How Do We Give Back as Photographers?

How Do We Give Back as Photographers?

I find myself in a grateful mood this week. Well, to be honest, I find myself in a grateful mood every week. Through both times of feast and famine, it is impossible to escape the unbelievable good fortune bestowed on me to allow me live on this earth, to create art, and exist in a world where I am allowed to dream. Whether you win or lose, getting to play the game is a gift and shouldn’t be taken for granted. So this week, between crafting bids, fine-tuning cold calls, and assembling moodboards, I am taking time to do a different sort of brainstorming: how can I give back to a world that has given me so much?

We all know we should do it. We all know there are people out there less fortunate than us. We all know we should help. But how? In a world with a seemingly endless number of concurrent catastrophes, where do we even start?  

What do I even have to offer? I’m a photographer, for crying out loud, not a superhero. What difference can I really make? Well, I once remember hearing a civic leader comment in an interview that we should all “think globally, act locally.” So I’ll start there.

Each One, Teach One

An African-American proverb developed during slavery when blacks were denied the right to an education, the simple phrase has far reaching implications. More than just its original intent of teaching literacy, taken in a global context it can refer to all of our innate responsibility to aid in the development of our fellow citizens, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or other cultural bounds.

As a photographer, you may not be equipped with the skills to build a house or fight a war, but you do have a unique skill set that you can pass along to the next man or woman in line.

I often refer to one of the most formative experiences of my photography career as being when I was an intern and photo assistant for legendary photographer, Art Streiber. The experience allowed me not only to see what his process was like on set, but to see how he ran his business, how he interacted with clients, and how he interacted with staff. That kind of access was invaluable to me as a developing artist and I still use many of those skills today.

But as amazing as that experience was, the even more amazing thing is that he didn’t have to do it. He could just as easily go on shooting with his regular crew, shroud his process in mystery, and continue to bask in the deserved glory of an iconic career. But, instead, he decided to give back.  

And not just for me. I am constantly running into other Streiber disciples whom he has taken the time to help along the way. More than a one off, he has made teaching part of his business philosophy.

I am by no means on the same level as Streiber, but I can offer advice to those on the way up. I can look for opportunities to bring budding photographers on set to see how I work. I can teach them what I know about lighting and ways to approach various subjects. I can teach them what I know about marketing and help them with their portfolio. While, I certainly don’t know everything, I can offer what knowledge I do have, just as others have passed their knowledge on to me.

Use Your Voice

Art is one of the most powerful forces on the face of the earth. No matter your discipline or place in the pecking order, the right image has the power to change the world.  

A tragic image of a young Vietnamese girl running from a napalm blast helped to end a war. An image of a young boy, having just survived a bomb blast in his town, seated solemnly in the back of an ambulance can draw worldwide attention and humanize conflict.

But the power is not restricted to photojournalism. Narrative storytelling can have an equally dominant impact on our understanding of events and our perception of reality. Roger Ebert, the legendary film critic, used to say that what he loved most about film was its ability to allow the audience to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. I may not live in the community depicted in the film and I may not be the same age, gender, or race of the main protagonist, but art can give you the sensation of what it is like to exist in someone else’s reality. It creates empathy, which in turn creates understanding. And the ability to understand is the first step towards a better world.

What is it you think would improve the world? How can you use your camera to bring about the change you seek?

Give Back — Literally

Art is a gift that keeps on giving.

One of my earliest encounters with art having a real impact on me came from a somewhat unlikely source: George Jefferson.

Yes, Norman Lear’s late 1970s/early 1980s comedy was built for laughs. Yes, it is probably best known today for the catchy theme song that played over its opening credits. But like much of Lear’s work, which also included the likes of “All in the Family” and “Good Times,” it was comedy based in the real world.

In this particular episode, George was just returning home to his “deluxe apartment in the sky” having just narrowly escaped a near death experience. I don’t remember what the experience was, I don’t even remember what the rest of the episode was about, but I remember clear as day the source of George’s stone-faced reaction. The brush with death had made George think about his mortality. Specifically, it inspired him to wonder, if he had died that day, what would his legacy be? What would he leave behind? What effect did he have on the world?

I often think back to this scene in moments of self-examination when I try to dive down to the root of why I really want (need) to be an artist. Subconsciously, I think part of it is a need to be remembered. While we will all eventually leave this earth, a great piece of art can last forever. The message can outlive the messenger. The product of our imagination can move mountains and reach heights our mortal being will never ascend.

When you give art, you are offering someone an eternal gift.  

Take, for instance, a family portrait business. They create images of mothers with their daughters, fathers with their sons, siblings, couples, and all forms of combination that make up a family bond. The transaction may just be momentary, but that image will last forever. The subject will be looking back at that photo 30 years from now as a moment in time. A moment they got to spend with a loved one. A reminder of what they themselves once were. It will serve as an introduction to their great grand children who may never get to meet them in person. A testament for generations to come.

But outside of a business context, we can all serve our community by offering those opportunities through charity. We can volunteer to take portraits of soldiers to comfort their loved ones in a time of war. We can volunteer at a local pet shelter to take portraits of the potential adoptees and potentially save an animal’s life and bring love to an adopting family.

No time to volunteer in person, but have an ever-increasing number of prints beginning to pile up in your studio? How about donating a print to a local charity or nonprofit? They can sell the prints at auction and raise funds for issues that you care about and help make a difference.

There are a myriad of ways in which we can all repay the society to which we belong. As hard as we work, none of us are truly “self-made” and there are those people in the world that helped us to get to the place where we are today. So take a brief moment between setups to think about how you can pay that generosity forward. Think globally, act locally. How will you help the world become a better place for generations to come?  

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Thanks for the article. There was a post a few months ago about hosting a nature walk where the participants brought their phone, camera, etc. and I thought that was a neat idea on how to give back to the community. A few months ago a kid I coached in tennis hit his head in the bottom of a pool and is paralyzed from the neck down. He was in critical care and is currently in rehab. I live in the path of totality from the most recent eclipse and took a photo a lot of people wanted prints of. So I decided and asked his family if I could print a 20 x 30 metal print of it from bayphoto and auction it off as part of a fundraiser. It's ways like this, as you mentioned in the latter part of the article, that we can give back as artists.

That is a great idea. You've made a positive effect that family will remember forever.

Give back?

.........Isn't that what we do for a living. Give people memories they can look back on for generations to come (and maybe some that should never be seen again) ?

I've been in corporate, law, and finance. There was no giving back in those roles unless it was in furtherance of future business etc.

Music, art etc IS the act of giving back.


Hmmm, giving back.

Considering an estimated 1% of the world's population owns about 50% of its wealth you are asking the wrong bloody people.

I rest my case on the fact the Jeff Bezos has an estimated wealth of between 60 and 70 BILLION US Dollars. Ask that greedy bastard to "give back" first./ I mean, how many Billions do you actually need?

As per usual it is the people who can least afford it that are asked to give. The rich must be just pissing themselves with laughter every time there is a disaster of some sort and these rich people have the gall to ask the poor for money. What kind of insane world are you living on?

In the words of Rush, "let the men who hold high places be the first to start".

I am certainly not "getting at" the author of this article (it may seem like it, but I am not), giving is a noble cause, but I am incensed and continually amazed at who asks to give and whom is asked.