The Visual Advocate Blog


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Interview with Photographer and Visual Peacemaker, Nicole Gibson

Unless you’ve taken up residence under a rock as of late, you have no doubt seen the extensive media coverage of all the riots and protests in the Middle East. I know for me it is so easy to quickly grow calloused to the coverage and forget that the freedom and lives of real people are at stake.

This point was driven home for me again today as I chatted with a good friend living and working in Bahrain. As a photographer and visual peacemaker, he has had some wonderful opportunities to capture images of the peaceful protests. But he also said it has been very hard to know what to do and how to help as the protests have turned violent. We chatted back and forth about how it is world events like this that reaffirm to us and so many others the need for visual peacemakers.

Click here to check out some of his images of the protests in Bahrain.

Now for what I really set out to write about! Over the last couple of weeks I have been posting different interviews of photographers who are committed to be visual peacemakers. I don’t know about you, but I have enjoyed reading what these different photographers have had to say about their journey as a visual peacemaker.

Today, I am posting an interview with Photographer Nicole Gibson. She is an internationally-recognized, award-winning photographer, and her desire is to see visual media used to break down barriers and stereotypes, and to promote peace. Nicole is also a founding member of the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers. Find out more about Nicole at www.nicolegibsonphotography.com.

When and how did you get your start in photography?

I took my first photography class about 11 years ago, when I was in high school, and I always knew it would someday become a more significant part of my life. But I didn’t really start calling myself a photographer until about 3 years ago. I went on the very first Lumen Dei trip with Matt Brandon and David duChemin to Kashmir, India, and it was then that I really began to do photography seriously.

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

I think a major turning point for me was when I was in India visiting an Islamic shrine one time. I sat down amongst the crowd, and I soon had a group of Indian women and children around me, wondering what was the deal with this foreigner. Of course they didn’t speak a word of my language, and I didn’t speak a word of theirs, but we communicated pretty well just the same. And as I laughed with these women and played with their kids, I found myself surprised that they were so much like me. They were just people, and we really weren’t that different after all.

And as I asked myself why I was so surprised by this big revelation, I realized that I had somehow expected them to be distant and far off, strange beings, people that I’d have nothing in common with, people that I wouldn’t be able to connect with at all. Somehow I had not expected them to just be people. And then I was shocked not at them, but at myself. How could I have thought that way? I realized that I had had these ugly – and just plan wrong – ideas and hadn’t even known it until that moment. Where had these ideas come from? As I thought about it and realized that media had been a major factor – movies, news, etc. – I looked down at the camera in my hand and knew that I, as a creator of visual media, had to use my own work to say something different than what I had heard and seen so many times. If I was going to travel and make images of people, I wanted to make images about people like the ones right in front of me.

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

If I’ve adopted any issue or cause, what we call “visual peacemaking” would definitely be it, because of the very story I mentioned above and because I feel strongly about the power that visual media has to influence the way we see the world and those around us. I want my work to help break down stereotypes and help people see one another as fellow human beings. I want my work to break down barriers between people instead of reinforcing them.

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

Well, like I said, I’ve really only been at this for the last three years, so I’m still fairly new to photography. I can’t say that because of my work, a whole village in Africa has come out of poverty or something. But I think my work has brought change in a different way. I think that real change happens when individual people begin to see the world and those around them differently. One of the most rewarding things about what I do is hearing people tell me how my work has moved them, how it’s helped them as Westerners see Muslims in a more positive light, or how it’s encouraged them to work toward peacemaking themselves. That, to me, is real change and something that makes me thrilled to get to do what I do.


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

To be honest, I really don’t know what’s up next for me. I’d love to say I have the whole next year planned out, but I don’t. Right now I’m taking one day at a time and looking forward to seeing what the future holds.

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

Well, I actually wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “humanitarian” photographer. My work takes many forms, some of which may fit the “humanitarian” mold and some of which may not. But whether I’m doing a more conceptual fine art project or traveling to another culture, my work touches on themes of humanity and the human condition.

That said, I think a challenge for me right now is learning how to develop work that effectively communicates what’s in my head. Thinking things out instead of just shooting from the hip, so to speak. Creating images that form a cohesive body of work that will together tell a story or make a statement.

We’re talking about “telling visual stories,” which requires putting some forethought into things and really developing an idea – and that’s an entirely different thing than just looking at a scene and making a nice-looking image.

7.How have you seen your photography help change the way your viewers see the world and the different peoples and cultures you have encountered and photographed?

I guess a short answer here since I kind of already mentioned this. But like I said before, I think this comes in the form of chipping away at those unknown assumptions that a lot of viewers have about certain peoples and cultures, especially Muslims.

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

I think that doing this kind of work is more about our heart for what we’re photographing and what we have to say than it is about any kind of equipment. I personally shoot with gear that most photographers would laugh at. You don’t have to have great gear to make great photographs. Whatever equipment you have, use it! Push it to its limits. You can do more than you might think.

Another thing that I would say is extremely important is time. The “skill” of patience. We photographers have a tendency to get somewhere and want to start grabbing images the very first second. But to really be effective in communicating about an issue or a culture or a group of people, we have to be willing to spend some time. The more the better. We have to get involved in the issue or culture or place and get to know it. BEFORE we start photographing. If we do that, our images will have a depth and a perspective that will make them more powerful than any piece of equipment ever could.

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

Today’s world is united by media. Particularly visual media. Unfortunately, much of it serves to propagate stereotypes and demonize those who come from different cultures or faiths. But we all have common ground as fellow human beings, and I want more of the world’s media to say that. So as a visual artist, my goal is to use my work in a positive way. To promote unity between people instead of division, understanding instead of hatred and fear.

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

Honestly, I don’t feel qualified to be giving advice, being so new to this myself. But I’d say a good place to start is to focus on learning as much as possible about the people or culture you’re interested in. Spend time in the culture. Spend time with the people. Immerse yourself and gain as much perspective as you can.

Don’t be afraid to practice and get experience. Start wherever you are, doing local projects, telling local stories. But most importantly, my advice is this: Be respectful! Wherever you are, make an extra effort to treat people like people. I’ve seen way too many photographers travel and treat the people around them like animals in a zoo. Please, I beg of you, don’t be like that. People are human beings, with intelligence and feelings, no matter what they look like or what language they speak. Remember that they have their own lives and that you are coming into their space. They are not there just for you to get pictures of. A practical tip that may help: If you’re traveling, think of how you would treat the person in front of you if he/she were in your own country or if you didn’t have a camera in your hand, and keep that in mind as you interact and make photographs.


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Interview with Marco Ryan, Photographer and Founder of Focus for Humanity

Last week I posted an interview of Melanie Blanding, a Humanitarian Photographer who was recently named the inaugural winner of Focus for Humanity’s fellowship grant. This week I am excited to be posting an interview with Marco Ryan. Not only is Marco the founder of Focus for Humanity, he is also the co-founder of The Cairo Photo School as well as an excellent travel and landscape photographer!

The crazy thing is that his day job is as a ecommerce and digital marketing expert, so in between this, his family and all that he has going on photographically, he was gracious enough to take the time to be interviewed.

I hope you enjoy this interview with Marco. Please do check out Focus for Humanity and the Cairo Photo School, both are excellent photographic initiatives.

When and how did you get your start in photography?

In my early twenties while in the military I was sent on a photo journalist course so I could help record events in the regiment. Very soon afterward the role was disbanded but the “fire” had been lit and I started to  experiment with taking images, use of light and in developing black & white film. When I left the military a few years later to follow a business career, the photography was put on hold until my early 40s when, with a change in career and a move to Egypt, I had the opportunity to pick up the camera again and focus on photography as not just a passion but a way to help tell visually some of the culture and humanitarian issues I was experiencing.

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

About 18 months ago A friend and I conceived the idea of Focus For Humanity. We were fortunate that we both had well paid corporate roles, so we were able to invest in setting up the Not For Profit and to fund the first few years. While passionate about cultural and humanitarian photography from behind the lens, there are others who are better at their craft, more established, younger and with less responsibilities who can help tell the stories. While I love taking the images and working with clients, I felt the best contribution I could make was to help support them and the NGOS through a series of Fellowships and grants.

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

There are so many areas needing help, support, funds as well as their stories being told, that it would be invidious to single out one cause. As someone that has set up  this charity to help photographers and NGOs work together to use images as a way of raising awareness, Focus For Humanity is cause agnostic. We do not discriminate by geography, religion, culture. organizational maturity or any other factor. Our passion is in helping organizations to get their message out; to be heard, to stand out and capture peoples imagination and support.

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

Not sure I can answer this fully. While I do have NGO clients, my work with Focus for Humanity is to act as a bridge, a facilitator and a support mechanism.  This is our first full year of operation and e have just announced our first Fellowship, Melanie Blanding. We will look to the work that Melanie and to the NGO Assignment Fellow when it is announced to be the way that we see tangible results form our work.


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

My next shoot is for the Asia Foundation in Laos. I am excited because this is such an important and successful organization that  make a real change and it will be my first visit to Laos.

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

I think knowing to when to put the camera down. We are humanitarians first and photographers second. While our work is to be a channel to help support the work that is being done, the humanity, dignity and culture of those I am privileged to take photographs of must always come first. That means sometimes not taking an image because it doesn’t feel right or respectful to the subject.

How have you seen your photography help change the way your viewers see the world and the different peoples and cultures you have encountered and photographed?

I think perhaps I should answer this from a Focus or Humanity Aspect. We have had a massive response in the first 6 months with over 2000 people form over 140 countries signing up to the site and a significant proportion of that number entering the Fellowship application process. These are individuals committed to making a difference with their photography. The more we can network, spread awareness that there are causes that benefit these type of individuals the more we help to change people’s perception of how viewers see the culture.

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

A genuine interest and respect for others – whether that is religious, cultural , geographic, race etc. The camera and equipment is frankly unimportant. The great images that really tell the story comes form  building a relationship withe the subject; having an empathy for their surroundings, their issues. Displaying a respect for them as individuals and a sensitivity for the situation that you find yourself in. The gear is very much secondary. Sure, it helps you capture the image, but if the trust between the subject and you is not there, neither will the image have the impact that both sides aspire to.

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

I saw some pretty unpleasant sights in my time in the Army in the Middle East and Eastern Europe and was shocked about how man inhumanity to man can boil over as something as simple as religious labels. Not everyone gets to see that first hand, nor should they. There is a need however to create an awareness of the issues. To capture and share the emotion, the needs , the desires. Still photography is such a powerful medium for this. Being able to share that with others is personally satisfying, but what is more important is to tell stories, interpret things visually in a way that does not judge or deceive, but demonstrates a sensitivity, an awareness and representation of the truth and do so so in a way that does not exploit or demean others.

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

Do so with purpose, yet respect. Follow your dream with a passion but make sure your craft is something you are on top of, so that when the moment presents itself you can focus on the story, the message. I think taking time to build a relationship with someone before you take their image is critical An hour spent trying to converse, or showing images on an Iphone or Ipad to sharing a  cup of tea, will hep to build the respect and trust that will help you capture visually powerful images. It is really about slowing down, trust, respect and communication. Taking the picture is the (relatively) easy part.


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Interview with Humanitarian Photographer, Melanie Blanding

I am privileged and excited to be posting this interview of Melanie Blanding, an award-winning Humanitarian Photographer based in Roanoke, Virginia.  To her many accolades, Melanie just added winner of the inaugural Focus for Humanity Fellowship grant. You can check out more of Melanie’s work at her website and women in war zones.

Enjoy!

1. When and how did you get your start in photography?

I always had fun taking photos and there are silly stories about me as a child I could point to and say ‘I knew when…’ but the truth is I signed up for my high school newspaper staff senior year after spending the summer leading up to it doing a sort of mini-mentorship writing with an uncle who’s a journalist. A cluster of my friends signed up to write too and we thought it’d be fun to chronicle our final year together. Only the paper didn’t have a dedicated photographer or photo staff, so if you wanted your stories published you had to come up with the images. My first assignment was Friday night football; I borrowed my parents Minolta with strict instructions to bring it back in one piece – I’ve been tackled on the sidelines in games since, so it was wise advice at the time!

No one told me what to do, or not do, with a camera, on the sidelines, anywhere, so I photographed that game with no inhibitions. I was armed and confidant with the camera in hand as I strode up to players and literally stuck the camera in their face while they kneeled on the sidelines catching their breath, poured water over their heads to cool off and followed the action up and down the field as they ran. I think I was following the players into the locker room at half-time when a coach finally put his hand up to stop me! So I trekked back to the field and photographed half time festivities of the band, our mascot, cheerleaders and the crowd whooping it up. I had so much fun. I don’t even remember what the story was about but I remember the photos. The school had them developed and printed for me so my teacher and an editor saw them before I did. I came into class a few days later and they were buzzing about the photos. They were so impressed they decided to run a special feature with four or five of the images and asked if I would consider becoming the staff photographer. It was really encouraging and taking the photos was so much fun in the first place that it was a closed deal for me. I applied to photo school for college and never looked back. Funnily enough though, I’ve done hardly any sports photography since that first assignment.

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

My second year at Western Kentucky University I started a personal project that turned into one of my two most significant final projects throughout all of college. I was riding a borrowed bike in the neighborhood just down from my dorm and passed a house spectacularly decorated for Halloween. It had a wide front porch, very Southern, and every inch of the two-story house was covered in cobwebs, plastic spiders and other seasonal embellishments. There was no one around so I promised myself if I saw people there in the future, I would stop and make some images.

After Halloween the decorations came down and a Confederate flag went up. I rode by and saw a crowd of about 15 people from age three to sixty hanging out on the porch. My heart was pounding as I hopped off the bike and I approached the genial looking guy surrounded by kids. I explained my desire to do a photo series on front porch life, that I had admired their house, was impressed with the recent decorations and asked if could get started. He loved it and I spent the afternoon taking photos. I was around the side of the house with a few kids when one of the father’s (an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins shared the house) came home and started yelling, I think at a dog, then some of the little kids, who weren’t even old enough to speak yet. My hands actually started shaking I thought he was so angry, then one of the 8-year-old children blew it off, saying he wasn’t really mad, that I’d know it if he were serious. I hoped he would never be seriously angry with me. I thought he’d be furious that I was there taking pictures, but he liked it, as long as I primarily photographed the children and only photographed him when he was playing with the kids. It struck me that an 8-year-old confidently allayed my 19-year-old concerns and I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable experience from my mind.

That afternoon was the start of what became a 7-month project documenting the lives of children living in poverty in the United States.  I didn’t actually start advocating with these photos but documenting for this project itself opened my eyes to the realization that images could be used to communicate something more. From an early age I was fascinated by the diverse cultures and people groups I read about in National Geographic magazines or at prayer meetings for foreign missionaries at my church, but at the end of the day, they were as mythical to me as Zeus or Hercules. The people and issues were so far removed from the reality of my life and the chances of me traveling to see anything first hand were very slim, so they just didn’t seem real. I started getting out to a much wider array of places and meeting increasingly diverse people after that essay on children in poverty.

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

Photographically speaking? I’ve had the luxury of photographing the things I’m personally passionate about up to this point. So personally speaking, I’ve been most passionate about violence against women and chose to photograph the consequences of violence. It’s been happening in one form or another pretty much forever, can we please stop?! This has manifested itself so far in my life by spending a great deal of time either photographing, researching or speaking about sexual violence against women in the DR Congo. Rape is used as a weapon of war because the military factions, rebel, government and otherwise, in the region know how effective mass gang rapes are at destabilizing the family unit and community relations, thus indirectly affecting the agricultural sector, the economy and the educational opportunities for everyone involved. Photographically, the Congolese women are simply beautiful, even in their pain. Their resilience and faith amidst such violence and trauma is inspiring. I can’t imagine anything more physically, personally, emotionally and spiritually violating than the nature of the attacks against these women. If it happened to me, I don’t think I’d have the fortitude to keep going. These women are fighters and survivors. I want to be more like them.

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

One young girl I photographed in eastern DR Congo was later brought to the States for reconstructive surgery and was ultimately adopted by the American family who cared for her during the medical process. My brother, a friend and I started the non-profit Women in War Zones as a way to channel resources back to Congo and help people back in the States mount a response. The doctors at one of the hospitals where we documented extensively requested medical textbooks in French, so we raised funding to send a selection of textbooks to them; we sponsored scholarships for young women who wanted to finish their sidelined education; we channeled funding for medical care. More than anything, I think my work and/or speaking engagements have been a conduit to spur individuals onto their own course of action. Two young women from the United States are preparing now to move to eastern Congo and launch the Wamu Literacy Aid Program, named after one of the Congolese women that became a close friend while I lived there. They’ve done an incredible job raising awareness on their university campuses and encouraging their schools to make an active response as well. I think my work to raise awareness about the issues facing women in Congo has been part of a larger, growing advocacy movement. At a minimum, it’s made people here in the States stop and think about the terrible things happening to women in central Africa. Whenever we speak or host a gallery, we create time and questions for discussion afterward. We leave notebooks for people to write their thoughts or leave comments generated by the images.

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

I was just awarded a year-long fellowship with Focus For Humanity to pursue an international photo project. I have a few ideas in mind now that I’m discussing with the advisers and really value their feedback as I craft my next move. All of the humanitarian work I’ve done so far has been self-assigned or volunteer based work. It’s been difficult to get published independently and since a key point of humanitarian photography, at least to me, is to bring the issues into the public sphere, creating dialogue and raising awareness, I want to know how I can do a better job as a photographer and communicator. A component of the Fellowship is mentoring and business guidance so I can use photography for something I’m passionate about and in a way I can support myself. So I’m making a plan for the next 12 months now and will be updating folks through Twitter and other social media when things really start moving.

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

I’m sure it’s different for each photographer. For me, there are actually two primary challenges that are directly related. The first is leaving a location when the problem hasn’t been alleviated and the second is getting the work out there in a way that can make a difference. I get attached to the people and places where I work. I hated leaving the DR Congo when women I became friends with were still facing the same dire circumstances as when I arrived. I can leave but in many ways they’re stuck. They’re certainly stuck in their country because no one would give them a visa to leave; they’re stuck financially because most of them have been cut off from their families and left with no education or way to support themselves. And they’re stuck in the perpetual violence. At least two of the women I was closest to were attacked again shortly after returning to their villages (they had received reconstructive surgery at the hospital where I was based). I have no doubt there are many, many more women with similar stories. I just cried as I waved goodbye, knowing all that the women are up against and there’s so little I can do to help them or prevent the violence in the first place. That’s why the challenges of publishing have been such a source of frustration. It isn’t enough for me that I post pictures on my own website. This work is not meant to be an opportunity to pat myself on the back or tack another adventure on the to do list. The point is to find an audience and stop the violence. These women have been silenced by their own communities and government for long enough. Silence has allowed the violence and a culture of impunity to flourish and until that stops the women won’t be safe or able to rebuild their lives and communities. Sexual violence is a taboo subject in Congo and it’s taken years of effort by Congolese and international aid groups to encourage communities to discuss and address the problem. If the women weren’t so hopeful that change can come, it would be hard for me to remain hopeful.

7. How have you seen your photography help change the way your viewers see the world and the different peoples and cultures you have encountered and photographed?

I’ve worked independently for so much of my photography that I don’t often hear the feedback. It can be rather lonely. I’m quite new to social media (just joined Twitter, working on setting up a blog and Facebook account). I hope taking better advantage of the internet will help me see and hear how viewers are responding. Right now, I get emails from people who’ve heard about the work, seen a screening of the film Women in War Zones or attended a gallery or speaking engagement; things like that. I love speaking engagements actually because it puts me in direct interaction with viewers. It’s motivating, encouraging and energizing to feel like you’re part of something larger than yourself and the work you’ve created. It’s broadening to hear other people’s perspectives and ideas they pull from my work that hadn’t occurred to me yet.

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

You need a passion for the cause you’re advocating and vision to see it through. It’s cliché, I know, but it’s true.  Seriously though, how can you fight for something you don’t care about or believe in? For all the traveling I’ve done, I’m very American and have this ingrained sense of justice; our Bill of Rights. They’re human rights. Obviously not everyone agrees with all of them, but our founding father’s established a land of opportunity and a greater degree of freedom for the ordinary citizen than the “known” world recognized at that point. They were actually the political minority, but they had a vision and the passion to sustain their fight. I think you need that same energy and commitment if you’re going to tackle and advocate an issue effectively.  The equipment will take care of itself. Of course it’s nice to have top of the line gear, but people make compelling images with their iPhones and Holgas. I was just reading about a pro photographer, in Iraq or Afghanistan I think, who talked about shooting the grizzly sort of working war images with his pro camera but then using his iPhone when he was hanging out with the soldiers on down time. The soldiers were all doing the same thing so it seemed more natural and less invasive than his pro camera. And he made compelling images of soldiers’ humanity. I carry at least a point and shoot or my cell phone everywhere I go. No, they can’t do everything a D3 or 5D can, but if you wait to have the best of everything before you’ll start anything, you’ll be sitting around a long time. Start with what you have and keep moving forward. That being said, I’m getting a new camera as part of the Focus for Humanity fellowship, so feel free to kick me off my soap box…


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

Part of it is my faith. I’m a Christian and Jesus taught that we have a responsibility to literally care for widows and orphans. I think He meant that further: to care for and advocate for any who cannot advocate on their own behalf. I was well cared for as a child; frequently supported as I pursued higher education; and I’m being assisted again now as I launch my career. I suppose it’s the pay-it-forward mentality and I hope that if the situation were reversed – if I were in desperate circumstances – someone would advocate on my behalf. Hurricane Katrina hit our coast as I was returning from a few months in Africa and it hit me just how easily we, as humans, descend from so-called ‘civilized humanity’ to absolute chaos and violence. At our core, we are the same in nature as any people throughout the world, for good and for bad. It’s naive to think that we’re somehow above the violence that happens elsewhere. An attack on our internet and electronic technology could bring the United States to a grinding halt. People do crazy things when they’re threatened and struggling to survive. I may have slipped off topic…I just think it’s important to be aware of what’s happening in the world and how we impact each other. I’m driven by a sense of responsibility and the hope that others would equally come to my aid in a time of need.

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

Photograph something or some issue you care about, especially early in your career or advocacy efforts when you have the flexibility of time and aren’t responsible to so many other people, editors, bills, etc. Your heart really has to be in it when you decide to tackle the big issues or you won’t last very long. An adrenaline rush is just that, and it’s quickly over, so don’t just jump on something that sounds temporarily exciting or do it to impress others. And start local! ‘Exotic’ locations don’t make great pictures, an insightful photographer does through compelling composition whether they’re in the DC suburbs or Timbuktu. There are people in the US who could use an advocate and it wouldn’t cost you a fortune to tell their story. Finally, don’t forget to take care of yourself. I got lost in caring for others for a while and felt really guilty about taking time to process and recover from what I heard or witnessed. I convinced myself that resting was laziness or a lack of motivation. There’s always more to do, so prioritize your own health as well so you don’t burn out.