The Visual Advocate Blog


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5 ways to improve your photography in 2012

Recently I read a quote by Mark Twain and immediately fell in love with it, here it is: “Most men die at 72, we just bury them at 27”. Isn’t that true!

However, here is the catch, its not just men, it can be all of us if we don’t make daily choices to tenaciously take hold of life and make choices that help us live life to the fullest.

In light of that I wanted to just briefly share 5 choices you can make as a photographer that will not only improve your quality of life but also improve your craft and ability as a visual storyteller. Here is my list, but I would love to hear what you have to say too!

  1. Slow Down: Recently I met a Somali woman and her family who are living as refugees just 5 minutes from our home. As soon I met them and began to hear parts of their story, my mind began racing with photographic ideas. However, instead of pulling out my camera or throwing ideas at her, my wife and I just listened. Up to this point, I still have not taken any images yet. I want to, but I know that by slowing down and taking the time to develop the relationship, not only will the images be stronger and more profound, but I will also have the joy getting to be part of this amazing woman’s life. So no matter what kind of photography you do, remember to slow down a little and don’t be in such a hurry. If we don’t our images will continue to lack the depth and profoundness we want.

  2. Learn something new: As photographers we must make time to study images, talk to other photographers, get training and learn more about our craft in other ways; if we don’t we soon grow stagnate creatively and professionally. None of us ever arrive, we all have ways we can grow as people and artists so if we are really going to move forward as visual artists we must put in the hard work to be learners.

  3. Walk toward your fears: Too many of us just exist instead of really live because we are afraid of failure, looking stupid, not knowing how to do something etc. This is true of me and I am pretty sure in some ways it is true of you too. However, if we are really going to be the kind of photographers we want to be, we have to walk toward our fears and let the chips fall where they may. I am confident at the end of our lives we will not regret having taken risks.

  4. Fast from Photography: I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just stuck in creative ruts and I can’t get out. When this has happened in the past, I would just try to muscle through it. However, I realizing about myself that sometimes the best thing to do in those situations is just put the camera away for a while, take a deep breath and just be. What ends up happening most of the time is after a short break without my eye glued to the viewfinder, I am seeing life with fresh creativity. So when you get stuck creatively in 2012, just try putting the camera down for a couple of days and see what happens.

  5. Try something new: Whether you are making money from photography or not, it is very easy to only shoot what we like or know. While it is good to be focused as photography and become an expert in one thing, sometimes we need to break out of this and try something new. Maybe its just shooting with one lens for a month or maybe it’s experimenting with creating images that are more impressionistic than realistic. Whatever it is, just try something new for the sake of change. Don’t worry if your experiments will result in any money, just have fun and remember why you started shooting in the beginning.

Good luck and let me know what your ideas are!

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There is no free lunch in visual storytelling

When I last wrote, my family was in the process of relocating from Oregon to Atlanta, which turned out to be a huge, but fun, challenge! We have now been in Atlanta for over a month and now that we are getting settled, I have begun to think about exploring the areas around us with my camera.

Like many cities of the world, Atlanta is a melting pot of peoples and cultures from around the world. Where we live is somewhat of a “Little India” and right around the corner from our townhouse is a city called Clarkston, which Time Magazine has called the most diverse square mile in the United States! Just within Clarkston alone, there are refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Nepal, Bhutan and many other countries.

I love thinking about all these potential stories waiting to be told. However, as I was lying in bed this morning thinking about all of this, I have to admit I got a bit overwhelmed! As I thought about all these opportunities, I realized that not only is it going to take time for me to find the stories to tell, it is going to require me be disciplined to initiate conversations and relationships and ask for the opportunities to tell peoples stories!

I love doing this, and in fact by nature, I am an initiator. However, there are those times when like most photographers, that I need to remind myself to walk toward my fears and put the time and work into my craft that it takes to tell good stories.

So the moral of the story is lets get out there, walk toward our fears, drink lots of tea, spend lots of time in relationship with folks and when the time and story is right, ask if they would let us use our craft to tell their story!


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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 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 Mario Mattei, President of IGVP

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

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

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

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

When and how did you get your start in photography?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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Rice, Roti and Reconciliation

In my last post I mentioned an upcoming reconciliation dinner I was going to shoot between 15 imams and 15 pastors from the Puget Sound area in Seattle. The dinner was a great time of awesome Indian food (compliment of A Taste of India), deep conversation about what it means to really love God and love our neighbors, and hopefully a catalyst for ongoing relationships. There is so much I could say, but I will spare you the words and instead just give you a couple of images from the night. Hope you enjoy!

The Muslim Imams ducked out of the dinner for a moment to do their evening prayers on a sidewalk outside the restaurant.

An Imam from Indonesia, bowing on his prayer rug during his prayers.

The Imams and pastors are deep in Indian food and conversation.