Jane Huber, creative director of Oxfam America, says she’s inundated with requests from photographers wanting to work for the non-governmental organization. The photographers she rehires understand its mission and values—which includes respecting the individuals and communities it serves. “When you work in the field with an NGO, for all distinct purposes, you are the NGO,” says Huber. “You’re representing us and you want to embrace our values: human first.”
Huber was a participant on two panels during a one-day workshop titled “Photography: Agent for Change,” hosted by the Alexia Foundation at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City on November 8. It was designed for documentary photographers and filmmakers who go beyond raising awareness and move into advocacy. Many photographers seek work from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the hopes that their images will be used in awareness campaigns, fund-raising and advocacy; some seek the access to communities or areas where the NGOs work, and want help with production and translation.
Huber spoke with PDN following the event to offer practical advice for photographers taking the initial steps to work with NGOs and how to behave in the field once they’ve been hired.
First of all, “do your homework,” Huber says. “As a prospective photographer you want to understand the objectives of Oxfam and what I’m seeking.” Huber continues, “I get a lot of emails that say, ‘I’d love to work for Oxfam because I love to travel and I’m interested in other cultures and I’m a photographer…’ And I think you haven’t done your homework. Photographers interested in doing work for international NGOs are a dime a dozen.”
To distinguish yourself, show that you know the organization and its programs well, Huber says; she recommends referencing specific campaigns that the NGO is conducting. Continue the email along the lines of “I’m particularly interested in labor issues and am always available for domestic work.” says Huber. “Everybody likes to feel their time is valuable,” says Huber, “so you could say, ‘Dear X, I’m going to be in your area on Tuesday and I would love to take you out for coffee. It could be as short at 30 minutes.’” She adds, “Anyone who has a good portfolio, I’ll always try to give them a shot.”
Second, Huber expects photographers to put the people Oxfam serves before pictures. “You’d be surprised by what some people do in the field,” she says. “If you’re going to be a photographer working with people living in communities that are suffering because of poverty or violence and it’s for an organization that has a rights-based approach to development, then you have to mirror those values.” The photographers she rehires consider how they interact with the population they’re photographing. For example, she says: “If someone is weeping, it might be a really beautiful shot, but you may have to lose the great shot for the greater human interaction.”
Reciprocity with subjects is crucial, she says. At times that means missing the best light of the day to meet a contact person, an elder or local dignitary. It could also mean sitting down for tea. “I had a photographer who Oxfam worked with some years ago who I don’t choose to work with anymore,” Huber recalls. “It was reported back to me that when the family invited him to sit down for a cup of tea, he chose to sit in the corner and look at his camera. He may have thought he was using his time effectively, but when the team said it was important he sit with the family, he said, ‘I’m beat.’”
Huber sums it up by saying, “You may not be able to drink the tea because the water isn’t boiled, but you damn well sit there and show respect, because that’s reciprocity.”