Using Your Camera for Something Bigger Than Yourself

Using Your Camera for Something Bigger Than Yourself

There are so many ways to approach photography. We can search for artistic expression, money, Instagram fame, or any number of other things. Photographer Damari McBride believes we should all do a volunteer photo-journalistic project at least once. Let’s find out why.

Earlier this year, McBride set out on a project with Photographers Without Borders to work with Nourish in creating marketing content. They spent 10 days in South Africa documenting in stills and video the work Nourish does and the impact they’re having. Fstoppers touched base with McBride recently to hear about his experiences and why he is encouraging everyone to work on a volunteer project once. 

Why Do a Volunteer Project

With the population of our planet approaching almost eight billion and a huge diversity in standards of living, now, more than ever, we can use media to do good. Everyone has a story and some don’t have the chance to have theirs heard like the more fortunate of us do. In media coverage of places like Africa, we are constantly bombarded with the bad. Poverty. War. Corruption. These don’t necessarily mean that everyone is weak, powerless, or unhappy. There are positive stories to be found and these need to be told as well.

This project “taught me the importance of perspective in photojournalism,” says McBride. “I wanted to give the people I photographed power.” By empowering his subjects, he is able to show them how he views them. He also mentions that he learnt a lot about community, collaboration, and just what poverty means from being on the ground and working with people at a grassroots level. “Poverty doesn’t mean weak. It just means you have to do things a bit differently.”

McBride stresses that this project allowed him to give back and support others through his talents. Not only that, but it reaffirmed within himself that he is capable and his work is capable of having a value beyond just being a photograph. I think, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all felt some of that self-doubt. Volunteering and making a difference with our images might be just what we need at times like that. 

In speaking about Photographers Without Borders, he says that it was amazing to work with other creatives as passionate about doing good as he was. Their whole team are creatives and their sole purpose is to use that for good. He says that the project wasn’t just about getting it done, it was about building relationships and working together to make it the best it could be. 

Setting Goals

Photography is complex enough as it is. As photographers, we face the immediate challenges of making our equipment express our vision, learning the ins and outs of post-production, and battling with ever-changing light. But for a project that aims to do something with the photographs rather than the photographs themselves being the goal, this becomes infinitely more complex. Some of the biggest challenges that McBride faced are those that many will be up against if they want to work on a volunteer project. 

One of the main reasons many photographic projects fail or never really get off the ground is a lack of clear goals set for the project. Personally, when I start any project I like to think it through, set some specific goals, and consider the final output for the project. 

When speaking to McBride about his process, a few things stood out. Working on a project that is essentially to benefit others means that funding and style play a large part in the planning process. With a specific goal in mind, McBride was able to work backwards to get everything in place before he departed. 

Personal Goals

The first thing was his own personal goals. He notes that his desire to participate in this project with PWB was driven by wanting to “tell a positive story about everyday heroes that are making an impact.” That’s a lofty and noble goal, but one that gives direction to the project and allows him to focus on getting exactly what he needs in order to do that. 

He notes that he is prone to overthinking everything and this was no exception. “I wanted to come back to show something to my donors that I was proud of, but most importantly I wanted everyone to know the stories of these kids that I was going to be photographing. I wanted to stick to my style, but not too much, but if it isn’t my style then it isn’t me, and there was that over thinking again.” 

For McBride, overcoming this meant letting go. This meant just doing his best with what was in front of him and rolling with the punches. As you can see from the work, this approach yielded some great results. We can all benefit from this piece of advice. As much as we should set our goals, achieve everything we can, and put our stamp on it, one of the best things we can do as creatives is let the situation give us inspiration. 

Funding Goals

Getting the money together to fund a project like this is difficult as an individual. Of course, the goal of this work for McBride and PWB was to provide Nourish with materials they could use to show the good work they do and encourage additional funding for them to continue doing that work. This meant that funding for the actual photography and documentary production would need to come from somewhere else. 

McBride settled on asking family and friends to help him raise the money required for him to participate in the project. Rather than simply hold his hand out, McBride decided to offer portrait sessions in exchange for contributions to his funding. Making this process an exchange of services for money made people more open to supporting the cause. But, as McBride put it, “Not everyone took my time and just gave a donation because they saw I was serious.” 

Here we see a creative approach to raising the funds to do a project you’d like to do. Finding the money to participate in a good cause like this should not be an issue. Even if you do not have enough, or cannot access it yourself, you can use a creative approach like this to raise the necessary funding. 

Giving Back

On a larger scale, this project aimed to give back in a more long-term fashion. However, McBride also notes that giving back on a personal level was one of his major goals. He spoke to the importance of breaking bread with people, hearing their stories, and letting them be a part of the process of making the images he was making. Even after returning home, he printed the images he had made and shipped them back to Nourish in order to fulfill his goal of giving back.

Wrapping Up

The one repeating theme during my conversation with McBride was that all this theory, gear, and learning only gets us so far. The real magic happens when you set your mind to making something, put your first foot out the door, and get started. After that, it all comes together and you’re able to understand the true power of photography. Therein lies the power of doing a volunteer project specifically to help others. The finished documentary will be available for viewing by early January on the Photographers Without Borders site and the images are already live on Damari McBride’s site.

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9 Comments

user-187388's picture

A thought provoking article.The camera and the photographer wields a lot of power for change and influence. Some good and some bad. There are may people around the world doing humanitarian work who are not professional photojournalists. They document the projects they are involved in.Their photos are not necessarily great but they tell as story and hope to bring about change.The people at photovoice do some wonderful work in empowering people with photography.I have always had other goals in mind with my photography other than just loving taking pics.Thank you for posting.

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I hadn't heard of Photovoice. Heading over to check them out now!

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One comment on this article, and 66 comments on the Sigma article, which was published two hours earlier. *sigh*

And yes, this article echos what I have been feeling/thinking for months.

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I’ll take quality over quantity any day of the week, my friend!

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True story, Tim :)

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love this article. well done. i'm a big fan of personal documentary projects that tell a story and bring some kind of help to the people in it, be it awareness or any other means!

Well done!

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An inspiring article, just like William Murray said, we should be able to read more of them here.

Przemek Lodej's picture

I was in Peru and Bolivia in 2016 and after visiting a remote village called Pachanta at the base of Ausangate mountain south west of Cusco, I decided to help these families after spending some of the most amazing time in my life. Since coming back I have been sending clothes, school supplies, shoes to the kids there. I plan on doing this indefinitely and time and health permitting I will go back next year to document their life there. I must admit that it does get expensive, because there is no efficient way of delivering these packages to such remote locations, but the satisfaction one gets from seeing smiling faces of these kids is enough to justify any cost. I was lucky enough to snap a few photos on my trip which helped me convince a few of my friends to help out. I think everyone should do something like this even locally. There is always someone in need. Merry Christmas :)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/128856312@N02/albums/72157671559674951

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

I'd add that one doesn't need to aim so high to have an impact. Within a few miles of home, most of us can very likely find one or more nonprofits with a mission that we can happily support. I learned photography that way, coincidentally hearing the call to community service around the same time I got into photography.

Creating images that helped my nonprofit recruit, advertise, raise money, etc provided endless opportunities for me to first learn how to operate a camera, then advance beyond that to being able to formulate and execute a vision.

No fundraising required to do something like that.