The World Needs A Photographer Like You

*This was originally written for Fstoppers. If you wish to read the post on their site, please visit this link*

Two elephants wait for dinner as the sun sets at an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand.


That’s right. You! No matter what your skill level, there is a project in this world that is perfect for you. Are you going to get paid for this project? Nope! This one is going to be a freebie. 

Now I know what you are thinking. "Whoa Whoa Whoa, stop the clock! You want me to work for free?”

Yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do. And here is why. Go find a globe. You know, one of those round things with the world painted on it that spins around real fast. Yeah, that thing. Go find one…go on. We are waiting. Ok good, you got it! Now, spin that globe fast. Close your eyes and stop the globe dead in its tracks. Use your finger and place it somewhere on the surface. Open your eyes. See the country your finger landed on? Congratulations, that’s your next photography destination!

“But Michael, there are no picturesque landscapes in that country!”

So What?

"But Michael, I have never left my home country before”

Exactly.

“But Michael, it’s currently pretty dangerous to go to that country”

Danger is subjective. We have been trained to fear all things unknown, but obviously, use common sense when selecting your global destinations, and be sure to check the current travel warnings before booking your ticket. 

So you now have your destination. What exactly are you going to do when you hit the ground? Well let me tell you about the photography work that I fell in love with, and don’t mind not being reimbursed for it. Hopefully that will give you some ideas to think over.

A boy stands outside of his home in a barrio in Granda, Nicaragua. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 70-200, 1/60 sec, f/5

Back in 2012, I started working with a photography company called The Giving Lens. The idea behind The Giving Lens was bold; run an international photography workshop to teach aspiring photographers, but while on the ground, work with a local non profit organization to help bring awareness to their causes. The Giving Lens was in the process of organizing a scouting team of 6 to head down to Peru. This small team would help test out the location for a future workshops, with twice the number of participants. Always looking for something new, I signed right up. Little did I know it would rock my photography world.

The trip was an incredible success. Sure, Machu Pichu was amazing. The old capital of the Inca Empire, Cuscu was beautifully enchanting. But the best part of the trip? Walking the dusty old streets of a little known village called Orapesso with a large number of children from The Picaflor House, a local NGO whose mission is to keep underprivileged children off the streets and in school by providing additional school subjects like English, as well as creative programs, such as dance and photography. We had arrived with a number of donated cameras and began to teach these energetic, wide eyed children the ins and outs of composition and exposure. As I walked through the village, holding the hands of children as we crossed the cobblestone streets, I took photos of street scene after street scene while teaching my young apprentices. There are no tourists in Oropesa. Just you and the residents, who still live in the same houses that their great grandparents built with their hands. I instantly fell in love with this new found photography addictions of traveling, documenting, and giving back in the process.

Children beg for money at a temple in Cambodia. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300, 1/200 sec, f/3.5

This was real life. Not a static landscape, which, if you didn’t get the shot you envisioned, you could just go back the next day and try again. No. This was much different. Walking those streets of Oropesa, I often had just a split second to capture the scene I could see unfolding in front of my eyes. After that split second, that moment in time was gone. Never to be recreated again. I sometimes get the chills when I look over those frozen moments in my Lightroom catalog. There is something incredibly beautiful about capturing a moment in a person’s daily life. It’s a routine they are accustomed to, but they have never seen it quite the way I do.

A group of children sit on their boat outside of their home in a floating village on the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300, 1/400 sec, f/5.6

This was the turning point of my photography journey. No longer was I focused on the beautiful landscapes that too often dominate social media. My passion started to grow for this documentary photography, in locations most of the people I know would never have the opportunity to visit. I obsessed over National Geographic photos. I searched and searched for these moving and powerful photos that I added to a Pinterest board. I looked at that board everyday, dreaming of the opportunity to live that feeling again.

Two years and countless workshops later, I am now leading workshops for The Giving Lens. My travels with them have taken me to the barrios of Granada Nicaragua with the vastly talented children of Empowerment International, to the Middle East where we documented the Iraq Al Amir Women Cooperative Society outside of Amman, Jordan, to strolling the dirt roads between picture perfect fields of rice in rural Cambodia with Anjali House. I've gone from teaching photography to the students in villages while traveling throughout India, to documenting the amazing work of an incredible woman namedLek Chailert who bravely started an elephant rescue and sanctuary called Elephant Nature Park, in the jungles of Northern Thailand.

It has been an amazing journey, and one that I encourage you to take as well. Look at that country you randomly chose on that globe. There is a non profit organization in that country that works towards a cause that you firmly believe in. They need you, badly. Whether it is simply taking photos of their daily lives to use to raise awareness, teaching your skills to underprivileged children, or helping to build elephant enclosures, these incredible organizations, and the kind hearted people who so tirelessly run them, need you. It may cost you money to do it, but the reward is much more valuable than money. Experiencing the real world, with real people, who will become lifelong friends. The frozen moments in time you capture will give you the chills every time you view them, for the rest of your life. And the best part? Not a tourist for miles.

A man walks outside of a Mosque in Old Delhi, India. Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 85mm, 1/2500 sec, f/1.8

The Treasury in Petra, Jordan is an incredible site at night, when it is illuminated by candlelight. The star trails in the sky were composed of 120 individual exposures. Canon 5D Mark III, Zeiss 15mm f/2.8

A Monk walks through the Tep Preah nom Pagoda while a girl and a dog play in the humid mid morning Cambodian air. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 28-300, 1/500 sec, f/5.6

A merchant outside of a narrow ally way in Al-Salt, Jordan. Canon 7D, Canon 28-300mm , 1/400 sec, f/5

A bird flies overhead, as the Taj Mahal in India lights up in the early morning as tourist clamor for a better view. Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 85mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4.5

Lek Chailert often sings Thai lullabies to her elephants to help them fall asleep after a long day at the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24mm, 1/1000 sec, f/2

A girl laughs on the steps of a mosque in Old Delhi, India. Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 85mm, 1/1000 sec, f/2.8

A boy shows he can write his ABC's at a school in India. Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 85mm, 1/500 sec, f/1.4