A lot of what we learn as photographers comes directly from our own experiences. This is one experience that has benefited us so much that we want to share our story. It might not be typical, or it might be completely ordinary, but either way we hope it might encourage and inspire you!
Voluntography is a word I made up to describe volunteer photography. (I’m big on combo words.) We’ve been volunteering regularly for two seasons now, and have gained so much from the experience. Here’s how it happened.
In the winter of 2009/2010 we were chatting about our business goals, and agreed that we wanted to give back more. We had been full time photographers for 3 years, and had spent most of that time focusing on ourselves. It was time to focus on others.
But we didn’t really know how to start giving back. Luckily an opportunity fell into our lap, we jumped on it, and it’s been an incredible journey ever since!
In early spring of 2010 a photographer from another town sent us an email. She knew of a family that desperately needed family portraits, since their 5 year old son was critically ill and they didn’t know how long he’d be with them.
It sounded like an amazing opportunity to give something of tremendous value to people who really would appreciate it. We immediately agreed and set up a session. We weren’t sure what to expect, and whether shooting a sick child would be challenging. But we ended up having a wonderful time meeting the family, and capturing how truly happy they were to be photographed together.
As luck would have it, this family was staying at the local Ronald McDonald House—a charitable organization that provides a welcoming place to stay for families with sick children undergoing hospital treatment.
The amazing team at Ronald McDonald House contacted us after our session, and asked if we wanted to check out the House. After a tour of the fantastic space, we got to talking about our shoot, and how we might be able to continue working with them. At that time we offered to photograph one family per month, and I’m happy to say we’ve kept up with it! We don’t shoot as many families in the winter, when it’s a bit tough to take sick kids out in the snow, but during the summer we’ve been shooting a family every month, and are still enjoying it as much as ever!
How It’s Made Me A Better Photographer
If you read this site regularly, you can probably guess at least one way it’s made me a better photographer…Practice. Yep, these sessions give us more and more practice as photographers. Sometimes the kids have unique challenges, which exposes us to new situations to learn how to accommodate.
We’ve also done all our sessions really close to the House so it’s easier for the families (there’s a park and a school nearby which make for perfect shoot locations). Shooting repeatedly in the same spot helps us practice looking for new ways to use the same location. We have been able to create something different each time!
On a deeper level, these sessions have taught us a lot about the value of photography. When you shoot, knowing these might be the last images of a person ever created, you approach the task with a dramatically different mindset. Rather than only striving for the stereotypical posed, cheesy-smile image, you look to capture real emotion and relationships. Those are the photos that will truly mean something down the road, and doing these shoots made that really clear.
You can capture so much genuine emotion in photos, but it takes a thoughtful and determined approach. We now go into all our sessions looking to do the very same thing, thanks to the lessons we learned with our voluntography.
The experience of meeting and getting to know these families has also made me a better portrait photographer because I’ve learned a lot about love and courage. I’ve seen just how much these parents treasure their children, and the amazing relationships they’ve formed. I’ve seen happiness and joy in the face of incredible challenges. And I’ve been constantly reminded of how precious the people you love are. These lessons might have nothing to do with aperture or composition, but they really have made me a better photographer, and a better person. I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have learned them.
The Benefits of Voluntography
Beyond becoming a better photographer, volunteering has many other benefits.
The most important is simply good will. Karma. Positive energy. However you like to look at it, giving freely to help someone else is a good thing. It feels good, and it makes others feel good. That rocks right? Well, there’s more…
It also shows that you, as an individual and as a business, are one of the good ones. You’ll show that you care about your community. As “local” becomes a bigger and bigger deal in our global society, making an effort to care about the other people in your city gives your brand more depth and puts some humanity into the often cold world of business.
Volunteering also helps you create new relationships. We connect with these families during our sessions. Every time we are at the house for a shoot we see at least one or two people that we’ve photographed, and get hugs and warm welcomes. The staff are all wonderful friends now, and have invited us in for lunch on multiple occasions!
You can gain fantastic perspective when you volunteer. Even if I’m having a grumpy morning, one of these shoots always touches my heart, and keeps me grounded. That kind of perspective can fill you with intense happiness and gratitude for every little thing you have. A benefit not to be overlooked.
By volunteering you will also inspire others to give back in their own ways. Your kids, friends, family and colleagues will see your efforts, and (hopefully) start to look for volunteer opportunities of their own! A few photographers have contacted us directly to let us know that our sessions with Ronald McDonald House inspired them to do some voluntography of their own, and we were so happy to hear it!
There are a couple great fringe benefits too. I call them “fringe” because I’ll make it clear that this is not *why* we volunteer. While I don’t have a ton of volunteer e
xperience, and can’t claim to be any sort of expert on the topic, I think that volunteering for these kinds of reasons is a bit hollow. You probably won’t get as full of an experience as if you were to do it for the reasons above.
But, these are still lovely benefits. For one, there’s tax credit for volunteer services. Working with Ronald McDonald House, an established charity, means that we can get tax credits, and that’s cool.
We have also received promotion of our business from Ronald McDonald House. They tweet about us, Facebook each of our sessions, send out our work in their e-newsletter, have used our photos (with credit) in charity events and magazine ads, and we even got our own donor “house” on their wall (that was a particularly proud day!). It’s quite incredible how much they’ve worked to help us, actually. We never asked for anything, and would continue to shoot if we didn’t have any of that, but it’s been a really wonderful side benefit!
As I said, if you only volunteer for tax credit, or in the hopes that the charity promotes you, I fear that you might find the entire voluntography experience unsatisfying. But, if you’re looking to simply give back, without expecting anything in return, that’s when I think you’ll find it to be a rewarding pursuit.
Tips for Your Own Voluntography
Now, we really lucked out with Ronald McDonald House. They’ve taken amazing care of us, and we’re so grateful. As a result, we haven’t worked with many other organizations, and thus have relatively limited advice to give. But, from what we’ve learned, here are a few tips if you’re looking to do some voluntography of your own.
Pick Something That Fits With Your Work
We’re portrait photographers primarily, and so shooting family portraits as our voluntography made perfect sense. It plays to our strengths, and we genuinely enjoy doing it. That works out best for everyone involved. We have done some voluntography for events, but it wasn’t as good of a fit, and we didn’t continue to pursue it.
So think about what kind of photography you love to do, and see if you can find a way to volunteer with it. It might take some creative thinking, but there’s probably a perfect fit out there, waiting for you to find it!
Try It Out
You don’t need to commit to a year right off the bat. Try something out, and see if it works for you. You’re better off testing the waters, rather than just jumping in. You might find that the organization just doesn’t quite mesh with your style, and you’re left trying to fulfill your commitment when you’re not stoked. That’s not a fun situation for anyone.
So be open to opportunities that come your way. Give it a shot. If you like it, then offer to do more. If you don’t like it, then just move on.
Make The Arrangement Clear
Before you agree to a voluntography gig, make the arrangement very clear. What are you going to provide? What assistance will they give? How can they use the images you create? What’s the timeline? The more you can spell things out, the less of a chance that there will be miscommunication, which breeds hurt feelings and awkward situations.
Don’t go into the situation expecting anything. In the end you’re volunteering for someone else, not for yourself (despite all the potential benefits). If you expect fanfare and showers of gratitude, you’re setting yourself up for potential disappointment. Volunteering is about removing ego. Sometimes we get thank you messages, and sometimes we don’t. We never take it personally, and we just keep on doing what we’re doing.
Join An Organization Or Blaze Your Own Trail
There are some organizations already out there that connect photographers looking to volunteer with folks who need it. The ones I know of are:
Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep
Offers remembrance photography to parents suffering the loss of a baby with the free gift of professional portraiture.
The Tiny Light Foundation
Provides professional photography for children and families that have been faced with life altering diagnoses.
A yearly event where photographers find someone in need, and provide them with a free portrait.
(If you know of others, feel free to leave them in comments as references for others looking to volunteer!)
Alternately, you can look for a way to do your own voluntography. It might take a bit more work to search out an organization or group that needs help, but you potentially can create a relationship that fits perfectly. Both Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep and The Tiny Light have a LOT of photographers already on board, and there are many many other ways to volunteer!
The last thing I’ll suggest is that if the idea of voluntography appeals to you, work hard at it. Help Portrait, for instance, is a fantastic concept, but volunteering one day of the year is only a start.
We’ve been shooting these family portrait sessions every month, and are in the process of thinking of ways to increase our involvement. We put a lot of effort into each shoot—editing and retouching often over 100 images. It’s definitely a lot of work, but work that really means something. And we’re happy to get to do it.
I know this was a long post, and if you’re still with me then I sincerely thank you! This is a topic that is really close to my heart, and I’ve been thinking about how to share it for a long time. Our work with Ronald McDonald House has changed our photography, and our outlook on life, and we are so glad for the experience. I hope many more photographers can find ways to give back with their incredible talents!
Have you volunteered with your photography? What did you learn from the experience?