Giving Back As a Photographer: An Interview with Michelle Valberg

Giving Back As a Photographer: An Interview with Michelle Valberg

I'm sure most, if not all, of you have heard about the idea of paying-it-forward. Did you know that recent studies have shown that this phenomenon is a learned behaviour? How can we as photographers use our skills to encourage others to benefit projects and philanthropy close to our hearts? I had a chance to chat with photographer Michelle Valberg, whose habit of giving back just saw her appointed to the Order of Canada this past summer.

Valberg was appointed to the Order of Canada for her contributions as a photographer and philanthropist in raising awareness of Canada’s North. From the very beginning of her career as a photographer, Valberg has always worked hard to give back. For those of us lucky enough to make a living as photographers, we should be doing something to make a difference in the lives of those that aren't so fortunate. As Valberg explained,

It's one thing to get paid, it’s a wonderful way to make a living, but I had a passion to make a difference.

Project North

Given my love for Canada's North, I was eager to talk about Valberg's Project North. Project North's mandate is to create recreational opportunities for Inuit children living in remote Canadian communities. Travelling to remote communities, Valberg saw the love of hockey in Canada's North. At the same time, seeing the price of milk, sitting at around $18 at the time, showed Valberg that raising a family, never mind buying expensive hockey equipment, would be extremely difficult.   

Working closely with the CEO of Adventure Canada, Cedar Swan, Valberg reached out to the Ottawa Fire Department and Ottawa Senator's player Chris Phillips to encourage equipment donations. Quickly, other major sponsors jumped in: Canadian Tire, Canadian North Airlines, and Diamond Storage all offered help, leading to the first of many Project North airlifts of hockey equipment. 

More recently, Project North has seen Scotia Bank come on board as a major sponsor. Such massive sponsors have helped Project North to host coaching clinics in Canada's North to help communities build the foundations for a strong hockey program. Just a few years ago, a coaching clinic in Churchill, Manitoba ran into trouble when the arena's chiller broke. Relying on locals to chip in, Valberg recruited Brendan McEwan of Frontiers North Adventures to help setup an outdoor arena. Frontiers North ended up lending its world famous Tundra Buggies® as change and warming rooms for an outdoor rink. 

Ottawa Area Hospitals 

Valberg has also contributed works to Ottawa area hospitals, including, CHEO, a pediatric health care and research centre. In fact, Ottawa area hospitals host the largest gallery of Valberg's work. For Valberg, donating images lets people escape into her photos. A relief from the stress of spending time in a hospital, I'd wager.

Books For Causes

Valberg has also published a few books and donated a portion of profits to causes particularly close to her. For example, Look Beyond: The Faces and Stories of People With HIV/AIDS, helped Valberg to raise money and awareness in the name of a friend who had died of AIDS back in the early 90s.

How To Help

With so much experience in the world of philanthropy, I asked Valberg for some advice that I could share on how to make a difference. 

Valberg's most important piece of advice was to show so much passion in your desire to help that others will also want to be involved. For example, Scotia Bank became a sponsor of Project North after Valberg talked the ear off a VP during a headshot session. 

Sometimes, it's not always photography work directly. If you can, go into the communities you want to help and establish yourself as an ally, gain some credibility as a supporter, and then offer photography that might help with fundraising or other media assets. Have some skin the game before you try to include your photography. Start small, with local charities. There are so many that need help it should be straightforward to build a network of people that trust that you want to give back by showing that you’re connected to the community.

Of course, most efforts to give back are collective efforts. Valberg couldn't fix the arena chiller, but she knew who to ask to get help. For Valberg, having the right people in a wide network of allies is critical to make projects like these work.

Never stop creating ambassadors for your project

I asked Valberg how her Project North keeps its massive sponsors. She explained that keeping big sponsors means providing an experience. You can't empathize with something you don't understand, and we really can't understand things we don't see or experience for ourselves. For Valberg, this means helping sponsors see the Arctic region, to see what they’re supporting. Show them the rinks, talk with the community elders, never stop creating ambassadors for your project.

All images provided by Michelle Valberg


Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Mark is a Toronto based commercial photographer and world traveller who gave up the glamorous life of big law to take pictures for a living.

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