The Visual Advocate Blog


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Interview with Humanitarian Photographer Heber Vega

One of the best parts of being a photographer for me is getting to know other great folks that are living their dreams to make great images and be a blessing. Photographer Heber Vega is one of these people who are living their dreams and changing lives in the process.

Originally from Chile, Heber has been working and living in Northern Iraq since 2003. As an NGO worker, he’s been part of a wide variety of developmental programs and has an excellent understanding of humanitarian work. He has committed his life to assisting the Iraqis in the reconstruction of their country. His main photographic fields are NGO/Humanitarian and Cultural photography.

Enjoy!

Iraqi family seating at Sulaimaniyah Hospital waiting for a heart check up. Images done for Preemptive Love Coalition during their Remedy Mission 2010

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

I think this question has two sides. One is about the time first time in my life when I felt passionate about using a camera and the other is about the moment when I realized I wanted to get more serious about this passion and think in ways about even making some bucks out of it because I couldn’t imagine NOT working on this.

I think the first memory that comes to my mind of using a camera; of feeling that way, and wanting to shoot something more than a simple snapshot, was in 1999, while I was on vacation in one of the most beautiful places in earth, the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. Later on that year, I was asked for some of those photographs to be used in a travel agency.

It was in 2006 that I decided to step up with my first DSLR. Since then, I’ve been photographing in the humanitarian field, but it was only last year that I decided to work as photographer for other non-profits.

American surgeon doing a heart screen at Remedy Mission 2010, Iraq

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

Because of my work as a humanitarian worker in Iraq, I started to photograph people and their culture. That just put me on the track that I’m working at the moment. It was not something that I pursued, but something that found me. I did it because I needed it.

Since then, I’ve been trying to communicate what I witness everyday in Iraq, and also promote the initiatives that I think are worth being known by the world.

The antique cleaner. One of the last people in Iraq performing this kind of job

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

Well, I think in 2010 there were two main issues that I spent time photographing. The first is women that are studying or working hard in order to provide an income for their own families, something difficult to see in the past in Iraq due to social and cultural restrictions. Secondly, children living in marginal situations.

We have several humanitarian needs among the children in Iraq. We have more the 3.5 million orphans, and 500.000 kids living on the streets, to name a few things affecting children. We can add health and educational/vocational problems as well.

I’ve been working on ways to show/talk/spread the news and also make a difference with my own family. One of the projects that I’m going to be working a lot this year is call ONE-SHOT. You can find more about this at http://www.theoneshotproject.com

Iraqi entrepreneurs who make candles to sustain their families. Work done for Prosperity Candle

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

Well, in 2010 I worked mainly for three non profits in Iraq, and the three of them saw an increase in people supporting their cause and helping financially with their needs. I think part of that success was due to the images that I shot for them.

A blacksmith shop found at the oldest part of Sulaimaniyah bazaar in Iraq

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

Well as I said previously, I’m really excited about ONE-SHOT, and the things that we’ll find out through this project. I’m sure we’ll find other issues among these children that will spark our creativity and passion to work even harder.

One of the most talented entrepreneur working for Prosperity Candle in Iraq

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

Well, with visual stories, the main challenge is to find a way to portray the story so that it can captivate people and represent the situation to the world. It’s always a challenge to try to understand the “real” story behind these actions. People might think that finding the story is the easiest part, but I think there’s always something deeper than what we see at first, and that’s what can really affect our audience.

Anyway, the way that I’m carrying out with these visual stories (multimedia), is a challenge in itself. I believe when you work on a multimedia production, the photographs are not the single most important part, but a complement to the whole story.

I think the ideal is to have a story that can transcend even without images, and that’s really hard to make. For me, audio is the key, and photographs can help to identify that story with the rest of us.

An Iraqi mom holding her baby before going into a lifesaving surgery

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?

Well, honestly I think it’s too early to see this happening, as I’ve been working only for a year in a more purposeful way. But I think that I can perceive a change when I hear the comments of people from the west, saying that they never thought about Muslims living the way I portray them. They like what they see and that’s a contribution to decreasing the tension between these two worlds.

A muslim praying while waiting for his nephew, who was having surgery at that moment

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?

Skills… well I think it’s important to be patient, and be eager to learn from other cultures (curiosity), to understand their whys; their worldview. Be flexible and don’t rush! If you learn how to listen, then you will be able to speak on behalf of those who have had confidence in you and have somehow opened their lives to you and your camera.

Equipment… besides a camera, it’s important to know how to manage your audio and recording of audio. Learn about storytelling and software that can help you to put all that together.

A Kurdish shepherd working in the outskirts of Sulaimaniyah city, Iraq

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

Well, I think photography makes me feel alive. I somehow breath with it. I feel connected to this world and its people, but I also feel creative and that’s important for an artist. In my experience, art is a connection with God, so in my case I can’t picture a better way to advocate on behalf of others.

A former Kurdish warrior who was part of the resistant during Saddam Hussein's regime

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?

Well, examine yourself. See if this really feels like your passion. Then just immerse yourself in this with all what you’ve got. Not half, but all. Practice, practice and practice until you feel tired. Then listen, stop, breath, and listen… the stories will haunt you.

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Interview with Humanitarian Photographer Matt Powell

I wish I could say the reason for me posting this interview late was because I was in some far-flung exotic place with no internet access but alas that would be a lie! The reality is that between kids, work, family and the craziness of life, some things get pushed back, and this interview was one of those things.

Nevertheless, I am excited to post this short interview with Humanitarian Photographer Matt Powell. As a Photographer and Multimedia Producer for Samaritan’s Purse, Matt has traveled on assignment to over 40 different countries documenting relief & development work among communities in need and in transition. His images raise private, charitable donations worldwide.

In addition to his work with Samaritan’s Purse, Matt is also a guild member with The International Guild of Visual Peacemakers and will be leading an exciting photo workshop with Matt Brandon in Turkey soon, you won’t want to miss this!

Before you check out this interview, make sure to check out Matt’s stunning portfolio!

I hope you enjoy what Matt has to say!

When and how did you get your start in photography?

High school art class was when I got my 1st SLR & took it seriously as an art form.  It grew from there into a serious hobby, part-time income, to full-time staff job.

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

I traveled to some remote corners of northern Vietnam back in 2000.  While there we visited some of the minority hill tribes who were being severely persecuted by the govt.  Much of what we did was capture & tell their story.

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

Through my work, whatever the subject may be, I’m simply interested in helping foster & facilitate a global humanitarian ethos. I want to reveal the beauty of mankind with my photographs, & in doing so inspire others who see my work to care for others & help make the world a better place in whatever form that takes.  On a personal level this comes as a natural extension to my christian faith. I happen to believe that we were all created in the image of a loving god & that every life is sacred.  I want my work to spread that notion.

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

I see it every day in the form of donations raised to further our relief & development projects.  Not to mention that the organization I work for partners with the church in every location possible, it’s great to see the church strengthened & coming together all over the world to do good works & be a true example of love & compassion.

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

I’m hoping to visit Congo this Spring to document the work of Samaritan’s Purse.  I’m excited because I’ve never been to Congo.  It has a very trouble past, plus a difficult situation currently due to increased instability from the Lord’s Resistance Army.  By working there I hope to shine a little light & love on a very dark situation.  Plus, I just love Africa!

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

It can be difficult photographing people in need.  Which is one reason why I choose to focus on & glorify the beauty truth & goodness of every person & situation.  As opposed to the evil & hopelessness.

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 can’t say I’ve seen people change as a result of my pictures since I’ve never met most of the people who view my work but I have heard back from people in the past about how an image they saw perhaps in some of our promotional materials truly grabbed their heart & caused them to want to give.  I also hear from many photographers who’ve encountered my website & are moved by my work & inspired to do something similar.  That is what it’s all about for me inspiring people to do something on their own. Art is great because it spreads.

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

Passion, commitment & love for others.  And perhaps a good DSLR & a computer.

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

My faith.  The love & motivation that has been given to me by god to do what I can to make the world a better place.

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

Start where you are now & just do it.


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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.


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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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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.