Ways to Give Back Through Photography

Students, Coaches, Surf Camp, Beach Group Photo, Smiles
Cowabunga Surf Camp 2015

Photographers and creatives tend to be extremely giving people.  There may certainly be some exceptions to this really broad generalization, but I believe it to be true the vast majority of the time.  People who find themselves moved and touched by the beauty in the world generally like to share out and spread that beauty.  It's what we do.  Something really powerful and profound happens when you give back to individuals or a community.  The greatest rewards are the knowledge deep down in your heart that you have done some good in the world.  It's impossible to ignore the fact that there are also rewards in terms of recognition and awareness of your photography when you get involved in projects that help others.

The key to offering a successful ‘giving back' project is to make sure that you are truly connected and passionate about the project.  It doesn't take a lot of thinking to come up with some ways to offer free photography services to a person/organization that would appreciate them.  But depending on these projects, they can certainly take up a fair amount of time, so it's important to select a cause to which you feel genuinely connected, so that you enjoy the time that you are investing.  I personally think the worst reason to get into any sort of outreach program would be the “publicity” from the program.  If the motives for a project aren't sincere, there is a very good chance of getting very worn out by a project.  There is a chance of even feeling resentful of your own desire to be a part of something.  If you chose things which you passionately love, the motives are genuine, and your interest will remain very strong.

As food for thought, let me offer up a couple of the projects that I have personally undertaken.

Cancer Patient, Family, Children feeding ducks
A photo session together before this lovely mother begins a round of chemotherapy was used to create a photo book for the family to have while she was going through recovery.

1 Create a Photo Album For Someone That is Ill

The photo to the right was taken last fall, as one of my colleagues from work was getting ready to start a round of chemotherapy after a recurrence of cancer.  The particular type of chemo that she was going to begin the following day would leave her in quarantine for a couple of weeks.  I was able to edit the photos and lay them out in a simple photo book that afternoon, and had the book rush produced by Miller's.  The photo book served as a warm reminder of her husband and children while she was feeling miserable and going through the worst of her treatment.  The images also served to really help the children and her husband while she was undergoing her ordeal.  Photography certainly can't make the challenges any less daunting when dealing with such a horrible disease, but I truly believe that having those moments captured for all time will be precious for the family for a very long time to come.

2 Hold a Mini-Session Fundraiser

Two weeks later, we also held a mini-session fundraiser to help generate some cash for the family as she was out of work for quite a while.  The premise of the fundraiser was very simple.  I held the event on Halloween Day at a local farm that had a pumpkin patch, hay rides, corn mazes, etc.  We advertised the sessions through my work email. (I had to get permission in advance… it's always best to have permission when using a corporate or work related email server for something that is not work related.)  We had about a dozen teachers sign up to bring their families to the farm to do a very short photo shoot in a perfect Halloween setting.  The farm was kind enough to also advertise the sessions, and I took out a targeted ad on Facebook, which was aimed specifically at individuals who had cancer awareness as one of their interests on Facebook.  The turnout that day was absolutely fantastic.  Each participating family received a number of photos from the farm, and my colleague's family received a decent amount of money to help defray medical expenses.  I charged a very small amount from each session for the time of shooting, editing and posting the photos ($20.00 per family.)  The advertising for the project made that clear, and nobody had a problem with the fact that I was charging such a low amount for the shooting/editing on the project.

I think it's tremendously important not to enter into these sorts of projects solely for a ‘business building' type of motive.  It's so tricky as a small business owner, to balance the desire to promote and advertise your business with the genuine desire to simply do good in the world.  In this particular instance, I have subsequently booked at least five different full family portrait sessions as an outgrowth of that mini session fundraiser.  As a matter of fact, I am heading out later this afternoon to do a family portrait for one of the families that participated in the fundraiser, and this is the third session with that particular family!  They have already informed me that when their 20-year-old daughter gets married, they want me to be their wedding photographer.  This is 100% an outgrowth of the mini session fundraiser.

3. Offer to Help a Brand New Business

I am a firm believer in supporting small businesses.  A brand new restaurant opened in my town just about two weeks ago.  My wife and I have eaten there twice, and it's a great restaurant.  The space has a very artsy/funky look, and it also has a full wall that is devoted to hanging local artwork.  They have various works of art throughout the restaurant that are made by local craftspeople, and are for sale (stained glass, planters, etc.)  The owner of the restaurant charges ZERO commission on the items that she hangs in her restaurant because she truly wants to help out the local artists.  That type of arts-friendly operation certainly deserves some reciprocal love from an artist in the community, so I have offered to come in and do some commercial photos of her space, food photography to help her build a web presence, and anything else she might need in terms of building her business.  This is an ideal way to build a long-term connection with an arts-minded local entrepreneur.  I will gladly suggest that perhaps we could trade a few dinners for my wife & I in exchange for the photography work, and ultimately all of us come out ahead!

Bulldog, Sleepy, Pet Photography, Cute Dog
Lily my incredibly lazy English Bulldog

4. Pet Photos for a Rescue

I am a proud owner of an English Bulldog rescue named Lily.   Heavensent Bulldog Rescue has meet-ups and events throughout the year.  Attending those events with camera in hand is a wonderful way to give back to an organization that does amazing work.  I have provided photos from costume contests at Halloween as well as photos of their annual “Valentines Day Kissing Booth” that is set up at a local mall.  The time spent is a pure joy, and they get some photos to use for publicity and to share out on their social media outlets in order to raise awareness.

5. Donate a Print to an Auction/Cause

A very fast and easy way to help out a cause when you don't have time to give is to offer up a good quality print which they can auction off or sell.  This is a very easy thing to do, and can really help them out!

6. Donate a Session to an Auction/Cause

Although it isn't as fast or simple as donating a print, you can easily donate a portrait session, senior session, etc., to an organization you want to support.  If they are advertising the session as something of value, it also has a bit of an “advertising” effect for your business.

7. Teach a Photography Camp/Class for Kids

Kids are absolutely amazed by photography.  I don't think it's any secret that the young tend to be super-creative.  In many ways, I think the rigid structure of our educational system tends to dampen creativity rather than inspire it.  As photographers, we can do exactly the opposite!  My own particular version of this is a camera club that I run where I am a music teacher.  The kids absolutely love the idea of learning some basic elements of photography.  Honestly, 90% of them just want to take a better selfie or photos of their friends.  But with each group, I usually end up with two or three that are VERY serious about learning the nuts and bolts of photography in depth.  One of my current camera club students just sold his Razr scooter in order to buy a used Canon 20D camera body.  A bunch of the teachers in my building have all chipped in to buy him a lens, and I have given him a tripod, filters, memory cards, etc.  We're going to meet up once a week over Summer vacation to do photography lessons.  The family can't afford anything of this sort, which is exactly why it's so important that he have that kid of experience provided for him!  Your version of this wouldn't necessarily have to be a weekly lesson – it could be a once and done meeting.  It's really up to you, and how much you are willing to give to an aspiring young photographer.

Cowabunga Surf Camper and her coach after a successful ride.
Cowabunga Surf Camper and her coach after a successful ride.

8. Provide Free Photography for a Special Event

Last summer I was vacationing in Surf City, North Carolina, and I learned of a summer camp for children with Apert Syndrome.  When I heard about the camp, the first thing that popped into my mind was the fact that I had never heard of Apert  Syndrome.  There seems to be certain maladies and ailments that are very much in the ‘public eye.'  I have always felt that there is a special challenge to folks who are dealing with a major health concern when it is NOT one of the common or ‘trendy' illnesses.  In the case of Apert Syndrome, these children go through a vast number of surgeries to deal with bone growth problems.  The group of kids that were at Surf City for their summer camp all shared the same surgeon, and they had developed a friendship and camaraderie with each other through their struggles.  I was simply at the right place, at the right time, so I spent a couple of days shooting the kids as they were learning to surf.  By the end of the second day of shooting, I had managed to get at least one photo of each participant getting up and riding a wave on a surf board.  There was an incredible outpouring of gratitude for these photos.  In most cases the kids' parents were not present for that achievement, so it was a wonderful opportunity for them to see the joy and happiness on their child's face!  There was also a surf school involved, a bunch of surf coaches, a yoga instructor, and a lot of local support as a ‘cheering section.'

In this particular instance, I wouldn't say that there was any direct impact in terms of a business benefit.  I uploaded the photos to a Dropbox, and offered them freely to the parents/coaches.  The benefit here was just the incredible feeling of having done a good thing in the world.  Our world has too few good things!  As I am writing this article (about 1 week prior to publication,) I just sent out a blank photo release for the parents/participants in the camp.  I can't share out the photos of this event without a proper release because www.improvephotography.com reaches thousands of readers.  I'm hoping to somehow magically get a release from each of the participants and coaches by next Friday's publication date… you will know if I was successful if you see the smiling faces above this post.

I'm very excited to have been invited back to Surf City to photograph the next Cowabunga Surf Camp in just a few weeks.  The development of a “home away from home” and a connection to a community are honestly more valuable than words can express.

I believe that each of us can find our own ways to give back through photography, but there are many large organizations that offer a more structured and organized way to give back.  Perhaps you would want to reach out to become part of one of these fantastic organizations.  Make sure to do your research in to each of these groups – I have never worked with or been affiliated with any of these groups personally, but I have heard wonderful things about them!

Operation Love Reunited

Operation Love Reunited is focused on providing photos for Amercian and Australian servicemen/women dealing with deployments.  It was started by Colorado photographer Tonee Lawrence.  They provide professional photo sessions for military families.  Just a small personal comment here – much younger in life, my wife and I WERE a young military family.  There is no way we could have afforded professional photography services.  We benefitted by a fellow Marine who happened to have been a photographer for the USMC.  He took portraits of us when we got married, and shortly before my wife was scheduled to deploy to Iraq.  Long story short: professional photography for military families is a tremendous luxury given their financial resources.  Here is a link to the new photographer application if any readers are interested in becoming involved.

Sherpas Fund

This is actually one of my favorite examples of photographers giving back of all time.  How often do you have the opportunity to purchase a REALLY high-end National Geographic photographer's (Cory Richards) print for $100.00?  Not very.  Back in 2014 there was a huge tragedy where a number of the climbing sherpas on Mount Everest were tragically killed.  The various photographers who climb and photograph that area reacted almost instantly, and started a small fundraising effort.  The response was incredible, so they set up a site and continued raising money for the families of the deceased sherpas.  I very proudly have one of these prints on the wall at home, and I cherish the stunning image, but more-so the knowledge that the proceeds went to such a worthwhile cause.  Here's an article about the project and it's amazing success.

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep

This is an organization that has been mentioned a few times in Improve Photography podcasts.  The premise for this organization is to provide incredible photography to parents who are suffering the loss of a baby.  This one takes a very special type of photographer.  The social grace and sensitivity that it must take to navigate these photo sessions is truly something that I can't even imagine.  The photographers are screened very carefully for a wide variety of things, both in terms of their quality of work AND their ability to handle such emotionally vulnerable and raw experiences.  For those to whom this type of work is well suited, I can only guess at how meaningful it is.  I personally don't know that I would have the strength to do it.  Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep‘s website is located here.


3 thoughts on “Ways to Give Back Through Photography”

  1. I’ve done an awful lot of these over the years. Additionally I have shot a lot of HS sports that my son has participated in, creating a web site where the students and parents can look at and grab copies of the photos. I’ve been told that it has been a little disruptive at times when students are refreshing their phones to see themselves but I’m always happy they enjoy the shots.

    Along the photo camp / class line I am a Boy Scout merit badge counselor for photography as well as a web site for scout events.

  2. Lots of good ideas in this article, Mark! I just wanted to put it out there that there is an organization called HeARTs Speak (http://heartsspeak.org/) for artists who donate their time to help animal rescues and shelters, either by photographing adoptable animals or donating to fundraising efforts. They even provide grants for equipment and training for animal shelter staff to help them take better photos of their animals – it makes such a difference in how quickly (or even whether or not) they get adopted into forever homes.

  3. These organizations only want professional photographers who are well established. Luckily the animal shelter I work with does not have such a requirement

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