How to Use Photography to Give Back with Matt Meiers
Way back when I worked in an office environment, back when Toys R Us gift certificates were written out by hand, back when Toys R Us was around, one of my favorite things to do was give gift certificates to a woman in our office who had foster kids. A few days after Thanksgiving, I would arrive early and place the envelope on her desk. Inside, written in my then-girlfriend’s perfect handwriting, it read, “To: Pat’s Kids, From: Santa.” Pat would gasp and laugh when she saw what was in the envelope. She would then walk around to each person in the office and ask them if they were Santa. She didn’t ask me for three years, and I loved every second of it. The anonymity of it was partly what made it enjoyable. I think it was a summer day when she came into my cubicle and said, “You’re Santa, aren’t you?” I thought she was talking about my figure and tried to act offended. “I never asked you if it was you,” were the next words out of her mouth. I told her it was perfectly fine, because I didn’t do it for recognition, I did it for her and the kids. For the next half hour, she proceeded to tell me what each of her kids purchased with the gift certificates from Christmases past.
Photographers have superpowers!
A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be photographed by Peter Hurley at a photography conference during one of his presentations. At the time, I was like many other people, and most photographers I know—I HATED having my photo taken. But, I figured if anybody can make me look good, it would be Peter. After he finished photographing me and I saw the finished product, my head was in the clouds. My thoughts went from, “Wow, I finally have something that I’m not ashamed to post on social media!” to “I know it’s ‘just’ a headshot, but I can’t believe how good this photo makes me feel about myself.” I was bouncing around the rest of the day. I also remember thinking to myself, “How can I use photography to help others feel what I’m feeling right now? This is incredible!” (Side note: I later traveled to New York City and paid for a headshot session with Peter Hurley, partly because I wanted to get the “full experience” of a session with him, and partly to show potential clients that I value good photography, and I’m not afraid to pay for the experience.)
My first experience with using photography to give back was with Help-Portrait, a movement started by Jeremey Cowart. Their mission is to empower photographers, hairstylists, and makeup artists to use their skills, tools, and expertise to give back to their local community. I lived in Southern Delaware, and we used to partner with local non-profits to do photo sessions. These were for people who found themselves in situations that nobody ever wants to be in. One of the great things about Help-Portrait was that the people left that day with printed, 5×7, framed photos. There’s nothing like being able to deliver actual products the same day. One of the most moving memories I have is watching a woman getting her hair brushed, and tears were falling from her eyes. The woman was crying because she never took time for herself. She had adopted three teenagers and hadn’t had the time or resources to “pamper” herself with even the simplest of things that many of us take for granted, something like a trip to a hairstylist. So, when she was sitting in that chair having someone brush her hair, she may have felt like she was in the fanciest salon in L.A. Just knowing that someone was willing to do something nice for her without asking anything in return blew her away.
When I started So Many Angels almost two years ago, I knew that I wanted to give the families a printed product. Something that every time the child in the photo or family looked at, it would remind them of the great experience they had that day. We teamed up with Miller’s Professional Imaging, and we give the families a 16×20 canvas print that is ready to hang on their wall. It’s about so much more than the finished product though. We photographed more than 30 children in Atlanta earlier this year, right before Imaging USA and the comments the parents made on social media about the experience were priceless. My favorite one was from a mom who said, “Jocelyn informed me on the way home that today was the bestest day ever!” That was all about the experience—this was before they even received their canvas print.
You don’t need to start your own charity. When people ask me how to start a charity, my first question is, “Why do you want to start your own charity?” Common answers are that they want to do good, they want to help people, they want to give back—all of which are great reasons! But none of these are the reason I wanted to start a charity. My reason was that I wanted to be able to partner with others to reach more people than I could ever reach on my own. Chances are pretty good that there is a charity that would be a good fit for you already out there. Use the Google machine to search your city and surrounding areas for the terms “non-profit” or “charity.” Add in “photography/photographer/photos” or anything else you can think of to narrow down your search. Don’t discount charities that don’t have good photos or even ones that have no photos—they may need the most help of all!
Everybody’s a good volunteer until volunteering becomes work.
Remember, you are the boss of YOU! You control where you volunteer. You control the amount of work you do. You control the time you give. Don’t ever forget that. Don’t get me wrong, it can feel GREAT to volunteer, to assist others, to help change people’s lives, but if it starts to affect your personal life in negative ways, you may come to resent volunteering. Also, make sure you’re volunteering for the right reasons.
How you can help.
Some of these might be obvious, others not so much.
- Find an organization that needs help telling their story. If you see that a local food pantry just has photos of canned food on shelves, they need help. Ask how you can work with them to tell the real story of what they do. Maybe show “the faces of hunger.” You want people’s attention. You want to evoke emotion. You want viewers to FEEL something.
- Find a nearby animal rescue organization and ask if they need photos of adoptable pups and kitties. Or horses, or lizards, or birds or anything else! Fun photos of animals playing and interacting with humans and maybe even other animals are more likely to help our furry (and not-so-furry) friends find new forever homes quicker than cell phone photos of animals in cages.
- Look for stories local to you of families that have lost everything due to a fire, flood, tornado, hurricane or some other tragedy. Maybe they have lost photos that they treasure. Offer them a photo session and give them new treasures. Find a way to reach out to them; social media is a tremendous help! If you do something like this, be very conscious of the timing. For example, I wouldn’t personally reach out the next day, but maybe I would try to reach out a couple of weeks after the event. It might be best to even try to find extended family that are in direct contact and offer the service through them.
- Search crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe for people nearby in situations that you think might benefit from photography or anything else. Don’t limit yourself to photography! Yes, people on these sites are asking for money, but sometimes they might not even really know what they’re asking for, or what they need, so they ask for money. Be very careful and vet people and their situations as best you can, but don’t always assume people are running a scam. Sometimes bad things happen to people and they don’t know where else to turn.
- Look for organizations that have 5Ks, Half-Marathons, Marathons, Walks, etc. Collaborate with them on how to spread their message, how to highlight participants, volunteers, partners and sponsors.
- Find already-established photography-related non-profits, such as Flashes of Hope, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, or my favorite, So Many Angels.
Just do it!
Seriously, it really is that simple.
There is no switch to flip, no button to press, no online quiz to take to figure out where your passion lies. There is no easy way to “tap into your passion” or discover what it is that will help you decide how you should be giving back. I recently heard this line from Tom Bilyeu on a podcast: “When a fascination begins to be something that you actually want to gain mastery in and you’re willing to fight past the boredom, THAT’s when something becomes a passion.”
I should warn you, it can become very addicting, very quickly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
So, what is the work that you can’t not do?