Teaching Others to Fish

Teaching Others to Fish

This past week in Chiang Mai I attended a conference of several faith based NGOs (Non-Government Organizations). I was in more meetings than I cared to be, but that is life. I was helping with Knowledge Stewardship and fishing for new clients.

NGO’s, especially the small ones, tend not to have a lot of money. They often operate on a shoestring budget. Many of their photographic needs are met by their field staff and often not very well. If they need an image of a Kurdish woman working on a staff project, they don’t even think about hiring a professional like me to go shoot. They just get their staff to go out and take a “snap” of the ongoing project and then they insert it into their latest newsletter or website. Why is this? The funds are not there. I can’t tell you how many times I have approached an NGO that I thought I might be, able to help, and when I give them my daily rate their mouth’s drop to the floor. The next words are always, “We were hoping you might to it pro-bono.” Certainly not what I was hoping for.

There is an age old adage that effective development organizations try to live by. You know the one, about how it is better to teach a man to fish than to just keep giving him fish. I think more and more photographers are subscribing to this. You see it on blogs and places like Lexar.com/dp and lets face it that really is what a workshop is all about. But, I have never heard of any photographers doing this intentionally with NGOs.

So lately I have been toying with an idea. This idea would teach the smaller NGOs how to fish. I work as a consultant with a knowledge management organization that focuses helping NGOs be more productive and better stewards of their knowledge and in turn with their time and funding. I handle their branding and visual needs. I have been pitching an idea to work together with them to not only teach these organizations about  knowledge management practices but let me run a mini workshop for field workers. My goal is to teach their field based personnel how to gain better images with what they have, be it a point and shoot or an entry level DSLR. I will teach their field personnel how to fish. Why not take a group of development workers, in someplace like Iraq or Afghanistan and teach them what makes a good image, how to plan out, shoot and create a photo essay. Help them see the image and then capture it. Introduce them to tools like Lightroom and Soundslides Plus and how to use them effectively. In the long run this will save them money. How do I benefit from this as a photographer? I think an NGO is more likely to pay me my daily rate for a one-off. Plus, as I teach their staff they will be gathering images and creating product on the spot. At least this is the theory, and this is what I pitched this past week. I had several nibbles this and one bite. I will tell you more about the bite after I get it fully into the boat. In the meantime anyone know a place to get a good deal on a flack jacket?

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  1. Aleksei Saunders

    Excellent idea – good luck with landing the fish. Check Lightstalkers.org for information on flack jackets. Stay safe.

  2. Jeffrey Chapman

    Matt, I completely agree with this approach. I suspect that some photographers will argue that you’re teaching potential clients how to become self-sufficient and therefore taking potential work away from not only yourself but also from them. However, I think that often our primary job should be to make ourselves obsolete. Too many times people, no matter what their profession, operate in a mode of self-preservation. They do what is best for themselves and the security of their own jobs. I believe that my job is always to attempt to become obsolete. You do this by transferring skills and empowering others. And if you do it well, it not only works but makes you marketable. I not only wish you the best of luck with this but sincerely hope that you succeed as it will help those who are worthy communicate with greater impact.

  3. Matt

    Thanks Aleksei, I will check out the options on Lightstalkers.

    Jeffrey, Thanks. Some how I knew you would like this. I really think this can be a win, win if done right. It really should speak to the development community, as it is their language. I think they might even respect me more, at least that is the hope. And if the need for better images than their field workers can make comes along I hope I will have created some trust me and call. Who know?

  4. Mario Mattei (IGVP)

    I read yesterday in a book on leadership that leaders must aim to make themselves obsolete, or else they will become obsolete. Seems contradictory, but it’s not.

    What a fantastic principal. Develop others, make them as large as possible, and don’t dwell on self-preservation (as Henry Ford did, for example). I can truly live by this principle without compromising my conscience, instead I actually follow its convictions. The true paths to success are righteous.

  5. Stuart Sipahigil

    I love this idea. It’s really a win-win situation. As you say, these organizations are rarely, if ever, going to be able to pay your daily rate — or anyone else’s — so it’s not that you’re taking potential work away from anyone. You or they would never get the work in the first place. Teaching them to fish gives you a way to make a little money and gives them a way to get better quality images within their budget. In the end, you’ve built a relationship that may pay off later if they do get an adequate budget. Good luck!

  6. Mark Olwick

    Love the idea, Matt. If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.


  7. Cooper Strange

    I have been doing this for a few years, off and on, and it is really fun. It IS a great idea. Practically, it might help (the end goal of really making a difference within these NGOs) to find some way to filter the participants. A lot of folks just come through, find it fun and interesting, but it does not make much difference in the end. If you could find the folks already interested, though, you could really give them the extra nudge they needed to produce some really great work.

    This is not always true or the only way, just an observation from having done this kind of thing.

  8. Ian Furniss

    Sounds like a great idea to me and one that is well worth doing.

    I’m with Jeffrey in that the thought which immediately pops into the head is “teaching potential clients how to become self-sufficient and therefore taking potential work away from not only yourself but also from them” but if we ignore the future and look to the present, what are you doing now?

    For one, you’re writing a blog which I can safely say has helped me become a better photographer, and I imagine has helped others in the same way as well. Surely that’s increased your competition. I love Eastern Europe and I love it the way it is. I try show that to the world as you try to show what you love to the world. Should we do that? It’s a fair bet to say that the more awareness we bring, the higher the chance it will create a change in the things we love and, we may find they change so much we no longer feel the same about them.

    Without going off on one, we have to be responsible or sensible about what we do, but ultimately anything we do could be seen as self-destructive in some way. For that reason I think we have to go with our hearts more than our heads and do what we feel is right, even if we make ourselves redundant in the process.

    “Go for it!” I say. If you’ve got the chance to make a difference, it’s always the right move.

  9. Aleksei Saunders

    I’ll ‘fess up and admit to being against this path when we started discussing it on the Vision Collective about 6 – 8 months ago.

    My reasoning when something like this. When I do field-work for my institution they are paying me to do a really good job at one thing; not do 2, 3 or more things semi-well (which usually means everything ends up being poorly done in the long run). I wondered at the time if we are not so much as sourcing ourselves out of a job, but rather decreasing the quality of work these NGOs are able to do.

    Do we take away from a participant’s ability to do good humanitarian work when we also ask them to be a photographer (when, honestly, they are already being asked to do 1, 2 or more things well).

    I had a change of heart soon after that discussion (I think typing your thoughts out often leads to the discovery that you haven’t actually spent much time with them). I think empowering groups to improve their market materials is a good idea – I am less sanguine in their abilities to utilize it to its full potential, but that remains to be seen.

    I wonder/wish it would be possible for some photographers to get “sponsorship” to provide top notch images for struggling NGO’s. Would Canon donate a photographer’s pay to shoot images for WaterAid, Nothing But Nets and the like? Would it end up being too corporate, conflict of interest?

  10. Jeffrey Chapman


    I think that there is also another potential outcome. Some of these NGOs will realize, when trying to do it themselves, how difficult it truly can be. Through that effort they may gain a new respect for photographers and be willing to pay. So Matt could actually gain more clients by trying to teach them to never become clients. Giving is always good. It comes back in positive ways.

  11. Jeffrey Chapman


    I think that there is also another potential outcome. Some of these NGOs will realize, when trying to do it themselves, how difficult it truly can be. Through that effort they may gain a new respect for photographers and be willing to pay. So Matt could actually gain more clients by trying to teach them to never become clients. Giving is always good. It comes back in positive ways.

  12. Craig Ferguson (@cfimages)

    The large and getting larger photography workshop is testament to the fact that this can work. For every participant who can afford the time/expense of doing a workshop somewhere “exotic” there are probably 10 (50? 100?) who are only able to do them locally. Rather than push the workshop leader out of work, it seems to make them more in demand than ever.

    As others have already said – giving is good.

  13. Matt Brandon

    Thanks guys. I think Jeffrey has hit the proverbial nail on the head. I really think that instead of causing my client list to shrink it will open up the vistas for more work. But the challenge for any new idea is marketing it, That will be the hard part, no doubt. We all want what few of us have and that is a handful, or even one or two large NGOs that will pay us the big buck for only a few weeks out of the year. Realistically, it just is not going to happen to most of us. So this idea is serving the greater good by providing work for me and more value for the customer.

    Aleksei- I really can’t see the average NGO taking up all it’s workers time to gain images. I think this would be more on a need-by-need basis. But the fact is, there are many orgs out there with serious hobbyist photographers out there ready and itching to do just this for their company. So why not release them to do it?

  14. rahul

    that’s a really novel idea that you have

  15. Andy Wilson

    As a serious hobbyist photographer in a medium sized faith based international organisation (not, I think technically an NGO, though we do some things that overlap) I would say you’re scratching where it itches here. I am a field worker and not on our media side but we have media departments that produce books, magazines, videos, posters, websites etc. And there is always a need for good images. Additionally all our workers have individuals and Churches who contribute to our support and we are always trying to keep them up to date with what is going on. Many have personal newsletters, websites, blogs (I just started one this week) and photocards, etc. We all give presentations on our visits to supporters that beneft from multimedia clips. We do have professional photographers/videographers who come out to photograph special projects but the budget is not bottomless.

    Let’s just say this sort of thing is being talked about a lot in these sort of circles. And it may not need to be an either or situation. I suspect there are still going to be situations where larger organisations turn to professionals for key projects but upgrading field workers ablities to make images for the other levels of need is a definite market for skilled teachers. In fact in medium to large organisations there may even be a role for training trainers. For example you could train two or three workers on one field to take photographs for the organisation and one or more of them could train all their field workers to improve their personal photography. The smaller organisations probably couldn’t afford to use a professional often but might think it worth your training up several reasonably competent folk.

  16. Jeffrey Chapman

    I know that a lot of newspapers are now asking their journalists to also be photographers. Most turn out to be clueless photographers. After all, they spent a lifetime developing skills as writers and not as photographers. I suspect that there will emerge, if there already hasn’t, a market for teaching at least rudimentary photo skills to journalists. If I were a former newspaper photographer, I’d be setting myself up to offer this to newspapers as a one, two or three day course. Now somebody please steal this idea and improve the photography that I have to see in the paper! 🙂

  17. Matt

    Jeffrey, this is another great idea, just not one for me. Whoever does this, needs some real credentials as a PJ. Maybe a retired newspaper photographer.



  1. Change happens. Get over it. | The Digital Trekker Blog & Photography - [...] I have been busy working on an idea. It goes back to an old post about teaching NGOs how…

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