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: Guatemala: Nicaragua:

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: 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.

-Nick Onken

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