Please don’t photograph for free just because you want to go to [insert country name]

Rwandan coffee farmer by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl for Catholic Relief Services
Rwandan coffee farmer. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl for Catholic Relief Services.

 

I’m going to say this straight: please don’t photograph for free just because you want to see Malawi or Cambodia or Haiti.

“But the client will pay for my plane ticket and hotels and meals so it’s worth it for me,” you’re thinking. “And when other potential clients see these pictures, they’ll pay me to go back. That’s practically like getting paid!”

No. It isn’t.

I can think of a lot of reasons not to take assignments like this but there are three I want to highlight.

  • If a potential client wants you to photograph for them, it means they see value in your work. That should include financial value. So negotiate with them. Ask them about their budget. Does everyone else at their organization work for free? No? Then you shouldn’t either. My guess is working for free does not factor well into your cost of doing business. Charging money is a cornerstone of being a financially successful photographer.
  • You’re hurting the industry by working free. When you work without compensation, the client learns that good photographers work for free. The client will continue believing this and keep trying to get photographers to work for free until something happens that changes their mind. Like you starting a discussion about compensation.
  • You’re hurting photographers in those countries who could be working for the potential clients. I live in Rwanda, and I know of other photographers living in Africa who have been asked to lower their rates to below what it would cost the client to fly a photographer to Africa from the United States or Europe – a photographer who’s willing to work for just that plane ticket.

It’s possible to convince a client to pay you to work overseas. I know from experience.

About eight six years ago, I was freelancing in Washington, D.C., when a potential non-profit client contacted me about working for them in Laos. They wanted me to write and photograph some stories. They had “no money,” they said, but would be happy to pay for my air ticket, hotel, meals and in-country transportation.

This was the first time a potential client asked me to travel overseas. I was flattered and excited. I was tempted to say yes right away. But I had almost no money myself, and I just couldn’t. (Hurting the industry didn’t factor into my thought processes just yet.)

I told the potential client that I couldn’t work for free, but I’d like to meet them in person and talk about my 10 years of journalism experience, what I could do for them and why I would charge them. The next day I dressed up, bicycled down to their office and pulled out my presentation: a print portfolio, a video I’d produced and edited, and some print stories I’d written and designed into nice layouts with photos. I talked about the different ways they could use content on their blog, website and in their marketing materials and presentations. At the end I gave them a breakdown of my fees.

The potential client thanked me and said they’d call soon. I didn’t have a good feeling.

A week later, I was out eating pasta with friends when they called. I was surprised and nervous, sure they would say “no thanks” and I’d be disappointed. But instead, they accepted my charges. They saw the value in what I could provide them. Within two weeks I was in Laos.

It might be nerve-wracking to negotiate back and forth with a potential client. It can be disappointing when you turn down a cool gig because the client says they don’t have money. But think of how great it would feel to get paid to photograph overseas. Think of the good you’ll be doing for the photography industry. Value your photography enough to fight to get paid for it.

Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa, Table Mountain by Laura Elizabeth PohlMr. P. at the top of Table Mountain. We were wrapped in clouds the whole time and had to leave the mountain sooner than expected because park officials said the cloud cover made it dangerous for visitors.

Cape Town topped this year’s New York Times list of 52 Places to Go in 2014 and for good reason: it’s beautiful, it’s history-filled and it’s got a lot going on. There are restaurants, museums, plays, restaurants, shops, parks, live music, restaurants. Maybe Mr. P. and I had been feeling particularly deprived of those things after one year of living in Rwanda, but we loved Cape Town when we visited at Christmas.

I tend not to take as many pictures when I’m vacation as when I’m working. This means my archive is filled with way more pictures of strangers than of friends and family. But look — on this trip I made an effort. If you were to see at all the photos from Cape Town, it would appear that Mr. P. hired a professional photographer to document his South Africa vacation. Which isn’t so far from the truth, actually.

Cape Town, South Africa, Table Mountain by Laura Elizabeth PohlThe clouds broke for about five seconds and I got this stunning view of Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain.

Cape Town, South Africa, Table Mountain by Laura Elizabeth PohlTypical view of cloud-shrouded Table Mountain as seen from the Castle of Good Hope.

Fish Hoek, near Cape Town, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlNear the beach at Fish Hoek. The sign tied between the palm trees says, “Merry Christmas.”

Fish Hoek, near Cape Town, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlPlaying on the beach at Fish Hoek. There’s Mr. P walking to the immediate right of the jump-roping girl.

Simon's Town beach, near Cape Town, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlSimon’s Town beach on Dec. 26. We didn’t find this out until later, but visiting the beach the day after Christmas is a Capetonian tradition. No wonder it was packed and we couldn’t find parking for a while (we ended up parking on a sidewalk).

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlMr. P. stepping on a giant piece of thick seaweed at the Cape of Good Hope. Many people believe this is the southernmost tip of Africa – I did until this trip – but it isn’t. That distinction belongs to Cape Alguhas, about 90 miles southeast.

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlMr. P. and a panorama of part of the Cape of Good Hope. See the black things floating in the water? That’s the seaweed Mr. P. was stepping on before. The seaweed roots itself in the bottom of the ocean and grows up like a long, thick piece of hair.

Cape Point, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlRough seas at Cape Point.

Cape Point, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlAlso very windy at Cape Point.

Looking at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlThe Cape of Good Hope as seen from Cape Point.

Cape Point, South Africa, by Laura Elizabeth PohlA girl looking out from Cape Point.

Rwandan orphanages and orphans for Hope and Homes for Children

posted in: Africa, Rwanda, Work | 0

Rwandan orphanages and orphans for Hope and Homes for Children, Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

The children roam everywhere at Noel Orphanage, Rwanda’s largest institution for orphaned kids. They wander the grounds outside the main dormitories, opening random doors and kicking around broken toys on the ground. They run to strangers for hugs, tugging at hands and refusing to let go no matter what the staff say. They play and run around the ubiquitous laundry hanging from washlines and drying on grass.

I was at Noel to photograph for Hope and Homes for Children, a British charity partnered with the Rwandan government to close orphanages. Their goal is to reunite children with any living family members (aunts, cousins, etc.) or put kids in foster homes. It’s a delicate task and one that’s part of a worldwide trend of closing orphanages, as The Economist reported in August 2013. According to their story:

In order to close institutions governments must bolster the alternatives. Small homes housing around 12 children are better than huge ones, at least for those with no living relatives or very severe disabilities. Long-term carers work in those places, not a large staff on shifts. Mother-and-baby groups and day centres for struggling parents reduce the likelihood that youngsters will need government protection. When it is unavoidable, foster and adoptive care are the healthiest ways to supply it.

But that requires authorities to vet prospective parents, and to check up on them. This is difficult where social-care systems are poor. In countries such as the Czech Republic social workers are valued mainly for handing out benefit payments, rather than as mentors and monitors, says Ms Mulheir. Teachers and nurses who work in institutions sometimes resist reform.

During my visit to Noel, we started in the infant room, where the youngest baby was just a couple days old. Next we stepped into the courtyard and walked to a small room, where about 20 toddlers live, some of them still learning to walk and most still learning to talk. As soon as the little ones saw me, all of them started crawling and stumbling my way, crying out “Mama! Mama! Mama!” I just about lost it. Later, someone from Hope and Homes told me the children are taught to call all women “Mama” and all men “Daddy” or “Dada.” I’m still not clear why.

The main challenge on this shoot was not showing identifiable faces of any children in the orphanages. I’ve had a lot of experience with not showing faces such as filming an undocumented immigrant in the United States and photographing North Korean refugees in South Korea. But kids are more wiggly, and there were so many of them, and a lot of them wanted to play, and who can resist playing even a little bit with a playful kid? The best part of this shoot was photographing children who have been reunited with their families or put in what appear to be loving foster homes. The children seemed genuinely happy and truly loved by their families. I hope this will be the case for all kids being moved out of closed orphanages.

Rwandan orphanages and orphans for Hope and Homes for Children, Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Rwandan orphanages and orphans for Hope and Homes for Children, Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Rwandan orphanages and orphans for Hope and Homes for Children, Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Rwandan orphanages and orphans for Hope and Homes for Children, Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Rwandan orphanages and orphans for Hope and Homes for Children, Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Rwandan orphanages and orphans for Hope and Homes for Children, Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Rwandan orphanages and orphans for Hope and Homes for Children, Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Rwandan orphanages and orphans for Hope and Homes for Children, Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Rwandan orphanages and orphans for Hope and Homes for Children, Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Rwandan orphanages and orphans for Hope and Homes for Children, Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Flying over Ethiopia

posted in: Africa, Travel | 0

Ethiopia countryside aerial view | Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

I love sitting in the window seat of an airplane, which lets me appreciate (and photograph) views like this one somewhere over Ethiopia. I have so many beautiful aerials over so many African countries. I may have to edit through them and create an essay, something like George Steinmetz’s series of aerials over Africa. I definitely have a long way to go before I have images like his, though. Just gorgeous.

Ingoma Nshya, Rwanda’s only all-female drumming group

posted in: Africa, Rwanda | 0

Ingoma Nshya in Kigali, Rwanda | Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl
I recently had a chance to watch Ingoma Nshya, Rwanda’s only all-female drumming group, perform at an artist’s showcase in Kigali. What energy and power. The women had the audience clapping and screaming for more. As well as being drummers, Ingoma Nshya members run an ice cream shop called Inzozi Nziza in the south of Rwanda. The shop and the drummers are the subject of a new documentary film called Sweet Dreams, which is screening all over the United States. Be sure to see the film if it’s in your area.

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