The World Needs A Photographer Like You

The World Needs A Photographer Like You

That’s right. You! No matter what your skill level, there is a project in this world that is perfect for you. Are you going to get paid for this project? Nope! This one is going to be a freebie. 

Now I know what you are thinking. "Whoa Whoa Whoa, stop the clock! You want me to work for free?”

Yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do. And here is why. Go find a globe. You know, one of those round things with the world painted on it that spins around real fast. Yeah, that thing. Go find one…go on. We are waiting. Ok good, you got it! Now, spin that globe fast. Close your eyes and stop the globe dead in its tracks. Use your finger and place it somewhere on the surface. Open your eyes. See the country your finger landed on? Congratulations, that’s your next photography destination!

“But Michael, there are no picturesque landscapes in that country!”

So What?

"But Michael, I have never left my home country before”


“But Michael, it’s currently pretty dangerous to go to that country”

Danger is subjective. We have been trained to fear all things unknown, but obviously, use common sense when selecting your global destinations, and be sure to check the current travel warnings before booking your ticket. 

So you now have your destination. What exactly are you going to do when you hit the ground? Well let me tell you about the photography work that I fell in love with, and don’t mind not being reimbursed for it. Hopefully that will give you some ideas to think over.

A boy stands outside of his home in a barrio in Granda, Nicaragua. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 70-200, 1/60 sec, f/5


Back in 2012, I started working with a photography company called The Giving Lens. The idea behind The Giving Lens was bold; run an international photography workshop to teach aspiring photographers, but while on the ground, work with a local non profit organization to help bring awareness to their causes. The Giving Lens was in the process of organizing a scouting team of 6 to head down to Peru. This small team would help test out the location for a future workshops, with twice the number of participants. Always looking for something new, I signed right up. Little did I know it would rock my photography world.

The trip was an incredible success. Sure, Machu Pichu was amazing. The old capital of the Inca Empire, Cuscu was beautifully enchanting. But the best part of the trip? Walking the dusty old streets of a little known village called Orapesso with a large number of children from The Picaflor House, a local NGO whose mission is to keep underprivileged children off the streets and in school by providing additional school subjects like English, as well as creative programs, such as dance and photography. We had arrived with a number of donated cameras and began to teach these energetic, wide eyed children the ins and outs of composition and exposure. As I walked through the village, holding the hands of children as we crossed the cobblestone streets, I took photos of street scene after street scene while teaching my young apprentices. There are no tourists in Oropesa. Just you and the residents, who still live in the same houses that their great grandparents built with their hands. I instantly fell in love with this new found photography addictions of traveling, documenting, and giving back in the process.

Children beg for money at a temple in Cambodia. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300, 1/200 sec, f/3.5


This was real life. Not a static landscape, which, if you didn’t get the shot you envisioned, you could just go back the next day and try again. No. This was much different. Walking those streets of Oropesa, I often had just a split second to capture the scene I could see unfolding in front of my eyes. After that split second, that moment in time was gone. Never to be recreated again. I sometimes get the chills when I look over those frozen moments in my Lightroom catalog. There is something incredibly beautiful about capturing a moment in a person’s daily life. It’s a routine they are accustomed to, but they have never seen it quite the way I do.

A group of children sit on their boat outside of their home in a floating village on the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300, 1/400 sec, f/5.6


This was the turning point of my photography journey. No longer was I focused on the beautiful landscapes that too often dominate social media. My passion started to grow for this documentary photography, in locations most of the people I know would never have the opportunity to visit. I obsessed over National Geographic photos. I searched and searched for these moving and powerful photos that I added to a Pinterest board. I looked at that board everyday, dreaming of the opportunity to live that feeling again.

Two years and countless workshops later, I am now leading workshops for The Giving Lens. My travels with them have taken me to the barrios of Granada Nicaragua with the vastly talented children of Empowerment International, to the Middle East where we documented the Iraq Al Amir Women Cooperative Society outside of Amman, Jordan, to strolling the dirt roads between picture perfect fields of rice in rural Cambodia with Anjali House. I've gone from teaching photography to the students in villages while traveling throughout India, to documenting the amazing work of an incredible woman named Lek Chailert who bravely started an elephant rescue and sanctuary called Elephant Nature Park, in the jungles of Northern Thailand.

It has been an amazing journey, and one that I encourage you to take as well. Look at that country you randomly chose on that globe. There is a non profit organization in that country that works towards a cause that you firmly believe in. They need you, badly. Whether it is simply taking photos of their daily lives to use to raise awareness, teaching your skills to underprivileged children, or helping to build elephant enclosures, these incredible organizations, and the kind hearted people who so tirelessly run them, need you. It may cost you money to do it, but the reward is much more valuable than money. Experiencing the real world, with real people, who will become lifelong friends. The frozen moments in time you capture will give you the chills every time you view them, for the rest of your life. And the best part? Not a tourist for miles.


A man walks outside of a Mosque in Old Delhi, India. Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 85mm, 1/2500 sec, f/1.8


The Treasury in Petra, Jordan is an incredible site at night, when it is illuminated by candlelight. The star trails in the sky were composed of 120 individual exposures. Canon 5D Mark III, Zeiss 15mm f/2.8


A Monk walks through the Tep Preah nom Pagoda while a girl and a dog play in the humid mid morning Cambodian air. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300, 1/500 sec, f/5.6


A merchant outside of a narrow ally way in Al-Salt, Jordan. Canon 7D, Canon 28-300mm , 1/400 sec, f/5


A bird flies overhead, as the Taj Mahal in India lights up in the early morning as tourist clamor for a better view. Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 85mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4.5


Lek Chailert often sings Thai lullabies to her elephants to help them fall asleep after a long day at the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24mm, 1/1000 sec, f/2


A girl laughs on the steps of a mosque in Old Delhi, India. Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 85mm, 1/1000 sec, f/2.8


A boy shows he can write his ABC's at a school in India. Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 85mm, 1/500 sec, f/1.4

Michael Bonocore's picture

Michael is a full time photographer, traveler and workshop teacher based out of San Francisco, California. Michael's passion lies in international photojournalism, which has brought him to lead photography workshops around the globe. Michael has written guest articles for companies such as Matador Networks, SmugMug, and Borrow Lenses.

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Such an inspiring article Michael! Makes me itch to go travel some more. Beautiful words and beautiful images!

Thank you Tessa :)

Excellent!!!! very inspiring!

Thank you Lex! Traveling and immersing yourself in other cultures is the ultimate inspiration for me, and I love helping people also discover that.

There is it! Mike's first article. Great stuff dude!

Ha, thanks Tam! This article means alot to me, so I am honored Fstoppers let me publish it :)

What a timely article Michael. I had heard about TGL thru Verina and Jay Patel on a podcast and looked into it. I applied and just got offered a spot on the upcoming Cambodia trip. I am so excited about this opportunity. What a Win Win for all involved!

Thanks so much Don! I will pass my thanks on to Varina and Jay for binging you into our little TGL family!

Nice first article Bonocore! Can't wait to see what comes next :)

I would love to be able to travel more, but man money is not forthcoming these days. Looks like I won't be getting another stamp on my passport this year :(

Thank you Rich! Ah man, what happened to the big Architect job? Did you leave that for full time photography?

yup! I'm now a full-time broke photographer haha

Ah, thank you Michael. You captured in words and images some of main reasons why I love to travel and shoot photography. I've been in this country too long...I must go find a globe to spin.

Thanks for the kind words Keli! I hope we can run into each other out there again soon!

Michael, amazing images and well written, but please DON’T photograph for free!! You're absolutely right that more photographers should partner with non-profits to further their cause, but giving away work is not the best way. I understand that financial compensation may not be the driving force behind these projects, but you're hurting photographers working in those countries when you work for free. I live in Uganda and capture photos and video fro non-profits while training locals in the craft. But too often organizations don't value the media enough to pay as they wait around for someone to "volunteer" work (which may be sub-par or incomplete). When high quality work will not be fairly compensated, it ultimately hurts the beneficiaries of these non-profits. This is an industry that should grow but never will if it's undermined by well-intentioned "freebies". Please re-think of ways to continue your international work in a more empowering way for everyone. The people and cause's are worth it!!!

Hi Micah,

Thank you for your feedback. I can understand your concern as a photographer in a country where oversees photographers come in and give "freebies". I can only speak for the organizations that I have worked with, but these incredible organizations rely on volunteers to contribute their time. Without volunteers, they would never have the financial means to stay afloat and provide their incredibly valuable services to their communities.

If volunteering your time and photography isn't acceptable, then should a volunteer who teaches English to the students not be acceptable as well? Surely, there is a local resident who speaks the local language as well as English, and could use employment as a teacher. But, if the organization must hire a full time English teacher, than they must also hire an art teacher, a after school tutor, etc. But, obviously having to hire these employees will hurt the organizations finances, maybe even enough to eventually shut them down.

I have worked with enough of these organizations, and become friends with the good people that run them, to know that they usually barely scrape by on their monthly budgets. Sending them an invoice for the time I spent teaching their students, or for that photo that they recently used on their last fundraiser that kept them afloat for another three months, seems wrong to me.

If it is money I need, I sell myself and my services to the for profit companies, but for me, when I work with an organization that needs me, I leave the invoice book at home.

Thanks Michael for your response.

I think it’s unfortunate those great organizations are so unsustainable. ‘Non-profit doesn’t have to mean no money. Regardless of whether it’s a business or charity, the concept of value still applies. When you provide a solution that helps a charitable organization accomplish its mission, you are providing value. When you help them fulfill their mission, it raises their visibility which causes donations to increase, allowing them to continue or expand their efforts.’ (words of John Tabita).

So many non-profits will continue to limp along until they understand the value of effectively telling their stories. Believe me, it’s not about money… it’s about sustainability and having these organizations invest for the continuation of their incredibly valuable services!

Mr. Bonocore, would you mind writing a series of follow up articles on how to pitch projects to organizations or how to go about finding organizations that already have projects that need photographers. Also, how one prepares, packs and the types of kit a photographer might need/take on a trip abroad for one of these projects. And finances. I mean how is lodging and food taken care of? Things like that. Thanks!!

Tre, great ideas! I will work on a follow up :) Thank you!

Congratulations on getting your first Fstoppers article published. Looking forward to seeing more of them, and certainly more of this message. We need a little more of it, especially Stateside.

Thanks Reggie! Miss ya man! See you in NYC :)

A fabulous article Michael and of course, stunning photos! Joining TGL and you in Jordan was one of my favourite trips. The work you all do as photographers to help the people of these countries is inspirational. Seeing the joy on their faces is reward enough!

Thank you Jenny! That trip was one for the ages, eh?


Thanks Rommy!

Lovely article Michael, next time you're in India. Give me a buzz.

Thank you Ravi! I hope to be back once (if not twice) in 2015. India has the absolute best street/documentary photography of any location I have visited. I loved it there.

Great article Michael. I would love to join you on one of these trips.

Hey thanks Juan! You got to come man. You would love it. We can even have a traveling Drink And Click event :)

Amazing!! I wish i had a budget for traveling! One of these days my wife and I are going to travel! :)

Thanks Christian. I realize budget can be a PITA, and I do hate that this type of journey may not be possible for some. :(

this is simply great. Great article and photos. Really inspiring and touching.
Would love to do something like this

Thank you for the kind words Jorunn!

Awesome concept. I think we all want to give a little more with our photos. This looks like a great way to do it.

Thank you John! I had honestly never thought about it before my first trip to Peru, but when I saw the children's smiles, I knew that I had found my passion.

Beautiful travel shots!

Thanks Chris! Fun fact...I have edited (or even looked at) less than 5% of my travel photos. I need to get on that...

I can relate. Great undiscovered gems in there I'm sure!

I don't expect you to do anything for free. You can choose any job or project you wish, either for pay or not. That is your right.

More than half of the workshops I have gone on for The Giving Lens have been out of pocket, usually costing me a couple thousand. I don't pay the workshop fee on those trips, since I am working as a Behind-The-Scenes photographer, but I am paying my airfare, room, food, and supplies. Even after all of that, I still leave a good chunk of change behind as a donation to the organization.

The Giving Lens workshops are not very expensive, and if you had read the descriptions of the workshops, you would see that most of the extra money made is donated to the organization that we work with. We are able to give a little money to Kate, who works full time organizing the workshops. It is her job, but even what she gets isn't much. I have made zero dollars on trips for The Giving Lens. For workshops where I am the lead, yes, I get expenses covered, but not a paycheck. I can assure you, having worked for The Giving Lens, we are not a money maker, nor, do we intend to be.

This article was meant to make you consider other avenues of how to further your photography skills, travel, and use up your vacation time by contributing to a worthwhile cause that you believe in. It's not for everyone, but I hope it has inspired just a couple people to look into it :)

Then, when should I start?

Great first article, Bono!

Thanks Aaron!

Michael, Our trip to Jordan is one I will never forget. Reading your article brought bach some many wonderful memories and so many new friendships as a result. I really hope we get a chance to travel together again some day soon.

(I hope this thread is still alive...)
Really nice article Michael! This is just what I needed now.
Actually in the past few months Im seriously considering major lifestyle changes. Basically travel as much as I can, and making a "living" out of voluntary work and selling photos. By "living", I mean earning just enough money to make it forward, Im not interested in savings right now.
If you try to place yourself in my situation, my question is that how would you define the line between voluntary work and work that you sell? How would you split your time between voluntary services and actual paid assignments? What would be the biggest options and chances to make enough money out of paid photography work, to cover my living and traveling, while participating in voluntary projects?
How do you see this kind of situation?
Cheers, Sandor