. Don’t worry about learning every feature of the programs but concentrate on the basic color, contrast, and sharpening features, as well as layers and adjustment layers. As you gain proficiency, move into masking, retouching, advanced sharpening and black and white conversions. Develop good editing, metadata, storage, and workflow habits from the start because it becomes hard to undo bad habits later on. Begin to learn how to use actions and batch processing to more quickly process numerous images.

Contests: When you’ve finished selecting and editing your best images, begin to enter them in contests. The reason for entering contests is not to gain sudden fame, riches, and an instant professional career. Few, if any contest will lead to this, no matter what they promise. Instead, the purpose of contests is to start to develop credentials. Being selected as a finalist or winner of a photo contest will enable you to add that accomplishment to your CV, and winning will allow you to add that coveted phrase in front of your name: “Award winning photographer.” Many contests lure you with the promise of exposure to those in the photo industry or the greater public, but in reality there is very little chance that this will lead anywhere, even if you win. Photographers who are regularly published in magazines and whose name is often in front of industry insiders still struggle to obtain their next gig, so don’t expect your single photo to bring you much. Also, participating in contests will help you to see what others think of your photos. Of course you think they are great, and your friends and family rave over them, but what about others out there? It also helps to see your photos side by side with countless others to see if your images truly stand out among the masses. However, it comes back to you to be the best judge of this. The images that are chosen will often confuse and annoy you and the other entrants, and it is often difficult to understand why the judges chose particular images. It helps somewhat to look at the winners of the previous years to see what types of images catch the judges’ eyes, but it is impossible to second-guess what they are looking for year to year. Stick to entering the images you like best, but detach yourself emotionally from your photos’ subjects and the experience of taking them, and view them as an impartial observer. If contests ask for captions, descriptions or short essays to go with the photos, take time to carefully write them. Look into guidelines and recommendations for writing newspaper captions, and please, avoid saying amateurish phrases like, “I took this photo while standing…”


There are a few contests (and grants) that cater to humanitarian photography, such as those run by Photoshare, Focus for Humanity, and PhotoPhilanthropy. There are countless other photography contests so search on the Internet to find some current ones. Many of your photos will likely fit well in travel photography contests or the travel category of a contest. Also be sure to look at other categories that might apply such as people or portraits. It is best to stick to the well know, reputable contests, like those run by National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, airline magazines, travel magazines like Conde Nast Traveler, travel guidebooks like Rough Guides and Viva Travel Guides, travel websites like Peterman’s Eye, contest sites like Travel Photographer of the Year, and newspapers. Be wary of contests that charge entry fees. You can quickly spend a lot of money entering multiple photos to multiple contests in the hope of gaining notoriety. But remember that the likelihood of you winning the grand prize is small, no matter how amazing your images are, and even if you did win, it will not lead to sudden fame and an instant professional career. While some of the contests you have to pay for are well respected and legitimate, such at the International Photography Awards, and it may be worth it to enter a couple, keep in mind that the most you can expect is to be able to use this credential in your bio and descriptions. Also note that some of the prestigious contests with entry fees attract professional and commercial photographers or very highly talented amateurs, and the quality of the entries exceptional. Determine if it is worth your time and money to enter, or better to wait a few years until your skills and images improve. But also remember that, despite thousands of entrants, it is possible to win photo contests. I’ve been recognized in several contests, have won a dSLR, and had my photo selected for a travel guidebook cover.

Be sure to carefully read the fine print of a contest’s rules and guidelines, especially to determine if you are signing away the rights to your photos. Contests are often tools for a company to gather a large pool of free photos to use in their books or website, and you may be surrendering lifetime, or even exclusive rights to them just by entering. You never want to surrender your copyright or give them exclusive rights and just give away your photos for free for them to use however they wish. Recent examples of this which greatly upset many photographers including well respected professionals were a National Trust contest in the UK and a Frommer’s cover contest. If you are still determined to enter and feel that the potential benefit outweighs the cost, consider entering a photo that is similar to your best photo, but not the exact same one that you may wish to use, exhibit, and sell later.

Grants and Fellowships: In addition to contests, you should also consider applying for grants and fellowships. There are very few of these, but if you were to win, they would allow you to travel and pursue an in-depth project. I’m sure you’ve begun to think about personal projects and places you would like to travel to and photograph, so turn your idea into a compelling story. Most grant and fellowship applications require both a sample photo essay or story and an essay or proposal. Hopefully on your self-assignment you documented your project in a manner that tells a story of a place, organization, or person. If not, careful editing and captions might create a good photo essay. Some grants or fellowships require a project already in process, so keep this in mind as your travel and work. Writing the proposal is very time consuming and takes a lot of careful thought, so start working on yours well in advance of the deadline, and follow their requirements precisely.

Many of the contests, grants, and fellowships occur annually, so be sure to add them to your calendar, giving yourself a few weeks to prepare for each of them. Some online sites which list many of them are:



Website: This is pretty self-explanatory – build a website to share your work with others. There are countless sites which are designed to host photo portfolio websites, such a PhotoShelter and Fluid Galleries, or templates you can incorporate into your own website. Try to strike the best balance you can between do-it-yourself, cost, functionality, and professionalism. Domains and hosting are very cheap through places like GoDaddy, but portfolio templates and hosting can start to add up to hundreds of dollars a year. Try to keep the costs to a minimum until you start making money from your photography. Just make sure your site looks clean and professional, functions quickly and intuitively, and that your images are large and easy to navigate. Here is a list that can get you started.

Exhibitions: Print and frame your photographs and exhibit them so that you can share them with a wider audience. Look for unique opportunities of places and events that might be eager to incorporate your photos, such as travel agency offices, local festivals, performances, and movie screenings that relate to the culture or country where your images are from, local stores, and restaurants (although I am wary of this last one as I would prefer to sell my images to them and am afraid of damages to the prints from exposure to constant cooking air).

Read: Continue to read and learn about the humanitarian issues and the countries that most interest you. A good place to start is any of the books listed in the Humanitarian Books section of the Amazon.com site I put together. Get them from your library, or purchase them through that site and help support my work! This post also has information about books, and this post talks about other resources for learning about humanitarian issues.

The next step in the process is to learn the business aspects of becoming a professional photographer. I’ll save that lesson for another time!

For related posts, be sure to check out the other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category.

Books for Humanitarians (and Humanitarian Photographers)

I’ve been intending to write a post about Nicholas Kristof’s wonderful book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, and how it should be required reading for humanitarian photographers. I haven’t gotten around to that yet…but I have set up an Amazon collection of required reading for humanitarians – please take a look at the Humanitarian Books section of the store I’ve set up with Amazon.com for quick and easy links to these books.  (Purchasing from Amazon.com through that site helps to support my work!)

Half the Sky cover

Working as a Humanitarian Photographer – Ethics and Images

(For related posts, check out other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category.)

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), “a professional society that promotes the highest standards in visual journalism,” has a code of ethics that all members are required to endorse. Whether or not you are a member, I think that they are excellent guidelines for any photographer working in the field, documenting people and humanitarian situations.

Campo Nuevo, Jalapa, Guatemala

While they appear to be common sense principles, they need to be listed and occasionally reviewed because they are sometimes challenging. For example, the first one is “Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.” As anyone using high-speed continuous shooting mode knows, a facial expression can change in a split second, and the difference in the resulting images can be dramatic. They may tell completely different stories or give opposing impressions of the subject. There are many other examples of how composition, point of view, and time can change the perceived reality of an image. Which representation is most accurate? The photographer must act as an editor and decide based on all they know about the subject and the situation.

San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala

The third one is equaling challenging. It reads, in part, “Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.” Of course a humanitarian photographer in the field doesn’t want to turn the subject into a stereotype, but in many ways they are working against a lifetime of education and image viewing. As I discussed in my previous “Exotic vs. Real” post, those in the developed world grow up learning to see the developing world and its people as exotic and colorful, but this is often far from the reality. A photographer cannot simply decide to portray a subject without bias and preconceived ideas, but he or she must dedicate themself to learning as much as they can about the subject, their life, culture, and situation. Cultural biases are so deeply embedded one often does not even realize they are there and simply assumes all other humans think and feel the same way. For example, in a classroom when a student gives the wrong answer, a teacher often asks another student to correct them and give the right answer. In certain cultures this action is deeply offensive and insulting, and would never be done by a teacher. It is impossible to know and understand how those in another culture think – expats living a foreign country for years will verify this. But one must make the effort to learn as much as they can about the cultures they work in, and to recognize the multitude of biases they carry with them.

San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala

The third standard also says “Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects.” In addition to the numerous layers of meaning and importance this has as an ethical guideline, this is also an excellent compositional guideline. Show the context of the subject and the environment around them. This is why photojournalists often work with a wide angle lens such as a 16-35mm. By doing this, the photograph gives a more complete story of the subject, and it often makes for a more interesting composition.

San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala

The fourth guideline has been a subject of discussion in the media in response to the images being shown from the earthquake in Haiti. “Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.” Images of dead and unclothed bodies have been prominently shown in newspapers and websites, and have offended some viewers. The Public Editor of the New York Times gave an excellent response and defense to this controversy in this article. One of his responses, which I have often read from other photographers and have experienced myself, is that the subjects very often want the photos to be taken and to be seen. They want their story told, and they themselves have no method or channels for effectively telling their important story.

As far as treating subjects with respect and dignity, nearly all humanitarian photographers, including myself, speak these words in some form on their website. But what do they really mean, in the field? For me it means treating the subject with respect and dignity both in the interactions with them, and in the representations of them in the images. As I’ve written about before, it starts with not entering into a situation with the camera to your face, immediately snapping shots. The photographer should first introduce themself, talk with the subject, or communicate as best a possible. They should explain what they are doing and why. And even before that, as mentioned above, it means educating oneself in advance about the people and culture. It means trying to understand the situation from the subject’s point of view, and then striving to capture that visually. There are an infinite number of visual realities that can be taken of a subject and a situation, but it means capturing and presenting the one that both tells the story and celebrates the subject.

Campo Nuevo, Jalapa, Guatemala

The final NPPA ethical guideline that I will address here is the fifth one, “While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.” There is a difference between photojournalism for the media and humanitarian photography for a client. A humanitarian photographer may be posing a subject in order to get a portrait or to show a certain component of a project. But that does not mean the humanitarian photographer cannot follow this guideline as well. I believe that in many situations, an unaltered, uninfluenced shot will make a more natural, and thus much stronger image. In my work I have found that it is often easy to disappear into a situation, and become the fly on the wall. While subjects may initially strut and pose for the camera, or begin to act self-consciously, if you just stay in place, and let a minute or two pass, they will begin to ignore you and forget you are there taking photos.

Open Windows, San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala

I encourage you to have a look at the other guidelines I have not discussed here and think about how they apply to your work. Please leave a comment, ask a question. Let me know what has been helpful, and what you’d like to read more about.

For related posts, check out other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category.

How to Start Out as a Humanitarian Photographer: The Self-Assignment

(For related posts, check out other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category which includes post such as choosing your camera and lenses, as well as the follow up to this post, After the Self-Assignment.)

How to Become a Humanitarian Photographer

As with many other photography specialties, there is no set course to becoming a humanitarian photographer. You must make your own path by determining your goals, piecing together the advice and experiences of others, and following your intuition. You can go to school and study photojournalism, you can create your own self-designed curriculum of classes, workshops, and experience, you can intern with an experienced photographer, or you can just strike out into the real world and learn it on your own. Starting out as a humanitarian photographer, or any type of photographer for that matter, involves learning about so many diverse areas beyond the art of making images and the skills of using a camera, a flash, and Photoshop (all of which are full time undertakings in themselves). There is also much to learn about business, copyright, marketing, branding, finances, insurance, client relations…the list goes on and on. But I’d like to go into detail about one important and practical aspect of starting out: the self-assignment.

San Francisco, Peru

In order to discover if travel or humanitarian photography is what you really want to dedicate yourself to, it is vital to get out there and really try it out. Travel to a foreign country, get out in the field, and spend days working at it, as if you were on a real assignment. One can think about it from the comfort of home, drooling over the beautiful photos of those you admire, and imagining the excitement of traveling in exotic places. But you may find that working in the field, spending weeks away from friends, family and soft toilet paper, and suffering days of intestinal distress is not all you hoped for. As any working photographer will tell you, it’s hard. Immensely gratifying and often fun, but none the less hard. I encourage anyone not to invest too much time, thought, and money into this dream until they have undertaken this important test.

Planning and executing a self assignment is challenging, but entirely do-able and realistic for anyone who is dedicated to the idea. Even if you have a full time job and aren’t making that much money, it can be done. Don’t quit your job yet to dive head first into self-employment, but use your vacation time to test the waters.

Cusco, Peru

Money: The first challenge is always money. You have to save up money for the gear, for the time away from work, and for the trip. This is done the old-fashioned way – by scrimping and saving. You’ve read it many times before, and it sometimes seems unrealistic, but it works. Save money anywhere you can – stop eating out, bring your lunch to work, cancel cable, cancel Netflix, get your books and movies from the library, stop buying stuff, use the right ATM and stop paying fees, scour the Internet for the best price on the gear you need. It may take longer than you want, it may even take a year or two, but it works. Remember, each restaurant meal you skip here equals three equivalent restaurant meals in a developing country – or better yet, it equals a week’s worth of groceries when you travel. The recession has already given everyone a head-start into living and thinking more economically, you just have to be dedicated to it a bit more and a lot longer. Also, once you begin traveling to developing countries and seeing how people find great joy in life yet live with so few possessions, your new economic lifestyle will seem that much more appropriate. I’m not just saying all these things because I’ve read them or because they sound like they will work. I’ve done them, all. Also look to Ami Vitale for inspiration. She worked long and hard and saved, then headed off and launched her career exactly this way (see the How You Finance Your Stories video at the bottom of this page: http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0301/av_intro.html). Look into counties that aren’t very expensive to fly to. For someone in the USA, that means look to South and Central America. Depending on the time of year, there are incredibly cheap deals. For example, I recently saw $84 tickets to Guatemala on a major airline. Yes, $84 each way! That’s cheaper than flying home for Christmas. Granted, it is a redeye with a long layover, but it gets you there. Be flexible and use Kayak.com to find the best prices.

Taquile Island on Lake Titicaca, Peru

Gear: You might not yet be able to afford the latest and greatest professional gear. In fact, until you are sure you really want to do this, you probably don’t want to invest in a 5D Mark III and 2 or 3 L-series lenses. Every photo forum you follow, pixel peeper you talk to, and gear review you read is going to convince you that you need the most current, top of the line gear. But you don’t. I do recommend using a dSLR and not just a point and shoot, so something like a Canon Rebel T5i / 700D and a versatile zoom lens like the Canon 18-200mm (or the Nikon equivalent) offers more than enough quality and range to start off with if you can’t afford more. On my first self-assignment all I had was an outdated, 8 megapixel Rebel XT and a single, 28-105mm lens. It didn’t prevent me from getting the shots I wanted, they’ve been exhibited, won awards, been honored by the United Nations, been used on travel guide and textbook covers, and no one has ever told me that the quality of the photos is unacceptable. (And remember that no one, outside the photo world, will ever even think to ask you what camera you used or which lens you chose.) Sometimes, with that early gear, I wasn’t able to zoom as much as I wanted for travel shots, or get wide enough for the close-ups of humanitarian work, so that is why the 18-200mm or 18-135mm (which weren’t available until more recently) would be a pretty ideal single lens solution now. (The secret fact is, I even have a couple great photos in my portfolio, a photo on a travel guidebook cover, and won a dSLR camera using an Olympus SP-320, 7 megapixel point and shoot.) Don’t go overboard with bags and accessories. Get a simple holster bag, like an M-Rock Yellowstone or whichever one fits your body and lens, or a LowePro or Tamrac bag or backpack, a couple filters (UV and polarizing), a lens pen and cloth, a rocket blower, extra batteries and memory cards, and then stop looking. You don’t need anything else. I promise. (Well, also your laptop computer, external hard drive, and some type of insurance coverage for it all. And maybe a Pac Safe 55 to secure it. And perhaps an external flash if you will be working inside. Hey, no one said this was cheap!) For insurance, look into your home-owner’s or renter’s insurance to see if it will cover it, or look at NANPA’s coverage or the discussion here. (If you happen to join NANPA to get their insurance, be sure to mention my name as a referrer, and I get $20 NANPA Bucks and save on my next renewal!) To sum it up, as culture photographer Craig Ferguson stated in a recent interview, “You don’t need to have the most expensive gear or even the newest. A plane ticket and enough money for 3 months living coupled with an entry level body and a 50mm lens will get you further than the latest pro-level body and no time or money to use it.” I discuss additional photography gear and accessories that are useful for working in the field in this post.

Altos de los Mores, Peru

Researching the NGO: Figure out what type of NGO (non-governmental organization) or non-profit organization you’d like to photograph, and which countries interest you, and start doing research. Which subjects most inspire your passion for this work? Disabled children, gender equality, health, faith-based work, community development? In every developing country there are countless NGOs doing each of these types of work and more. As a professional, you might not be able to be this specific in your choices, so take advantage of your self-assignment. Do searches on the Internet, and look on idealist.org. It is hard to imagine that any small, typically struggling organization does not want free, semi-professional quality photos for their website and newsletters, so most all will be welcoming to your offer to volunteer. But it is very important that you are quite clear that your interest and intent is to photograph their work. If you sign up to be a general volunteer, you will be expected and obligated to be doing whatever work they ask of you. Do not think you can be a volunteer and also take photos on the side. You will not do a good job of either that way. Be perfectly clear with them that you are interested in primarily photographing the work they do. That doesn’t mean you can’t spend a few days as a volunteer, and by all means you should (see below), but they should not be expecting you to be a typical volunteer.

Altos de los Mores, Peru

Ask questions and find out as much as you can about the actual work they do. Don’t just trust what you read on their website, but find out exactly what they do and where they work. They may say they work in 4 different communities, but really they might only visit 3 of them once a year for a medical visit or to bring donations. They might say they have a number of different programs, but really they may only be currently focusing on one of them based on financial reasons or staff and volunteers skills. Make sure that your area of interest is really what they are doing now. Explain to them your interests, and see if meeting your goals will be possible with them. NGOs are often run by incredibly generous, helpful, kind, friendly, flexible people, and they will want to help you at your project. But they are also incredibly busy and strapped for resources, so learn to communicate and work with them on their terms. Many organizations require that you pay to be a volunteer. This may sound strange, but you have to understand that they need money in order to keep doing the work they do. Just the fact that you are working for free does not pay the salary for the NGO’s staff. But be wary, there are many placement services that make money by being a middle-man, so make arrangements directly with the NGO. If your volunteer fee includes lodging, or even food, it is often quite reasonable to pay them. However, there are also many excellent organizations which will not charge you anything. If this is the case, be sure and support them by bringing donations (books, toys, art supplies). See my Resources Page for more information on volunteering. Some organizations run restaurants and hostels, so support them by eating and staying with them. Also, if you are thinking of joining a mission type trip, like a medical mission, find one that is being organized from your area so that you can document the planning and the departure of the group at the airport.

**Update 2010-01-28** Here is a website I just discovered which attempts to link up volunteer photographers with humanitarian projects world-wide: http://photophilanthropy.org/

Cusco, Peru

Working in the Field: It seems every photographer I admire always discusses the importance of talking to and getting to know the people you are photographing. Sometimes that means just chatting with them and buying some of their wares before you start to photograph them, other times that means living among them for several days, weeks, or months. As a photographer working with an NGO, this means you should consider being a volunteer for a day, without your camera, without photographing. Yes, that is a painful experience, to see potentially great shots slip by left and right. But this sacrifice will quickly pay off when you start to work. This gives you an opportunity to learn what the organization does and how they work. It also allows you to start to get to know the people they serve, and for them to become comfortable around you. It is obvious that this approach, rather than barging in with your face behind a camera, is going to result in much more genuine photos. Also, stay out of the way of the director and the staff when they are working. Make your arrangements and ask questions before or after the workday. Be flexible to ever-changing, never scheduled situations, but also, always remind the director of what you want to be doing. She might go running off to visit one of the client’s homes or villages, and you want her to know to always grab you and take you along on those types of trips. Take advantage of your time there to do, see, and photograph as many different types of places and situations as you can. Talk to everyone you meet – other volunteers, people at restaurants and hotels. Many other people are doing volunteer work, and they may point you in the direction of a great photographic situation.

Huinchiri, Peru

Develop, learn, and practice a good workflow for saving and backing up your images every day. It is time consuming and easy to want to put off, but if you get behind there will be no catching up. I recommend using David duChemin’s global workflow as a starting point (alternate link here). Always have your camera with you, even if you think you are just being taken to the bakery for some bread and are told you’ll be back in 5 minutes. You will inevitably be taken on a two hour detour through a part of town off the beaten path, with amazing photo opportunities, during the magic hour (best evening light). Always carefully prepare and assemble your gear before you start each day, and have new batteries and memory cards accessible while you shoot. I highly recommend you always remember to “make haste slowly.” What this means is that you will often be in a hurry, but don’t rush and act in a panic during critical moments, in preparation or in shooting. Change lenses carefully and slowly, then rush back to the action. Clean the mysterious glob off your lens carefully and delicately, then get back to shooting. There are countless opportunities to damage your gear, and while it is durable, somewhat waterproof, and stray marks and dings on your tools are not something to fret over, a dropped or scratched lens is. After this, well, I don’t know what to tell you – you’re going to learn a lot. You are going to learn your camera and its settings inside and out, you are going to learn to work under pressure, always being ready, always trying to capture the fleeting shot and changing light. You are going to start to learn what works and what doesn’t as far as compositions, camera settings, perspectives, etc. You are going to begin to learn about life in a developing country. And you are going to very quickly learn if this work is truly your passion and your calling.

Please leave a comment, ask a question. Let me know what has been helpful, and what you’d like to read more about. Let me know if you have planned or undertaken a self-assignment on your way to becoming a humanitarian photographer, and how you are addressing the challenges of this endeavor.

See my follow-up post, Becoming a Humanitarian Photographer-After the Self-Assignment for the next stage of the process.

For related posts, check out other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category.