the giving lens

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”


“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

Just One Dollar

This image to this day still moves me every time I look at it. Even though it's not a beautiful landscape or an amazing sunset, I really think this is my favorite image of the year. In 2012, I was fortunate enough to begin my work with The Giving Lens. The workshops that we lead around the world has opened my eyes to the the lives of impoverished children around the world. From Nicaragua to Cambodia, children are taught how to beg for money at a young age. While some may actually work for that dollar (selling tortillas or trinkets to tourists), I learned that feeding money to these children, whether it be a donation or for purchasing a souvenir, does nothing to help them further their future potential. It only adds to the poverty cycle.

Instead of studying, or more importantly, just being a kid, these children hit the streets as soon as school is out (if they even make it to school that day). Until well after dark, they roam the streets, begging for money. The more they get, the more "sustainable" the income becomes, the more their parents send them out. They start missing school on a regular basis, as the family believes that $5 of extra income is well worth the missed day in a classroom. Soon, before you know it, the child is 18 and has no skills or education to help them get out of the vicious cycle of poverty. They begin to have children of their own, who start begging and working at a very young age in order to help bring income to the family. And so, the cycle continues.

In 2015. Please join The Giving Lens and myself, as we work with amazing organizations around the world to help break the cycle of poverty. Whether you come on a trip or not, whether you can help these organizations or not, at the very least, please educate yourself about the effects that giving even 1 single dollar to these children can have.

Organizations like Empowerment International in Nicaragua, Picaflor House Community Project in Peru, and Anjali House in Cambodia all aim to keep children in school, and when that school bell rings at the end of the day, they provide clubs and activities (photography, soccer, cycling, etc) that keep the children off the streets, and instead, concentrating on their education, and most importantly, just being a kid.

This photo was taken in a temple in Cambodia...yes, they even beg in the temples...because hundreds of tourists a day give them enough to keep them OUT of school