Unique College Program Helps Environmental Orgs See Value of Photography

Posted by on Monday March 23, 2015 | Uncategorized

© Joshua See

Mammalogist Tom Horsley prepares to remove a captured bat from a high-elevation mist-net in Borneo. Joshua See made this photograph while working with the Royal Ontario Museum as a student in the Environmental Visual Communication program. © Joshua See

Conservation photographer Neil Osborne understands how important visual communication can be to environmental and conservation organizations. Photographs, videos and other forms of visual storytelling can help non-profits share their messages and the work they do with wide audiences. Visual storytelling can also serve as an effective fundraising tool. But many nonprofits spend little on photography and other communications efforts, Osborne notes.

He and his colleagues at the Environmental Visual Communication (EVC) program at Toronto’s Fleming College saw an opportunity to match students with nonprofit organizations that need photography, video and other visual communications assets. Over the past three years they’ve developed a “placement partner” system for the EVC, which gives students real-world experience (and, in some cases, payment) while putting their talents to use for good causes. Many students “publish individual and collaborative works before they even graduate,” Osborne notes. In the process of providing “communication strategy and tactics to these groups to enhance and advance their messaging,” students demonstrate to nonprofits how valuable visual storytelling and the expertise of photographers can be in helping them meet their goals.

“The experience working with the placement partners certainly defines the EVC program,” says Osborne, who in addition to being director of the EVC program, is an Associate Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and a photographer in residence at the Royal Ontario Museum Centre of Discovery in Biodiversity. “While we work hard to prepare students for life after six months with us [the program is two semesters], there is only so much we can do in the classroom.” During the program, students work for the summer months between semesters with EVC placement partners, which include Environmental Defense, the World Wildlife Fund, the Canadian Wildlife Federation and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). (The ROM also hosts the EVC program, so students study at the museum for the duration of their coursework.)

One student, Deirdre Leowinata, went to Tanzania to create photography and video communications for The African People & Wildlife Fund. Some of her work was published on the National Geographic website, and she has inspired the organization to dedicate more money to communications. “The EVC program, through intern Deirdre Leowinata, has helped the African People & Wildlife Fund to update its communications strategy,” the organization’s executive director, Laly Lichtfeld, told PDN via email. “We are now utilizing a wider range of tools, including video productions, that help us to share our work and experiences to a wider audience. Recognizing the value of this work, our board has set aside a modest budget to ensure we are communicating our message in a stimulating and effective way. And, we are pleased to continue working with Deirdre.”

Joshua See traveled to Borneo with a ROM curator who was doing research on bats. And Justine DiCesare produced a video about a local Eco-wood turner named Michael Finkelstein, who was making bowls from a famous maple tree that was downed in a storm. DiCesare’s video, and the ROM project of which Finkelstein was a part, were featured online by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. “We wouldn’t have been able to do that without Justine,” says Dave Ireland, who is Managing Director of Biodiversity at the ROM and serves as a mentor to EVC students. Ireland says the program “has totally enlightened what some of our new media, web and video production staff do.”

Another EVC student, Vincent Luk, developed an “engagement strategy” for promoting a major photography exhibition. That strategy—which incorporated audience research, marketing and communications, and fundraising and exhibit design—is now being applied to subsequent exhibitions. “What he did changed the way the ROM works,” Ireland says.

The EVC students, Ireland adds, are “youthful, they’re energetic, they’re plugged into the new media world, and so they bring a lot of that intel back to us in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise have thought about.”

Some EVC graduates go on to work with EVC partner organizations as freelancers, contractors and full-time employees, Osborne says. “I’m optimistic this is a trend. Nonprofits and other entities working for the environment are realizing how much they need to communicate their own stories, and how well it has to be done. They need the right breed of communicator…and it’s nice to think some of those people are coming from the EVC program.”

Related: How To Work Profitably With NGOs
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