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Three Tips to Blend Photography and Positive Change

by Stephanie C. Roberts, December 2012 (updated January 2013)



©Stephanie Calabrese Roberts
Caption: A young Koseli School student admires his teacher during a field trip to the Central Zoo in Kathmandu, Nepal. Koseli School is featured in Lens on Life: Documenting Your World Through Photography and a fair content partner in the book. To learn more about Koseli School, visit www.nepalkoseli.blogspot.com.

Editor’s Note:
You can read an excerpt from Stephanie’s book “Lens on Life: Documenting Your World Through Photography” by clicking here…

Framing our view on the canvas of life, photographers express ourselves through the photographs we create. We make art. We share our vision. We fulfill our desire to create. But what if each of us carved out an area of focus for positive change? What if we used our photography skills as a form of advocacy?

I find that my most rewarding documentary work has been made in situations when I showed up simply because I believed in the good work of my subjects and the positive impact of their actions. This is the work I assign myself. Your ability to document and share an experience in a visually compelling way through photography is a gift. Consider sharing your time and photography skills with individuals, educational institutions, and/or non-profit organizations doing work you find inspiring and fulfilling.

As you think about approaching this work, particularly when photographing subjects living in material poverty or under challenged circumstances, the most important aspect of your work has little to do with your technical skills and the camera gear you bring to your assignment, and everything to do with the state of your mind and the composition of your heart. Treating your subject with respect as an equal partner bends your role from fleeting observer to trusted advocate. When you become a trusted advocate, your level of access to and comfort in working with your subject will grow, leading to more intimate and powerful images.

Here are three tips to help you apply your photography skills toward positive change:

  1. Focus on a cause that inspires you. You can find a lifetime of documentary material just by turning your lens on your own community-the people closest to you, in settings that feel most familiar. Identify local contacts you admire (e.g., schools, shelters, non-profit organizations) and explore opportunities to support them with your photography. Finding a level of comfort in documenting people can come more easily if you photograph people who know and trust you and are comfortable in your presence. Building a relationship with your subjects will take time. If you’re passionate about the cause and respectful of your subjects, it will undoubtedly be reflected in the quality of your work.

  2. Put your camera down and connect with your subject. When I pick up my camera, I can’t help but form a barrier between myself and my subject. I become less involved in the action and dialogue, and more of an observer to the experience. I’m thinking about light, making decisions about what to include in the frame of my viewfinder, and anticipating what might happen next. I can’t remain in this zone throughout our entire time together, as I’d miss the opportunity to build a personal connection with my subjects. For this reason, it’s critically important to put your camera down long enough to ask questions and listen. Understand the context of your subject in his/her setting and situation. The more you know about your subject and the cause, the more sensitive you will become in sharing his/her story from a photographic perspective.

  3. Embrace the Fair Content initiative. Fair Content is a collaborative movement to encourage photographers and other creative communicators to provide fair compensation and editorial input to their subjects. Supporters of Fair Content believe people who share personal stories about their own lives have the right to determine how, to whom, and for what purposes their stories may be shared; to validate that their stories are portrayed in an honest and authentic way; and, particularly when their stories are shared in ways that generate income, to receive fair payment, not as a form of charity, but as compensation for a valuable asset. As you consider starting or developing your photography project and find that you may have an opportunity to generate income from the sale of your portrayal of your subject’s story, I encourage you to work collaboratively with your subject(s) to craft a Fair Content agreement so you and your subject have an opportunity to benefit from your collaboration. To learn more about fair content, visit faircontent.org.

    Stephanie Calabrese Roberts is an award-winning documentary photographer, best-selling author, and the creator of LittlePurpleCow Production. Her most recent book, “Lens on Life: Documenting Your World Through Photography,”  challenges photographers of all levels to stretch their creative boundaries, explore new image-processing techniques, and define, plan and execute a documentary photography project. Prior to writing “Lens on Life: Documenting Your World Through Photography,” Roberts authored “The Art of iPhoneography: A Guide to Mobile Creativity” (Pixiq, April 2011) and co-wrote “Expressive Photography: A Shutter Sisters Guide to Shooting from the Heart” (Focal Press, December 2010). She’s also a member of Shutter Sisters, a popular online blogging community for female photographers, and the founder of the non-profit organization Lens on Life, Inc.


    Text ©2012 Stephanie Calabrese Roberts. Book excerpt courtesy of Focal Press.

    Article revised January 2013.

    Readers' Comments


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    Robert K , January 11, 2013; 03:27 P.M.

    4. If the subjects' locations, movements, expressions, etc. are "wrong", pose them until they are "right". And still call these photos *documentary*.

    Starvy Goodfellows , January 22, 2013; 03:32 P.M.

    Most of us don't really live in the age, culture or geographical location to change the things we want to. This might mean necessitate fraying into causes that we don't believe in. I just think that some are more suited to passing judgements with their lens and others document those judgements. Most prefer the latter.


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