Guest Blog: Marco Ryan

Guest Blog: Marco Ryan

I’m going to go down a bit of a rat hole. I’m even going to give it a name: value.

You’ll already be wondering why a post that begins “I’m going down a bit of a rat hole” might have anything to do with Focus for Humanity – a newly launched foundation aimed at giving grants to aspiring photographers and to help under-funded NGOs afford world class photographers  – but stay with me for a couple of paragraphs and hopefully you’ll see why.

I’ve never quite understood why photographers struggle to sell the value that they bring to organizations. Well perhaps it would be more accurate to say I have never really understood why organizations won’t pay for the value that photographers can bring to their organizations.

That’s value with a capital “V” by the way – the intrinsic benefit that we recognize that great images can bring to a brand – and also value with a small “v” – because I think most photographers are undervalued and charge too little for what they do.

Why is it that an organization will pay an IT technician $70 an hour or a lawyer $200 an hour but not pay a photographer $100 an hour?

Perhaps it is because there is an association between complexity or certain required qualifications or proven experience and a market price.

Or perhaps it is that, for a profession such as a photographer, the need for creative vision, emotional intelligence and expressive story telling often outweighs the need for bachelor, graduate or professional qualifications. Yet because those qualifications are optional it becomes – especially for the uninformed buyer – more difficult to arrive at that market price or critically, to measure the value delivered.

It is of course further complicated by the proliferation and pervasiveness of digital cameras that mean many organizations don’t even to begin to create a business case for an assignment because its just too hard, right? Instead that same organization will thrust a Canon Ixus into the hands of the nearest intern and say, “get on with it”. (though I’ve nothing against Interns or Canon Ixus’!)

Now let’s add a layer of complexity. Let’s go further down that rat hole.

Imagine now that you are a business that is underfunded or does not make a profit, like an NGO. How do they afford someone like Matt Brandon or Gavin Gough? Or what happens if you are a talented semi-pro photographer looking for your first proper client and someone approaches you. How much do you charge without losing that first job or undermining that all-too-difficult-to-judge market price?

Many of the larger more established NGOs have multi-million pound marketing budgets and regularly use the likes of Karl Grobl, Matt Brandon, David duChemin or Ami Vitale on highly structured and well funded assignments. And long may that continue.

But the issue is more with the new, fledgling or underfunded NGO and also with that individual semi-pro photographer who is wanting to make the leap to full time – both of whose activities are more localized or more specific to a particular campaign.

Often, that new NGO’s need is greater, but their budget is smaller, resulting in a prioritization of funds away from hiring that top photographer. In the case of the semi-pro, they opt for doing pro bono work in the hope that it will strengthen their portfolio, but all that happens is that it undermines their value with the client going forward.

The first stage of resolving this is that the NGO needs some form of Damascan road experience to help understand how to budget and monetize the value of the photographer’s work and the semi-pro photographer needs the courage to value their own work and stand firm on their price so as not to undermine the market.

So how do we break this vicious circle? How do we climb out of this rat hole?

Well, one answer it to try and remove the barriers that are stopping each of them. In the NGO’s case that barrier is usually a lack of funds. In the semi-pro photographer’s case it is often a mix of lack of confidence, lack of knowledge in how best to price or a lack of experience with customers.

And this is where an organization such as Focus for Humanity (FFH for short) starts to make a difference. We see our role as bridging these two communities who have shared needs and common goals but perhaps different perspectives.

So as to not leave you hanging, here is a brief summary of how we tried to create a solution to help everyone climb out of that rathole!

Focus for Humanity created assignment grants to allow underfunded NGOs to win the services of established photographers such Matt Brandon, David duChemin, Gavin Gough, Karl Grobl, Jeffrey Chapman or Edoardo Agresti. For free. The NGO gets a full assignment undertaken by a world-class photographer with no strings attached. Well, actually a couple of very minor strings, like agreeing to budget for the following years for similar services; being willing to take some mentoring from FFH on digital marketing and acting as a reference for future NGO applicants. The established photographer gets a new client and is paid the right market rate for his work.

And for the semi-pro looking for that final leap to full time photographer?

We have an annual scholarship that provides the funding to allow them to work with their first client – probably an NGO – and to be mentored into how to approach and further educate clients in the value of images. In addition the grants cover travel, upgrading their equipment and some project expenses.

And for those of you still a few years away from being ready to apply for this scholarship there will be a series of mentoring and workshop grants that will help you to work on your craft and vision.

We fund the Foundation solely through donations, and we run the organization as a virtual online foundation to minimize the costs. Our current target is to allocate 93% of funds into grants each year.

But we can do with your help in three ways:

Firstly tell everyone one about it. Add a blog badge to your site HERE, follow us on twitter HERE, join us on Facebook HERE but, most importantly, become our advocates within your own network and get others to sign–up or donate.

Secondly we need your pledges and donations and those of your friends. It can be a one-off donation of $10 or a monthly recurring donation of any amount you like. But if, for example, we got a thousand of you to give, say, $50 each we would then be able to meet all our commitments for this year. So if you want to help, then help us to reach more than a thousand people willing to give just that little bit.

Thirdly, If you work for a company in the photographic industry then you can help with sponsorship too – although we prefer to use the term partnering as we believe that this is a two way relationship and we need to give those partners equal benefit in return for their support. Every lens, body, bag, filter, tripod, plane ticket or item that we don’t have to buy for our grant winners, is money that we can re-allocate into another grant. We’ve got great ideas on what else we want to add to our grants in the coming months and years, and sponsorship or partnering is one way of making that happen.

“Be the change you want to see in the world”, said Mahatma Ghandi. Perhaps you can help us make real change in how NGOs and other organizations value the work of photographers to help humanitarian causes.

Our thanks to Matt for allowing us the platform of his blog to reach out and share with you all about Focus For Humanity. Thank you for reading this far and for showing an interest in what we are trying to do. You can read more detail about Focus for Humanity, our grants, how to apply and how to help by checking out our website,

Marco Ryan was born in the UK, but now lives in Cairo, Egypt with his wife and young family. His professional career as an eCommerce Strategist, Digital Marketing expert and speaker is covered on his work blog,, but it ensures endless travel but sadly insufficient time for one of the more creative forces in his life – photography. Contact him through this blog for commissions or prints.

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. Gavin Gough


    'nuff said!

  2. heber vega

    Great writing Marco. I think we have to start a campaign among humanitarian photographers, to be able to explain these things to our clients, and also to other non-profits.
    If we educate ourselves, then we'll able to educate non-profits. my two cents!

  3. Johnritter

    Why is it that an organization will pay an IT technician $70 an hour or a lawyer $200 an hour but not pay a photographer $100 an hour?

    I think it is supply and demand. For every IT technician or lawyer there are a 1000 young talented photographers starving to try to make a living. There is always a photographer who will work for cheap and get the job done.

    I also think NGOs are in the business of helping people and not hiring photographers or journalists. So every penney they spend they need to answer to their donors.

    I do not give to large NGOs because I am sceptical of the machinery behind them. What percentage of the money that I donate will actually be spent on helping people and how much will go to “administrative costs”.

    In any event good luck with your organization.

  4. Johnhall

    I too am sceptical of large NGOs. Part of their mission is to help develop the local economy. So why would they spent large amounts of donated dollars to fund the assignment of an international photographer when they could hire someone locally. There are great photographers with alot of experience in every part of the world.

    I was recently travelling in Ayuchuco in Peru. I met a photographer from Europe who was there on assignment for an NGO. Yet the photographer did not speak Spanish or Quechua nor intimately understand the culture he was trying to document.

    I thought why didn't the NGO hire someone from Lima or Cuzco. They could have saved alot of precious money hiring someone locally instead of paying for air tickets and expenses of bringing someone in. In most cases the local photographer could be hired far cheaper because of the local economy while the money they spent would have stayed closer to the area of the people they were there to support. It turned out the photographer was friends of one of the execs of the NGO and got the job through cronyism.

    I'm sure he did good work but it is valid to question why the NGO would spurge donated dollars on an assignment instead of spending more wisely on a local photographer.

  5. Ed

    Marco, this follows directly on from Heber's series of posts on the pro's and con's of working pro-bono and continues the discussion very well. I think Johnritter's comment about supply and demand of photographers might well be valid but I don't see how that is any different form the supply and demand of IT consultants and lawyers. There are enough of each for sure – I see friends and friends of friends jacking in their jobs to go to law school all the time.

    To me the most important point is to enable NGO's to realise the intrinsic value of a good photographer's work over just sticking that Canon Ixus in their intern's hand. In addition they then have to see return on their money. I can understand the caution in giving money to a photographer when people need help immediately but if a photographer can demonstrate a return on the NGO investment in them by their photos bringing in 200% or more of that investment then the NGO can see it is worthwhile. But that not only takes a great photographer to make great images but great marketing and use of those images by the NGO. It's how these problems and notions are approached that will define the market space.

  6. Matt Brandon

    John, Where I see your point, I don't think it is valid to say that every NGO should hire locally just to keep cost down. The local photographer may very well be good, but the local NGO staff do not always understand the brief of what is being shot and the images needed by the marketing department. Even small to mid-size NGO have head offices in larger cities/capitals and staff that is far removed form the field work. The NGO needs to hire photographers that they know and can trust to deliver the images that will communicate, and do it once. Sometimes cutting cost by hiring local might work, other times it might just end up costing more because you have to do a re-shoot. None of this is cut-and-dry. All Marco is trying to do is link photographers with NGO. Some of the photographers are, like myself, are based in regional areas and can hop a shot flight to the shoot. Other might need to fly long distances. What ever the case, the NGO should be aware whats out there, and many are not.

  7. Andy Wilson

    I have a question to ask about quantifying the Value of the images. I think most NGOs know that good images (and video and print media and website design etc which they are also having to budget for) will help them connect with the resources needed to meet their goals. And most are aware that a collection of images from an experienced professional will almost certianly be of higher standard than the intern with the ixus. But is there reliable data out there as to how many extra dollars, new Field workers or volunteers, are likely to be generated per image or assignment of a professional? And how does that compare with the amount produced by the images of the interns with the ixuses (or is that ixi?), a local photographer and a fourth group – the field worker with a 7D, an L zoom and a couple of good non-L primes (i.e the equivalent of an unpaid 'weekend warrior')?

  8. lyricalnana

    There is much to applaud here! As one who works for some of the largest NGO's, providing communications and marketing resources I understand the issue intimately and read this with great interest. A few thoughts…

    One word of caution regarding the “strings attached”. Asking for a commitment for inclusion in future budgets before they have experienced the exchange of value is risky. The value proposition from the outset must in the end benefit those the organization seeks to serve. so if the assignment is photographic resource to be used in the raising of funds to help orphaned children, you need to tailor how the partnership will be measured and evaluated against their bottom line.

    I'm unclear on how you are vetting the potential photographers skill set with the organizations need. This matching process is critical. Personalities and passions are central to a successful partnership, not just portfolios. In addition, strong, basic communication skills (verbal and written) must be part of the mix. They look for cultural sensitivity and place a premium on the intangible elements of an individual's ability, not simply the 4×6 photograph. It takes au unique inner landscape and skill set to work in this arena.

    Regardless of the size of an NGO they don't claim to have a core competancies in areas of specialty like photojournalism. They recognize the power of an image and often do not go with the unknown because of the fear that their unique mission and ethos can't be captured by an outsider. How will you be addressing these realities?

    And what is the role of Focus on Humanity in guarenteeing the work of the photographer?

  9. Matt Brandon


    Thanks for taking the time to chime in on topic. You certainly speak with authority and have the unique perspective to be ability to see both sides.

  10. Mario Mattei

    Sounds like we could combine our thoughts and all put together a one or two page “Value Proposition” to NGOs that addresses their concerns and questions. Even more, it sounds like some research on quantifiable data would be helpful. These would be good pieces to make viral amongst humanitarian photogs worldwide. When launches (soon inshallah!) we'd be happy to make these available to all and promote it.

    If something doesn't happen before we launch, then this could be an excellent thing to work on collectively in a forum, which we could later distill. My guess is that those of us working with NGOs full time already have propositions like this, if not officially, at least via email correspondences of the past. What if we combined our “pitch” into one highly refined for the market as it is today and used that in combo with some data showing the actual value return? Anyone know where we could find such research and results?

    All that said, I think FFH is offering a HUGE value to both NGOs and emergings photogs. Cheers to Marco Ryan for leading the way!

  11. Mario Mattei


    Seems like you may have some answers to your own questions that would be of interest to readers on this blog. I couldn't quite tell if you do the hiring, the communications and marketing, or the photography. Regardless, you either look for these things or offer them yourself.

    With the NGOs you work for how do you “vet the potential photographer skill set with the organization's need”? How do you evaluate “not just portfolios,” but also “personalities and passions”? —or sell yourself in this manner?

    I agree 100% these elements to a partnership are critical and I believe part of the application process with FFH will evaluate along these lines. But with your extensive experience, perhaps you have some words to offer here.

    Do you have case examples of when you've “hired an outsider” who has effectively captured the NGOs “unique mission and ethos”? What do you attribute this success to? –or have you been this person?

    How have you seen hired photographers “guarantee” their work? –or how do you?

    Speaking into this community can perhaps spark some of the change you seek.

  12. lyricalnana

    Mario, while I do have thoughts about these things, if I answer my own questions I will learn nothing about the new organization! I'm extremely intrigued about its potential and would love to get on board based on understanding the underpinnings and processes being sold. Having said that let me offer the following…

    An example of having hired an “outsider” would be my multi-year partnership with David duChemin. The “interview” process began long before he was even aware of it as I became a regular reader of his blog where I was able to learn about the person, his passion and approach. Yes, his photography is first class, amazing, consistent and speaks loudly about the dignity of humanity. But I knew that in order to “sell in” a stranger I would need to represent the whole picture of who David is, not just show the pictures he takes. I was blessed to find in David someone with communication skills off the charts, someone who knew how to articulate the vision as well as the assignment. And more importantly I was confident and willing to risk that the individual I had been watching, listening to and finally interacting with would remain the same whether he was in my office or in the middle of death and despair in the DRC. I could write pages about the how the partnership was nurtured and how it grew, introducing him to other clients and never experiencing one moment of regret. There is no way to stress the significance of selling the holistic qualities of a photographer. While one can be taught to point and shoot, the intangibles of integrity, cultural sensitivity, honesty, respect, vision and shared ethos need to be present in the photographer's life.

    Let me add that you should never underestimate the power of connection. I became aware of Matt's work through David. While I have only had limited opportunity to use some of his existing work vs. assignments for new work, it is a process of knowing and learning about Matt the person, through David's endorsement, through the eyes of one I respect who participated in one of the Lumen Dei workshops, our brief exchanges as well as the evidence of his work, that Matt remains on my short list of options. I'm confident and willing to risk my reputation should the right opportunity arise. Too often the time and investment required to build partnerships is underestimated but I can promise it and it pays off in the long run. Repeat clients confirm that reality… 😉

    Regarding “guaranteeing” the work. The responsibility of the one hiring is immense in ensuring the assignment and client's expectations are articulated clearly and that dialog, the back and forth process of clarification is thorough. As the agent who hires on behalf of the NGO I am accountable to deliver the goods and if the assignment fails – I must go back and get it right – at my expense. Has it happened? Yes. Not with David, however. And the experience of failing taught me much about the sheer weight and value of knowing the “who” behind the camera before assuming that a portfolio represents all we need to know.


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