The Visual Advocate Blog

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

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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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Author: The Visual Advocate

Joe Murray, The Visual Advocate, is a Humanitarian and Cultural photographer based in Decatur, Georgia. Joe began his photographic career as an adventure and landscape photographer, but a month-long trip to India in 2009 deeply impacted him and proved to be a turning point in his life and photographic vision. Today, Joe is dedicated to using his craft to create and share compelling images and stories of the lives of the peoples and cultures of the world. While Joe loves and appreciates all the peoples and cultures of the world, he has a particular vision, passion and love for India and South Asia. As both an experienced photographer, public speaker, recruiter and advocate, Joe's goal as a visual artist is not simply to create awareness, but to move people to use their lives and resources to be a blessing to the world's most poor, abused, displaced, stereotyped and overlooked peoples.

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