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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 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.