Photography as a Force of Change

Akhil Bharatiya Mahila is a 66-year-old ashram, a place of study, in Dehradun, India. The center has four points of focus : A medical dispensary; elderly women's home; a school up to grade five, and an education foundation for 50 girls who live on the ashram site. They also provide a hostel for 50 girls from poor areas, as well as food, clothing and education until they complete 12th grade. (Photo copyright 2011 Project India student Alison Harbaugh/Momenta Workshops).

 

Communications professionals involved in the advocacy business can learn a lot from Jamie Rose, the director of the Momenta Workshops. Based in Washington, D.C., Momenta undertakes photography workshops overseas and here at home that introduce both photographers and non-profit organizations to the power of visual images as a force of change. In this Q&A interview, Rose and I talk about the power of photography as a communications tool and the work of Momenta Workshops.

Q: How and when did Momenta get started?

A: Chris Anderson and Seth Butler started Momenta Group LLC in 2008. Both men had been doing private workshops and consulting for workshop companies. They had a devoted following and many requests to do their own line up. So they took their vision and created a company devoted to communications as a force of change. They understood the importance of quality travel and documentary work, and how professional and citizen journalism could advance the industry with proper training. And so the first two workshops were in Burma and Uganda in 2008.

Q: And how did you find your way to Momenta?

A: I had been working in Washington since 2003 as a photojournalist, covering politics and news primarily. In the two years before joining Momenta, I had started expanding my base to do a lot more work with humanitarian and non-profit groups. They saw that my level of expertise would allow me to expand the non-profit workshops at Momenta and build on their ideas for using photography as a force of change.

Q: So how does a Momenta Workshop work?

A: Through a rigorous research process, we find reputable, small, local non-profit organizations that would benefit from working with a photographer to produce a documentary portfolio of their mission work. Once on site, students in our workshops, whether domestic or international, are assigned to work with a specific non-profit and produce one or more photo stories.

Q. Why is the photography valuable for the non-profit?

A: Non-profits need quality visuals to communicate their mission, whether they’re fighting AIDS in Uganda, operating a homeless shelter in Virginia or dealing with the aftermath of

Jamie Rose (Photo by Jonathan Ernst)

a hurricane in New Orleans. It is important here to draw the difference between documentary and public relations photography. The era of the grip-and-grin photo is gone. We are dealing with an incredibly media savvy population. Donors and grant-making foundations want to see where their money is going. They don’t just want to read about it. They want to see it.

Q: And these are non-profits that ordinarily would not have the resources to hire photographers?

A: Most of them have very small operating budgets, less than $50,000 a year and that includes things like salaries for staff and rent.

Q: Given that this is a first-time experience for many organizations, do you help the non-profit learn how to use their photo portfolio?

A: We have a very strong mission to educate the non-profits on the value of photography. They are invited to a one-day intensive seminar on digital communications. We help to train them on the importance of using local photographers after we leave to keep a sustainable photography program going and use multimedia in their promotions, marketing and fund raising. We do not just hand over the pictures and say, ‘Good luck.’

We look for ways to increase their ability to hire photographers. We know we have done good when we go back for another workshop and they say they have actually hired a photographer and do not need us anymore. That is music to our ears.

Q: So, what advantages does working with non-profits have over traditional news organizations?

A: I think everyone gets into photojournalism because they want to help educate the public on important stories. With limited budgets today, photo professionals do not always see that opportunity in traditional newspaper assignments. One of the appealing aspects of working with non-profits is that you can tell such great stories, see positive outcomes and know you are doing good with your work. After working on a long-term project, a photographer might get two or three pictures in the newspaper. But when working with media saavy non-profits, you might get to illustrate their entire annual report or produce long form documentary multimedia. It’s really gratifying on a creative level.

Q: But this work is different in that you are no longer working for an objective news organization. You are now working for an advocacy organization with a point of view, right?

A: No matter what, every photographer has to eventually decide what their ethical position will be with their own work. The media likes to believe that they do not take a position. But that line of ethics has become incredibly blurred in the last decade, as the 24-hour news cycle has grown. You have Sanjay Gupta doing triage when on assignment or James Nachtway saving a man’s life from being beaten. It is very inaccurate to say that journalists do not get emotionally involved or have beliefs that are translated in their work.

Student Magda Rakita, left, and instructor Jeff Hutchens walk through the streets of Gulu, Uganda, at sunset during the Project Uganda workshop. (Photo copyright 2011 Jamie Rose/Momenta Workshops)

But I don’t change my ethical understanding of what the photographer’s job is in shooting documentary work or nonprofit work. You just have to be clear with the client: ‘Let me do what I do, and I will make good pictures for you.’ My conversations with clients are long and detailed and I explain the documentary process. The savvy clients say, ‘Just do what you do.’ That is why the non-profit environment is so interesting for documentary photographers. You get to tell good stories, keep your ethics in tact and help an organization that is creating a better world.

Q: This work has taken you to some very interesting places. How do you choose the locations for the Momenta Workshops?

A: We don’t throw darts at the map or look at our competitors for ideas. There is a lot of research time and energy that goes into creating a workshop. It takes six months to a year to organize a workshop based on the familiarity of the location to the instructors and organizers. We choose the location based on need, where there has not been a lot of focus or growth in the work of non-profits. Sometimes we go to a more developed country because the rest of the world is ignoring that area as they do not perceive there is a need.

We will typically work with an instructor who comes to us with a wonderful place, where the photographer has worked with organizations there in the past and where we can get an unbiased assessment of those organizations.

One example is our South Africa workshop. Our instructor, Jeff Hutchens, lived in South Africa and came to us with an idea to do a workshop there. It is an area that a lot of people do not focus on in terms of nonprofit outreach needs and the workshop was really successful.

While there are many regions we would love to visit, we also put the highest priority on the safety of our students and staff. The students are coming to work in a foreign environment and some have not had much experience in developing areas. They’ve never hired a local fixer or had to bug out if things get dicey. So realistic safety is first.

Q: How do you choose what instructors to hire? 

A: We are very selective about who we work with. We do not go for the biggest names in photography. We choose the best teachers. Our instructors are passionate and dedicated to documentary photojournalism with a quality portfolio. However, we need to be sure they will be good and supportive of all levels of skill.

Q: And finding the right non-profits must also take some time and work?

A: Yes! We find all the non-profit organizations for our students. That is why each workshop takes so much research and staff time. In each country, we work with the community organizers to make sure the NGOs we work with are offering the services they promise, they have a good reputation and follow their mission of helping the public. We keep consistent and continuing relationships with the nonprofits and have had great luck with those relationships.

Q: Most of your workshops are not typical travel workshops where students shoot photos during the day and have fabulous dinners and wine at night.

A: No, that’s not our model. We do not offer photo tours or travel-with-a-camera workshops. Our participants are serious, dedicated photographers who want a classroom environment to work in whether it is in India or New Orleans. They are dedicated amateurs and professionals who do not just want to travel and take pretty pictures. They want to do something with purpose. Even our travel workshops have lecture components and research for the students. They are amazingly fun, don’t get me wrong. People form friendships for lifetime. But you’re also working very hard.

Q: So, how does that change the content and structure of the workshop? Tell me more about what happens when your students hit the ground. 

A: The one thing that makes our workshops different than others in the marketplace is the editing process we offer. Students get daily one-on-one editing with instructors. The benefit of consistently working with an editor on a photo story for two weeks is invaluable. You are going into the field and shooting everyday and then getting feedback every night.

Q: Do students do some self-editing before meeting with their editor each night?

A: No, we look at every single picture. Most workshops send students out to shoot and then say give us your best 10 or 20 images. We do not think that is the best way to improve our photographers’ learning curve. Reviewing all the images is the most beneficial way to improve a student’s learning trajectory.

Q: This rigorous editing process explains how the non-profits get such good story-telling portfolios. What do the photographers have at the end of the workshop?

A: At the end of a workshop, our goal is for the photographer to also have one or more documentary photo stories for their portfolio. Likewise, during the workshops, we offer business classes where we discuss how to market and present portfolios to clients. The goal is not to just go have a great life experience, but to have the portfolio and information you learned for professional development.

Jamie Rose, director of the Momenta Workshops, shows her international nonprofit portfolio during the Project New Orleans workshop. (Photo copyright 2011 Chris Usher/Momenta Workshops)

At the end of the day, a useable portfolio is one of a photographer’s best marketing tools. The ability of a photographer to come back from an assignment with quality photo stories that they did in just two weeks is a powerful tool in their marketing kit. They can use that to market for paying clients.

Q: And are there some big success stories to share from the photographers and non-profits?

A: Absolutely. We worked with a non-profit in Africa and the student gave them a disc of images to use for their promotion. They were contacted by a large, multi-national bank who wanted to list the NGO as a beneficiary in a holiday giving campaign. The non-profit shared our student’s images with the bank and they were just blown away with the photography. They used them to create a high-quality marketing campaign.

In another case, a non-profit in South Africa did a gallery exhibition of one of our student’s work as a fund raiser. The photographer was able to say his work was exhibited in a gallery in Cape Town and the non-profit was able to communicate its mission to the public.

Q: After this type of training and experience, what does the photographer bring to the table for the non-profit?

A: The photographer needs to be the expert at the table. When you are sitting across from the CEO, the marketing director or a public relations exec, you need that portfolio to support your bid for the job or your proposal for the project. You need to be able to show the non-profit what you could do for them if they invest in your photographic services. You need to be able to show your work and say, ‘Here are examples of other organizations I worked for. This is what I can do for you.’

You will still have clients who say we just want pictures of happy, smiling babies and headshots. You need to become an expert in their marketplace and their competition so you can say, ‘If you want the same old-same old, I can do that. But let’s get more creative so you can be competitive and innovative.’

Sure, at the end of the day, everyone is worried about their budget. But when they see the value in these images, they will continue to hire photographers.

Q: You mention budget pressures and in this economy they are acute for many organizations. Some turn to stock photography saying, ‘It is good enough.’ When is good enough not good enough?

A: There is a time and place for stock. I did my homework once on a client before the initial meeting. In a simple Google search, I found the stock photo they used for the cover of their annual report used on billboards and four other annual reports. I walked into the meeting with the print outs and my point was made without me needing to say it.

Hiring a photographer brings an organization content that no one else has. And original content is the only way to communicate that your company’s or non-profit’s program is unique.

Q: What does the future hold for this type of documentary storytelling photography?

A: Multimedia and innovation go hand-in-hand in the future. Multimedia is already becoming important in non-profit coverage. However, a lot of it is being done poorly and by an intern or non-professional staffer. Many NGOs don’t even realize what a photographer can do for them or the value of it. So you need to be innovative in how to show the organization’s what you can do.

Q: As you know, so many photographers have had difficulties surviving in this economy and adapting to the new digital world. It’s encouraging to hear an optimistic story about the future of photography.

A: So many photographers are downtrodden and caustic about the future. Quite frankly, we do not buy it. We do not believe the down economy and the changing state of news and journalism will be the end of our industry as we know it.

From Momenta’s standpoint, there is a future for documentary photography and it is bright. It may not have the same look and feel found in the hey day of newspapers and magazines. But that can be a good thing. It means that corporations, non-profits and community organizations are seeking out creative individuals to create content in new and exciting ways.

With Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo and YouTube, social networking is taking place at a level we have never seen before and we are entering a grand new age that should be met with enthusiasm and excitement.

Jamie Rose Snapshot: Rose is an award-winning photographer who has worked on five continents as a contract photographer for some of the largest non-profits. She started
her career shooting for The New York Times and other daily news outlets. She has published by National Geographic Books, The Washington Post Magazine, O Magazine, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine and others. Rose’s non-profit clients include The Global Fund, Doctors Without Borders and Physicians for Human Rights to name a few.

See Rose’s portfolio: jamierose.net

More Cool Stuff:

Momenta’s Official Page:  MomentaWorkshops.com

Follow Momenta on Facebook: Facebook.com/MomentaWorkshopsStaff

Case Studies:

Project Rhino by Momenta instructor Jeff Hutchens

Fighting AIDS with Multimedia by Momenta students and staff

 

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