The Visual Advocate Blog


Interview with Humanitarian Photographer Gary Chapman

I can’t believe it has already been a week since I posted the interview of Mario Mattei, how time flies when you are having fun!

Anyway, I heard from many of you that were either encouraged by what Mario had to say and/or you were totally surprised that something like The International Guild of Visual Peacemakers even existed. It does! And there are so many other great folks and organizations out there like The IGVP. So if you are a visual peacemaker out there in cyberspace reading this leave some comments so we can be encouraged!

Today’s interview is with a great photographer and visual peacemaker named Gary Chapman. As is so often true in our age of social networking, Gary and I have never met but we been dialoguing a bit over Facebook and email. I am a great fan of his work and the ethos behind what he does so I am excited to interview him.

Gary is a working humanitarian photographer with a very photo-journalistic style that makes him great at helping Non-profits, NGO’s and Corporations communicate their vision through powerful and moving visual stories. I hope you enjoy the interview!

Also, while there are ton of great interviews of Gary, I did want to draw your attention to Matt Brandon’s Depth of Field podcast interview with Gary, it is a great one where you can hear Gary expound more on his passions and his work.

When and how did you get your start in photography?

I was working as a soda jerk (a guy that mixes sodas and ice-cream at a drugstore) as a teenager in the early 70’s to help pay for my film and processing. A studio photographer came in for his daily limeade and wanted to look at my shots. He then hired me to be his apprentice, which meant I swept floors, worked on client orders and eventually even shot some. From there it was on to college to study photojournalism and then a career working for newspapers and freelance stock photography.

When and how did you first become involved in using your photography to advocate on behalf of humanitarian issues, peoples and cultures?

White working for newspapers, most of our vacations were spent overseas taking photos for various Christian aid and mission groups. I am responding to your questions from the paradigm of a Christian worldview. Our purpose that drives our passion is 1-There is a God, 2-He loves us, 3-He wants us to love others. And what is true love?… that we lay down our lives for others.

In 1993 we went into business for ourselves shooting commercial stock. The benefit of this move was that it allowed us to spend more time working for aid groups. We went one step further after I covered both Katrina and the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005. Both of these events convinced me to put our full effort behind NGO photography.

What are the humanitarian issues you are most passionate about, photographically speaking and why?

I am most passionate about covering issues that involve children, persecuted Christian minorities and disaster situations. Why? I have to believe these are God-given desires. Others are interested in environmental issues, sex-trafficking etc. I go after what has been placed in my heart.

How have you seen your visual advocacy bring real change to the peoples or issues you are passionate about capturing photographically?

Quantitative measurement of the value of this type of photography is difficult to find. However, one by one I see results.  I see a Pakistani girl in a school my photos support. I see an orphan carrying home a new pair of shoes and a winter coat. I see children eating a full plate of rice, meat and fruit. I don’t look at the big picture as much as I look at a single individual helped.

What are some future humanitarian photography projects you are excited about and why?

I hope to return to Pakistan and work on a story about a school where Muslims and Christians are peacefully studying side by side.

What is the most challenging part of using your photography to tell visual stories about humanitarian issues around the world?

The most challenging aspect of this type of photography is finding ways to fund projects. We need to do a better job of educating the NGO staffs of the need for clear and meaningful photojournalistic images.

In your opinion what are the most important skills and equipment one needs to be effective in advocating on behalf of peoples and cultures?

The most important thing to possess as a photographer is a genuine love and concern for the people you are photographing. People can sense whether you are really trying to help them or if you are more concerned about winning a photo contest.

What is that drives you personally to use photography to advocate on behalf of others?

Here is a verse from the Bible that I think everyone can get behind whether you are a Christian or not: “Defend the poor and fatherless. Do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy and free them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:3-4). Once you see the need there is no choice of doing nothing. I may not be able to help thousands since I am not a doctor or humanitarian logistician. But I can help the ONE that comes across my path.

What advice would you give to others who want to begin to visually advocate on behalf of the peoples and cultures of the world?

Don’t just start doing this because it is cool and you love exotic travel. This is a difficult business. Really look closely at the needs. Love the people and help the people God puts in your life. And once you start down this road, don’t give up. There are a million potholes but the reward of helping others is well worth the trouble.


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Its always too early to give up

I didn’t plan on writing a blog post today but I just finished lunch at one of my favorite Middle Eastern restaurants in town and over lunch something happened that got me thinking about photography and visual peacemaking.

I was supposed to meet Jordan at my office but as I was thinking about our meeting it donned on me that we could have lunch at one of my favorite Middle Eastern restaurants in town. Now it just so happened that this also happened to be a restaurant where I had approached the manager and asked if I could shoot some images of their food, employees and restaurant for free. I didn’t do this because I am passionate about photographing food and restaurants, I did it because I wanted to use my photography to be a blessing to this new Muslim restaurant.

Even though the manager showed interest in me shooting some images for them, I had never heard back from her. So when I went into today I was hoping that she was still interested. After some time she came and sat with us and we began to talk and she brought the offer I had made earlier to take some pictures for them. It turns out she was still interested and had just been swamped with trying to run the restaurant. So we talked and I am going to go in next week and shoot some images for her.

As I was leaving the restaurant thinking about all of this something hit me. I realized I almost missed an opportunity to be a blessing because I was going to give up too soon. If I had just assumed she was not interested because she had not gotten back to me I might have missed this opportunity to use my photography to be a blessing. I was so thankful I didn’t assume but took the initiative to go in one more time just to see how she was doing and see if she was still interested.

So whether you a photographer and visual peacemaker or you are passionate about something else, just remember it is always too early to give up. You may have to initiate a lot before something happens but we can’t grow weary in our pursuit of doing good, we have to keep on keeping on. Happy visual peacemaking!

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Interview with Mario Mattei, President of IGVP

As I said yesterday I am going to be posting different interviews with photographers who are working as visual peacemakers.

Mario Mattei, Co-Founder, President and Creative Director of The International Guild of Visual Peacemakers

Today’s interview is with my friend Mario Mattei, who is the Co-Founder, President and Creative Director of The International Guild of Visual Peacemakers. I am member of the IGVP and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to interview Mario.

I also wanted to let you know that Matt Brandon’s interview with Mario Mattei and Logan McAdams is a great one as well. Click here to listen to that interview.

When and how did you get your start in photography?

It was in 1998, my senior year in high school, when I was taking a Photo 1-2 class. I quickly dropped study hall and enrolled in Photo 3-4 simultaneously. My dad tossed me his old Minolta X700, some lenses, a strobe, and a tattered Domke bag. I spent hours in the darkroom after school and graduated with a Letter in visual arts.

Over the years, photography became an on-and-off way to express my creativity. About 2 1/2 years ago I realized just how fitting it was for me and things started to take off for me in Arizona. I moved to Turkey shortly after to pursue my dreams. I now enjoy cultural photography and visual peacemaking on a weekly or monthly basis.

When and how did you first become involved in using your photography to advocate on behalf of humanitarian issues, peoples and cultures?

My first advocacy project happened in my home state, Arizona. In 2008, we were caught in a ravaging flood while camping inside the Grand Canyon, and then helicopter-rescued out. Shortly afterwards, I put on a fund-raising exhibition at Arizona State University with the help of a vice provost to support the Havasupai Native American tribe. Their livelihood was negatively affected by the devastation.

I sold prints of the muddy waterfalls, the wreckage, and of the previously pristine Havasu Falls. CNN interviewed us on our way home, and later a local Arizona news station interviewed me live on their morning edition. There was some good momentum going. The concept for visual peacemaking had already birthed in my mind, but this first advocacy project really fired me up. It was the first time I saw my images making a positive difference.

What are the humanitarian issues you are most passionate about, photographically speaking and why?

Photographically speaking, the issue closest to my heart is breaking down false stereotypes about Muslims. I’ve lived in Kashmir, India and now Turkey. I have a good handful of Muslim friends from these countries as well as in the US. So with all the media covering shocking news stories from around the world, I’m eager to tell alternative stories that bring a balance to what the world is visually digesting. My experience with Muslims is fantastic 99% of the time! Their hospitality isn’t a myth; it’s a positive stereotype that’s often true.

Anytime I’m exposed to racism or sweeping generalizations about any group, I get pretty worked up inside. My justice-fire ignites and I just want to do something about it. As a photographer this has brought me to visual peacemaking.

Why? Honestly before 2002 I cared very little about this or most justice issues. I was aggressively pursuing the American Dream and partying, more worried about promoting my band. Then in 2002 God changed my life dramatically. It’s hard to explain… but I’ll try to with a story. Jesus healed a blind man. This angered religious authorities. They interrogated the blind man. He answered the same over and over and in his exasperation said, “Look! I was blind, but now I see. That’s all I know!”

How have you seen your visual advocacy bring real change to the peoples or issues you are passionate about capturing photographically?

In several ways, but I’m hungry to see a lot more over the years. I recently published two photography books about Turkey that focus on our Shared Humanity. As I’m currently traveling the US, I’m showing these books to friends and colleagues. It’s a joy to watch them smile as they flip through the pages & to answer their honest questions. The images provide a space for them to open up to fresh perspectives about Turkey and Muslims in general.

Being on the frontlines of communication with the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers (IGVP) I have the privilege of receiving “love mail,” which is the opposite of hate mail. So while there’s a lot of positive, encouraging chatter on the site itself, I get special emails from photographers and viewers who are moved by the goal to display the beauty and dignity of cultures around the world. Everyone seems to see the huge need for images that ease fears, challenge our mistrust, and break down negative stereotypes.

What are some future humanitarian photography projects you are excited about and why?

I’ve been invited to Saudi Arabia to document the everyday life of a Wahhabi Muslim family. The logistics are being worked out, so it may or may not happen. But I’m praying it does. Osama Bin Laden has brought much negativity and shame to the Wahhabi. Seems obvious to say, but not all Wahhabi are Bin Ladens!

I’m genuinely excited to see the work of the photographers who will attend our two IGVP photo workshops in Turkey this May 2011–one to the Black Sea northeast region, Trabzon, and one to the Syria-bordering Şanlı Urfa (shawn-luh oorfa) . Guild members Matt Brandon & Matt Powell are two humanitarian photographers who have influenced me and who I deeply respect. They will lead the tour and include visual peacemaking values into the workshops. I love Turkish people. So I’m excited to see what happens when Turks and these visual peacemakers collide into a multitude of photographer-subject exchanges. And by the way, these tours are priced to sell!

What is it that drives you personally to use photography to advocate on behalf of others?

I believe God’s design for humanity is perfect, that He can and is healing us, and will restore all things. In the final two chapters of the Bible there is a picture of “the end”, which is really a new era: it’s all ethnicities and nations bringing their best into a new creation. They’re celebrating God and each others diversity–no more injustice, no more brokeness, simply perfect unity amidst diversity. I want my personal and professional life to be a signpost that points toward that total beauty and wholeness by practically living to that end–without having unrealistic expectations that I, or anyone can do this 100% of the time. Nor do I believe we can accomplish total wholeness without the final help from the Creator Himself. I’m motivated to get involved with him now on this project of realizing total beauty, peace, reconciliation, redemption and restoration.

What advice would you give to others who want to begin to visually advocate on behalf of the peoples and cultures of the world?

Check your heart. Are you motivated by your portfolio or by meaningful interactions with people and making images for their good as much as for your own good. Think about your portfolio and business while behind the computer at the proper time. These are very important. But once out shooting, forget about it. Focus on the people, the story, the advocacy issue, possibly your client’s needs if on assignment; think about the message you and the photographic subjects want and need to tell!

Secondly, prepare yourself as a person so that you’re the right kind of photographer for the job. Research the people and area. Hang out. Slow down. Ask friendly questions. Read up on working cross-culturally. Hold back judgments for much longer than you would in your own culture—both value judgments and judgments about everyday stuff like cooking, traffic law, parenting, gestures, etc.

Finally, don’t do it alone. Learn from others. Share resources. Teach others. Collaborate. Be open to constructive criticism. Invest in your creative work, meaning time and money. Get mentored, get a portfolio review , attend workshops to refine yourself and network with others. It really is worth it. Practice at home and locally. Evaluate, adjust, rinse repeat.

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Why not host your own “Peace Feast”?

Last thursday evening, I had the privilege of joining about 50 other people for “Peace Feast” hosted by Peace Catalyst International in Phoenix, Arizona. The food, which was awesome, was provided by Jerusalem foods, a restaurant in Chandler, Arizona that is owned and operated by a local Muslim man.

More than just coming together to enjoy some great Middle Eastern food, this Peace Feast was coming together to talk about how we can continue to pursue true peace between Muslims and Christians through the person and teachings of Jesus. I had a great time getting to mingle with other photographers that were there as well as other people in other ways to break down stereotypes and biases that separate Muslims and Christians.

One of the founders of The Peace Frame posing at The Peace Feast

One key initiative I wanted to tell you about is The Peace Frame. I had a chance to meet the founders at the Peace Feast and love what they are working to do. In their words, their desire is to “create videos that display the humanity within misunderstood cultures.” Right now they are a contestant in the Pepsi Refresh project, hoping to win $25,000 toward their goal of gathering global film makers to work together to make films that display the humanity within misunderstood cultures. If you like this idea and want to vote for them you can vote for them by clicking on the above link or texting 104994 to 73774.

What I love about The Peace Frame is that it is just two ordinary guys, one a stockbroker and the other an Architect who believe they can change the world and they are trying to do something about it. Check out what they are doing and start thinking about how you could do something to breakdown stereotypes and prejudice that divide people from different cultures or social groups in your settings.

Also, I am excited to share that I am going to be posting interviews with different visual peacemakers from around the world, so look for those coming soon!

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The story behind the image

If you ever get a chance to go to New Delhi, India, you have to visit Dili Haat at least once. It is a well-known market where people from all over India bring their wares to sell. I have been there several times and always enjoy looking at the crafts and interacting with the artisans.

I made this particular image during one trip to Dili Haat last summer. Upon seeing this group of men together in their booth I knew right away I wanted to photograph them. Of course as soon as they saw me they began to peddle their wares, but having overdosed on scarfs the first year I visited India I had to decline buying any from them.

When I got the courage to ask them if I could take their picture, they immediately smiled and a look of honor came over all of their faces. As I was getting ready the eldest man in the background of the picture above was very clear that he wanted me to photograph the young boy. Sheepishly, the young man sat up straight and looked right at me as if to say “Ready when you are”.

Of all the images I made of them that day, this one is still one of my favorites because it captures how I felt about these men. It was clear as I watched these men interact with each other and with customers that this boy was being trained in the family business. So when I went to make this image I really wanted to highlight this young man in the foreground and the rest in the background to symbolically represent the family ties these men had and how they were all looking to this young man to carry on the honor of the craft that was obviously a vital part of their lives.