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Photography for a Cause

30 April 2010 - EPUK

Taking photographs for charities is a delicate balance of fulfilling the brief, respecting your subject and never working for free. The work can also enrich your understanding of human nature, writes Helen Stone.

I’ve been a photographer since 1991. Eager and keen after leaving college, I moved to London to work in the editorial market. The problem was I had been a nurse in a previous life, and I was used to a world where I looked after people. This was rather ingrained in my nature, and I just did not seem to fit in the classic – and sometimes cutthroat – editorial market very well.

I tried working for the national papers, but when one picture editor kept me waiting for four hours without explanation I felt lost. I tried a bit of corporate work and did some portraits for a stockbroker, but being called the ‘lovely Helen’ by a man smelling of brandy made me feel uncomfortable. I’ve never been the sort to put up with that sort of treatment just to get on.

So I tried a different way to survive as a photographer and started approaching charities and health organisations. I’m still a press photographer, but I work directly for the organisations. I describe my work as ‘health and welfare’. Essentially, I work with people.

I like to think I care and nurture through taking images, and that I’m giving something back while making my living. This may sound caring but in some ways it’s actually quite selfish. I have a deep personal need to feel like I am making a difference to get full job satisfaction.

A million variables, not all of them rational

So how does taking photographs for charities differ from taking photographs for anyone else? In some ways, it doesn’t. They still have to promote themselves well. They produce annual reports, press releases and other publications. In other ways, however, it’s poles apart from PR and press photography.

Family Action Annual Review, 2006. Photos © Helen Stone.

You have to bend the photographic formula somewhat with the main key being flexibility. You can’t always use standard pricing structures: it just doesn’t fit that way. Can I get 15 images from a shoot? Can I price for it? Well maybe, sometimes, but not always.

You might come away from a shoot with 15 images or 50 or none at all. It’s an immeasurable length. Most charities I have worked with deal with people who are vulnerable or in need. Maybe disadvantaged children, people in care or those with mental health issues. These are complex situations to work in, with everything subject to a million variables, not all of them rational.

Who will turn up on the day? Will they participate? Will they change their minds? Am I covering a sensitive issue? Do I have to tread carefully or can I talk to the subjects about their personal problems?

In this situation, you have to respect everything the subject says. They are allowing their images to be used to promote a charity. It might highlight delicate issues or awkward topics. You have to ask yourself constantly if you would let your family’s image be used to promote the work of a charity which cares for the homeless, for instance, and have that image highlighted in the national press? I wouldn’t. For every person who has let me photograph them or allowed me into their homes I am gracious and grateful. On every occasion a mother has let me photograph her ill child I have felt humbled.

There is another paradox too. Charities have to strike a balance between showing their work and highlighting what they do in a bid to seek further funding, but without looking like they have spent too much money on PR.

Most charity reports will have a mix of fairly good-looking photography, intermingled with a shot or two that the office junior took on their compact (or even their phone). I’ve always found this side of it very difficult. Rarely have I seen a completed report that I am happy with. My work often sits side by side with some very basic photography, but I just have to accept that if I am to carry on working in the way I choose to do, this is the way it is.

Key briefing: message, feeling and never forget the end use

Charity photography goes through trends just like any other form of photography, in fact just like anything else. “There was a time when charities used images to prevent the problem – starving children in Africa, poor children in the East End wearing tattered clothes and no shoes and so on,” says Eileen Ware, a Consultant in PR and Campaigning for nearly 40 years.

That approach is seen far less often now. “There was a conflict between the fundraisers who wanted to show the problem and the PR people who wanted to show the success,” says Ware.

Personally, I have been asked to produce different types of images depending on whether I was working for the PR or fundraising departments of a charity. I never liked working for the fundraisers in the past. I found the concept of showing a child crying or with their head in their hands, thus tugging at the public’s heartstrings (and purse strings) and conscience to be distasteful. I don’t want to make people feel guilty; it’s not what I am about. The positive side is why I am a photographer. Through photography I can highlight what can be achieved.

Basketball player for The Multiple Sclerosis Society. Photo © Helen Stone.

Now most of the bigger charities do seem to focus on their successes. This to me is a move in the right direction. I asked Eileen Ware what she considered most important when briefing a junior PR who was commissioning a photographer. Ware highlighted three fundamental points:

The first was the storyline – the message for people viewing the photograph.

When I work I need to know this more than anything. Charities tell a story when they use images. They want the viewer to pick up as much of the story as possible from the visual clues before reading about it. It’s the same as any press work but perhaps more important with charity projects. The story is the reason people donate, why businesses give money and why members of the public leave a legacy. The story must be significant and thoughtful but the need of the recipient doesn’t always have to be shown.

It is not necessary to show a child being struck by their parent for example. But it can be important to hint somewhere about what is going on – this must be clarified with the client before the shoot. The need of the recipient tends to be evident in the charity title, the text and in our minds. It’s not always necessary to show it in images.

The second point Eileen said she would brief the junior PR about is the feeling the charity wants to get across, i.e. excitement, pathos, and information, for example.

As a photographer specialising in health and welfare I need to understand this so I know what I am going to get the subject to show in their face. It’s perhaps the hardest part of the job: the demand to make images look strong without resorting to schmaltz. There is a fine line between a natural smile and an overbearing grin.

Eileen’s third point to brief the PR about was the way the photograph was going to be used. For example, is it intended for a newspaper, a website or a newsletter? Basic specifications, such as whether it should be portrait or landscape, black and white or colour, are fundamental, and they don’t differ to any other photography.

I’ve met and photographed some brilliant people and done some amazing things over the years. I’ve worked with people who have campaigned tirelessly for decades, for causes they are dedicated to. I’ve heard tragic stories that have made me weep and stories of success that have made my heart flutter with joy.

I’m glad I choose the path I did. There have been a lot of memorable moments along the way, such as parking in the Bank of England’s car park, wandering around No 10 and having dinner in the House of Lords. More importantly it has enriched my understanding of human nature and helped me comprehend a more gentle side to photography that suited my character.

In all of this I’ve always kept my copyright and I have always been paid a fair price for my work. But I have gained far more than just my fee by feeling that somewhere, somehow my work may help make a direct improvement to somebody’s life.

EPUK Features Editor Helen Stone has worked for many charities including Scope, Mencap, and the Haemophilia Society and for the Prisons & Probation Ombudsman. She also works regularly for various health organisations such as NHS Foundation Trusts: www.helenstone.co.uk.

Text and photos © Helen Stone

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