How To Become A Humanitarian Photographer
December 15th, 2010

Battambang — Cambodia

The two most common questions I’m asked are “What camera/gear I use?” and “How do you become a humanitarian photographer?” The answer to the first question is easy: whatever’s nearby. (Just ask “Reflection” Eli. I used her camera to do a portrait in Nepal. It was nearby. And it was a Canon for those who need to know.) I gave a lecture last month on humanitarian photography, and I promised a member of the audience that I would blog about this second question; so here I go.

However, the truth is that I don’t actually know the answer. I don’t think that there is a university that is pushing out humanitarian photographers. (If there are universities that have courses in humanitarian photography, then please somebody comment about them for those who might be looking to go that route.) I don’t think that there is a standard roadmap that permits one to jump on somewhere along a clear trajectory in order to find oneself working as a humanitarian photographer. It’s all a bit more nebulous than that—at least it was for me. It isn’t a profession that I chose at career day. In fact, I chose a lot of other professions first. Somehow, along that extremely serpentine trajectory, this is where I find myself. In fact, when I look at my peers this is one thing that we have in common; we have almost all had other careers first (and most of us are self-taught). However, it seems rather pointless for me to start a post in which I’m simply going to shrug my shoulders and say “I dunno”. So in an attempt to be at least one rung on the ladder more useful, these are the characteristics that I think might be a solid foundation for becoming a humanitarian photographer.

Be Consistent
Photography is extremely subjective. What I like you might think is absolute rubbish, and vice versa. We can look at certain images together and agree that they possess, or don’t possess, standard compositional elements and other photographic qualities, but that doesn’t mean that they will affect us in the same way. You don’t have to photograph like your photographic idols, mentors and peers. You can photograph like you. In fact, you must. But you must also be consistent if you want to photograph for somebody other than yourself. When somebody decides that they like your vision and your way of expressing yourself with a camera, they need to know that this is what they’re going to get if they hire you. For a professional, consistent is often better than brilliant. (Of course, both is best!) Your results must be purposeful and not accidental.

Be Professional
The word “professional” seems to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people when it comes to photography. Here I mean it in the sense of competent and reliable. Do what you say you are going to do. Do it when you say that you are going to do it. Represent yourself for your abilities. Succinctly, keep it real.

Be Entrepreneurial
If you intend to make a living as a humanitarian photographer, then you’ll need it to generate your income. This will require business acumen. You will need to know what you’re worth, how to negotiate contracts and will have to have systems in place for invoicing, receiving payments, delivering photographs to clients, etc.

Be International
This one may or may not apply to you as it depends on where you hope to find your clients. There are humanitarian organizations nearly everywhere—fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how one is going to look at it. (It’s fortunate that they exist, but it’s unfortunate that they’re needed.) If you are interested in obtaining an assignment to work for an organization in Africa, Asia or any place other than right where you’re living, the organization needs to know that you can travel. I have seen people become almost completely functionless when faced with the realities of life in certain parts of the world. The organization for which you hope to work needs to know that this is not going to be you. You need to be able to show that coping with cultural diversity is old hat to you. If you’ve already been to a remote section of Africa, then your efforts to work as a humanitarian photographer for an organization in remote Africa will seem much more plausible. However, there has to be away of making that first trip—without necessarily just buying a ticket and running off someplace. And there is. If you can manage to excel at a domestic assignment for an organization with international locations, then they might be willing to put you onto a plane to that remote location, particularly if they like you!

Be Likable
Perhaps more so than in any other area of photography, a humanitarian photographer needs to be likable. This will help you get an assignment, but it will also make your assignments go much more smoothly. Often, you’ll be hired by headquarters in a western country but will work with field staff in a developing country. Those field staff are busy, and they may or may not be happy to see you (as you’re going to take up their time). Be likable and the chances will improve remarkably that the local field staff will be helpful and happy to see you.

Be Flexible
Things will go wrong. Learn to take them with a bit of humor. Yes, it’s not easy to find it humorous to suffer from E. coli or malaria, but, fortunately, those will be rare. You’re more likely to encounter transportation problems, uncooperative weather, shot lists that are impossible, etc. Be flexible and find solutions.

Seriously. You need to care if this is going to be your profession. Organizations want to at least hope that you are going to empathize with their efforts. They don’t just want somebody proficient with a camera. They want to be able to relate to you and feel that you understand their projects. They will expect that you share some of their humanitarian ideals. You don’t have to be an expert on each NGO’s activities, but it helps enormously if they sense that you have an understanding of their mission. Knowing about their activities could actually be key in getting the assignment.

Note that these characteristics are not unique to humanitarian photographers. They’re probably good ideas for all photographers, but these are characteristics that I generally recognize in fellow humanitarian photographers. I think that they’re a good foundation and something worth considering for anybody who wishes to pursue this rewarding career.

20 Responses to “How To Become A Humanitarian Photographer”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JeffreyChapman, Craft&Vision, marcoryan, Matt Connors, Stuart Sipahigil and others. Stuart Sipahigil said: RT @JeffreyChapman: New blog post: How To Become A Humanitarian Photographer [...]

  2. Shivakumar says:

    Hey Jeff,

    Really loved reading this post. So much of information and inspiration but in very simple words. Liked the way you have jotted down things. Am really inspired looking at your work and also reading your blogs.

    Good luck for your future work and looking forward for your further work.


  3. Eli R. says:

    Jeffrey you can use my camera ANY TIME, it just means that I will get a good reputation for my portrait skills! I can live with that. :-)

  4. Mario Mattei says:

    Each point resounds with me in a real way, both idealistically and from experience.

    You articulated a lot in a few words. Well done. I hope many aspiring photogs read and re-read this post.

  5. Thank you Jeffrey – I continue to ask myself – how do I go about combining humanitarian photography with my babies & bellies portrait biz in Seattle. My goal is to do 3 months humanitarian out of the year. These are great insights! Cheers, kenna

  6. Chris Plante says:

    “Be likable”… is there an app for that?

    It’s true though. Salesmen know this well. People don’t buy products or services from people they don’t like. That’s what Dale Carnegie says.

  7. Jere Judd says:

    I think I would have started the list with “Care.” Or “Be a Humanitarian.” The emotional commitment to the subject will carry you a long way I think.

    But you hit the nail on the head. Becoming a Humanitarian Photographer seems to be a lot of hard work. Just like anything else.

    If it’s your dream, go for it.

  8. CJ Kern says:

    Sound advise Jeffery; with the possible exception of being international, I agree that being consistent, professional, entrepreneurial, likable, flexible and having your clients believe that you care in what they care about holds true to all photographers who want to make a living at it.

  9. lane davis says:

    Great post. Very important foundations. Thanks for putting a seemingly hard question to answer into words for everyone.

  10. Earl B says:

    Great post and great advice for anyone wanting to start humanitarian photography… There is no standard rulebook.

    I tell people find a story you are passionate about and start shooting.

  11. Geir says:

    Good post, but one question: Isn’t the term “Humanitarian photographer” a very new phrase? I never heard about it before this year, and it seems to me to be connected to a very close group of extremely talented photographers who travel and take pictures.
    Am I wrong assuming the whole idea of humanitarian photography being brand new?

  12. Jeffrey Chapman says:

    Geir, I’m not certain for how long “Humanitarian Photographer” has been used, but it is certainly not new this year. I’ve been using it for years and years. Professional photographers and humanitarian organizations have been collaborating since long before I was born; so I’m not certain when one of these photographers first decided to label himself this way. I am neither the first nor the last, but I hope that I will succeed in doing the label justice.

    And thank you all for your wonderful responses. I love this community.

  13. Geir says:

    Just to clarify: I was not negative, it just popped into mind. But it is a label I love, and defines what I want to achieve myself. At least it’s what I hope to teach my students.

  14. Pradeep says:

    Empathy, you rightly pointed that out!

    one interesting post. thanks!

  15. Emmanuel E. says:

    Great post i’m so amazed,likeable,care and flexable. This has really gives me an insight to know more about Humaniterian photographer well done JEFFERY.

  16. Thank you, Jeffrey, a great article. It would be nice if you could elaborate more in-depth about breaking into the humanitarian photography business. Please take a moment to share more on that!

  17. Hi Jeffrey!

    great article, thanks!

    Related to finding customers for humanitarian photography, I have come to realize that -even more that in most job areas- this one is tightly related to CONTACTS. Assignments are usually given to friends, contacts, relatives, and not really to the best ones (best not only technically but in many issues related to this kind of photo/videography.

    Could you give us some advice from yor experience on how to (let´s talk clear) get jobs? As I can bet you could never find an ad offering a photoreporter (humanitarian or conflict areas) position.

    It´s funny that nost phtotographers don´t want to talk about this.

    Best regards,

    Marcello Scotti

  18. waiswa nathan says:

    i would love to be humanitarian photographer,i need someone to help me reach my goal.

    i live in uganda and am aged 30 705 071427

  19. Jeffrey Chapman says:

    Hi Marcello,

    You’re absolutely right in that it’s all about contacts. Nobody is going to hire you just because you have a website — not even if you’re a brilliant photographer. You need to invest a lot of time and energy into developing contacts. It helps enormously if these organizations know you as a person and not just as a photographer. My path was perhaps different from most. I worked as a management consultant on international projects and then decided to give that up for my true love — photography, but the contacts I made while a consultant proved to be priceless. I knew people at all levels of corporations and governments all over the world, and, more importantly, they knew me. It was an easy transition to convince them to hire me to create visually compelling stories of the projects that they supported as they had already worked with me (as a consultant). So what I can suggest is to look horizontally from wherever you currently are professionally. Does your current company support any humanitarian projects? Your company’s clients? Partners? Etc. Those are always great starting points. Otherwise, go out and introduce yourself — not just as a photographer but as somebody who is interested in whatever work the humanitarian organization is doing. Don’t hound them. Just make sure that they remember you when it comes time for them to need a photographer. Of course, sometimes you have to explain to them that they need a photographer, but that’s a whole different story.


    PS — Sorry this response is a bit late. I don’t blog much any more. Too busy photographing. :)

  20. Jeffrey Chapman says:

    Waiswa, I’ll email you.

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