In this guest post, New York City-based commercial photographer Nick Onken shares the value of giving back, and about a special Help-Portait Tibet edition. Welcome Nick by adding a comment to the post below!
How appropriate in seeing as we’re amidst the Thanksgiving holiday. I would say traveling the world, seeing and experiencing other cultures has been the thing that has most shape my perspective on life and realize how good we have it. It makes you really appreciate the small conveniences that we don’t even ever realize we have here in the states. Beyond that, the ability to make a living taking pictures if you break it down to what it actually is, is quite a hard to come by thing in and of itself. This doesn’t exist in the harder to reach parts of the world. The ability to do something that you love, be creative, and live is something in rare form. It definitely takes a certain type of person that can deal with the sacrifice of stability especially in the beginning years, but if you can stick through it you can do it. That combined with the opportunity of living where I live allows me to do what I love and make money, and for that I am truly thankful.
That said, I feel giving back to the world is something we all should practice, despite whatever your situation, and where ever you are. I’ve been in some of the most remote places around the world, and so many times, the most simplest people are so kind, they will give you the shirt off their back. Everyone has their own situation, own capacity, and own way they can give back and that is what is the most important. For some people it’s the gift of money, for some it’s the gift of talent, some people it’s the shirt off their back.
I’ve always felt compelled to give back with the talent of photography that I feel I’ve been gracefully given. For me, I’ve been fortunate to connect with my good friend Adam Braun a couple years ago. He founded one of the now, fastest growing charities started in the last five years: Pencils of Promise. It’s been amazing to be a part of, and to see how my photography has helped them to blow up to where they are now. When I met Adam, we connected on the philosophies of the non-profit world of running a non-profit as a business(Check out Adam’s “For Purpose” talk at the Google Zeitgeist conference). In the end, money is what facilitates the cause. You must create an engine that allows the cause to be done. That engine is largely dependent on visual communications that convey to the potential donors what that organization is doing. When I started working with Adam, Pencils of Promise was just him, and he had built one school with another on the way. Fast forward two years later and we just broke ground on our 50th school. Last week at the PoP Gala, it was so exciting to see us raise over $1M in one evening. You don’t have to always give your services for free and shouldn’t if it’s your only source of income, but that’s something I’ve chosen to do with PoP because I feel it’s my way of giving back. It’s all what you feel personally. (Some posts of work I’ve done with them. Laos: http://nonk.it/vuJ3fW Guatemala: http://nonk.it/k1H4jb Nicaragua: http://nonk.it/aiptev)
Another different give back opportunity I just had was in Tibet with the people we came across. We took people’s portrait with a Polaroid to give to them. It was amazing to see their faces light up when they received the picture. Many of the people having never seen a camera before. It was such a great opportunity to give back and hear their stories. People in lower economical countries and circumstances don’t always have the opportunity and resources to have pictures of themselves. Giving people a print of themselves is something that they will treasure. We photographed this old woman, who was so excited to give the print to her grandson so he could remember her. Her face lit up with joy when we gave her the print. To be able to give something that is not monetary is in itself personally rewarding. This young monk, had made it to Lhasa on his pilgrimage (an intense 1.5 year journey of prostration. See my blog post to get a better understanding: http://nonk.it/v8c0lL). We found him on the Barkor, and gave him a photo of himself and he too lit up with joy. I encourage everyone to give back with their own talents.
Are you the NYC area? Join the NYC Help-Portrait Community group.
I am so glad to see that others are doing this. Several years ago while on a trip to India I met a fellow traveler and photographer with a Polaroid camera. While at the Rajastan camel fair he asked me to assist him when he “set up shop.” Setting up shop meant he found one person among the crowd of villagers near our tent hotel who was willing to let him photograph them with his Polaroid camera. Many villagers crowded around him while the photograph developed. After many oohs and ahhs and some shouts of astonishment, the recipient of the photo ran away with the photo in his hand. A few minutes later he returned with the village elder, who was wearing a turban, followed by several women with bouquets of marigolds. With many polite gestures, the villagers indicated that they wanted us to photograph the elder, which we gladly did.Then the elder handed the turban to another elderly man and we photographed him and then a third elder wearing the turban. With gestures, we indicated to the village leader that we were willing to take a photo of him with the ladies carrying the marigolds. Suddenly his whole family congregated and we took a family portrait after the ladies with the marigolds insisted on giving them to us. We then had to leave for the Camel Fair, but when we came back there were several people “loitering” near the entrance to the tent hotel with hopeful expressions on their faces, including camel drivers, water boys and even Sikh guards hired to “protect” us. My traveler friend fortunately had a lot of Polaroid film and so we set up shop again and managed to photograph all those there. Some of the people had obviously never seen a photograph of themselves. One went off, squatted behind a tree and spent nearly an hour staring at his photograph. My new found fellow photographer very generously loaned me his Polaroid camera and all the remaining film when he found out I would be staying a month longer after the tour. I explained to my driver about the camera and the film and he took great pleasure in helping me find Polaroid photo opportunities. One day as we passed through a very small village in a remote area, he screeched to a halt and started pointing frantically at a group of people just leaving a nearby building. It was the wedding party of a poor couple. We leaped out of the car and after he explained what I wanted to do, I took several Polaroids of the wedding couple and gave them to the couple. I was immediately surrounded by a large group of villagers who all touched me. Later as we continued our trip, my driver explained that they were touching me because they hoped for some of the fortune I had brought that day to the couple. And he simply couldn’t understand why I had not captured some wedding photos for myself but had only given. I strongly encourage anyone who can do so to take and give photos to people who will never have them otherwise.