Giving Back With Your Camera

It's Thanksgiving, a day when many people in the US will eat way too much food and then collapse on the couch to watch the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers on the teevee. (Heh.)

But thoughts of giving thanks often prompt thoughts of giving back. And there is a lot of collective talent among the readers of this site. So today, a bit of an open thread on ideas for giving back with your camera.

I'll start off with a few specific suggestions from my own experience, but I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Photography as a Currency

Money is currency. But your photography can be a currency, too. Professional photographers exchange the use of images for money. But you can flip that equation on it's head and, for lack of a better word, spend your photography on anything you want.

Who gets the benefit when you spend your photography? That depends on how you decide to do it.

Over the past five years, I have grown to think of my own photography not only as a way to make money, but as a currency I can choose to spend. As a result I have seen lots of downstream benefits, both for myself and for the organizations on which I have chosen to spend my photography.

Below are three specific examples, along with some of the cross-benefits accrued as a result. I can't be the only one who thinks of photography in this way. If you are also doing this sort of thing, please take a moment to share some of your own experiences.

When you consider the scale of readership here, your idea could affect real change somewhere else for a photographer, a recipient or both. So don't be shy.

Partner With an Organization

For three years, I have been photographing artists for the Howard County Arts Council's Rising Stars program. It is maybe the coolest ongoing project I have ever done, and I have just re-upped for the fourth year.

Rising Stars seeks to identify young artists with great potential, and change the arc of their career. I was the beneficiary of a similar boost back in 1989, when I participated in the second year of the Eddie Adams Workshops. Best photographic week of my life.

My goal in this project is to provide for the artists a collection of photos -- head shots, traditional editorial-style portraits, more adventurous stuff, etc., -- that they can use to help to build a visual identity early in their career.

For them, the benefits are pretty obvious. But what about for me?

In short, I have gotten a steady stream of young, creative muses over the last few years. These are people with vision, and who are willing to take risks. What more could a photographer ask for in a subject?

From this project I have gotten a strong core in my portfolio, been deliberately stretched as a photographer and seen my visibility enhanced among exactly the type of people I am trying to reach in the community. This comes back in both karmic and monetary ways. It is some of my best-spent time ever as a professional photographer.

Some of you will remember posts from HCAC shoots, including this shoot of cellist Caleb Jones. It was one of my favorite photos I made last year. A photo from the take is the main image on his site, and he has just reached out to me to plan a second shoot.

The interesting thing is, I do not think of him as a commercial client. Commercial clients for me are companies that bring more money than creativity to the table. Caleb is the reverse. Less money, but insanely more talent and creativity. So I am already thinking more collaboration/exchange/barter. I am thinking along the lines of, 'What's the coolest thing I can think of that includes the availability of a live performance by a cellist?'

Very excited about that. Stay tuned.

Strike a Blow Against the Chains

I live in Howard County MD, a suburban area between Baltimore and Washington D.C.

You want chain food? We got chain food. But what we also have lately is an influx of great indie ethnic food. This adds tremendous value to the community, and it is something I want to promote. So that is one of the areas on which I try to focus with my local blog.

I photographed and wrote about R&R Taqueria, a small but authentic Mexican restaurant that literally operates out of the corner of a Shell station at Rts 1 and 175 in Jessup, MD. My friend Brent has written repeatedly about the place on HowChow, which is the go-to site for any foodie in HoCo.

Whether photos or words. this kind of coverage is a currency that can draw attention to a business. And more to the point, draw attention to exactly the kind of business you would like to see flourish in your community. And spending your photos (or your words) in this way absolutely affects change in your community.

In addition to increased community awareness about the subjects you choose, other effects can be much further reaching. Case in point: A while back, a researcher for The Food Network was studying the Baltimore area on the web and caught local blog posts about R&R. At this point, the local papers still had yet to discover the place.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago and I found myself having lunch with Guy Fieri, host of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Apparently, it is one of the most popular shows on the network, if not the most popular. Judging by the spiked, bleached hair I was all prepared for Guy to be pretty full of himself as a cable celeb.

Turns out, he's really cool and down-to-earth. Totally won me over. But it was still pretty surreal to be munching on Rodrigo's pollo a la parilla with two video cameras on me, and a producer imploring me to keep chewing as I talked on camera to Guy. (Do they have any idea how long my wife has been trying to train me not to chew and talk at the same time?)

The takeaway: Point your camera at things and people in your community that deserve to be elevated. You never know what will happen.

And if you want to try R&R Taqueria, you'd better get there before mid-December when the show airs. 'Cause that place only has 5 barstools, and it is gonna be crowded for a long, long time.

Help a Worthy Cause

One of the models I see going forward for HoCo360, my local site, is one of a photo archive / stock library. Being locally focused, this has value both in terms of digital usage and print sales. But I have never really sold prints, nor have I ever actually considered myself an "artist". So I have no idea of the value of my local photos as prints, nor even how to go about setting a price.

But I got a good head start after agreeing to donate a print to the Gilchrist Center of Howard County, a local hospice. They have an annual Taste and Auction of Howard County event, for which I donated a framed print of the above shot of Main Street in Ellicott City, MD.

To be honest, I was a little concerned that it wouldn't even merit the $140 I spent on having it framed. (When you say, "museum quality," the framer's eyes light right up…)

But Ann (the friend who had prompted me to donate the print) told me that when she left the auction (before the finish) the bidding was already at $630.00. That made me feel pretty good in itself. But even better, the fact that I was able to use a print to turn $140.00 into $630.00 for hospice was very cool. In that moment, photography was literally a currency that I could spend to do good.

Beyond that, it also helped me to know there is a market for my local work in print form. And it gave me some guidance as to how it could be valued within the community. That will give me the confidence to price it appropriately when I unlock that part of my local business model.

So there you go. Three concrete examples of giving back with your camera, and some of some of the downstream benefits that have accrued as a direct result.

This being Thanksgiving, I hope this post gets your gears turning as to how you could use your own photography as a means of giving back within your community. And if you already are, please share your experiences in the comments. I'd very much like to hear them.

(Traditional Strobist turkey carcass diptych by Paul Morton.)


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