Why Volunteering is a Great Way to Grow as a Photographer

Many years ago as I was making a start freelancing, I saw an opportunity to give away my services and a selection of photos by volunteering to cover a community event. Our city administration was hosting a tree planting at our local park, so I went to down with my spade and my camera, to plant some trees and to record the event in pictures. The following day I visited the office of the event organizer and presented them with a selection of prints, (this was back in time when I was only using film.)

Silkworms feeding close up - Why Volunteering is a Great Way to Grow as a Photographer

Silkworms feeding on a leaf in northern Thailand.

I enjoyed planting trees. I enjoyed covering the event photographically. And I enjoyed the on-going business relationship that I developed with the city administration as a result of covering their community event and not charging them.

Volunteering has many benefits

If you are just starting out on your photography career, or even if you have no desire to work as a professional photographer, there are a number of benefits to be gained by volunteering your time and skills to the right people or organizations.

A woman prepares raw silk before she spins it in north Thailand. Why Volunteering is a Great Way to Grow as a Photographer

A woman prepares raw silk before she spins it in north Thailand.

Covering a community event was easy and enjoyable for me as I had had years of experience as a newspaper photographer. I knew the style of photos that would be useful and appreciated so it was not difficult to produce them.

Whether you are just starting out as a pro photographer or you just want to help out, producing a series of photos that will be useful for someone else is a great way to stretch you into new photography experiences and help you to develop new skills.

Spinning silk thread by hand - Why Volunteering is a Great Way to Grow as a Photographer

Spinning silk thread by hand.

Maybe you are not so confident when photographing strangers. Covering a community event will give you a good reason to go beyond your normal comfort zone, and you may even discover you like it.

Perhaps you have heard of a non-profit wanting some product shots, or a local service club that needs new photos of their executive members. Once you start to look, I am sure you will find plenty of opportunities to offer your services.

Adding red pigment to water for dying thread close up - Why Volunteering is a Great Way to Grow as a Photographer

Adding pigment to water for dying thread.

Treat it like a paid gig

Approach your volunteer work as though it is a paid job. Be professional. Clearly communicate your intentions. Listen carefully to the needs of those you are providing the photos for so you can ensure they will be happy with the results and be able to make practical use of the photos you take.

Ask them how they will be using the photos so you have a good idea of what they need. It is no good to give them a series of vertical headshots if they already have horizontal space designed for them on their web page.

Dyed silk thread. Why Volunteering is a Great Way to Grow as a Photographer

Dyed silk thread.

Do your best work

Don’ be tempted to produce less than your best because you are not getting paid. It’s always good to do your best work possible. Your reputation is important, especially if you are interested in potential paid work that may come as a result of your volunteering. If you provide photos that are not up to standard you are not likely to be invited back or recommended to other potential clients.

Be pleasant to work with. No one wants a bad experience dealing with a volunteer. People like working with others who make their lives easier. Being professional in your manner and approach to the work, and those organizing it will be beneficial towards future relationships. But choose carefully who you give your time to because occasionally you may come cross someone who wants to exploit your generosity with no concern for you.

Hand winding silk thread in preparation for weaving. Why Volunteering is a Great Way to Grow as a Photographer

Hand winding silk thread in preparation for weaving.

Choose who you work with carefully

Some people may struggle to appreciate you are giving your skills and time for free and expect too much from you. If this happens, once you’ve fulfilled what you have said you would do, tactfully back out of a situation that you think is turning sour or if you feel you are being manipulated.

In these circumstances, it’s not likely to turn out well for anyone involved to persevere. Remember, it’s you who are working for free and it is important you have options so you can choose how much and to whom you want to give your work. Be generous, but be generous of your choosing.

Preparing silk thread fo weaving. Why Volunteering is a Great Way to Grow as a Photographer

Preparing silk thread for weaving.

Set your expectations reasonably

You will reap what you sow. If you don’t expect anything in return for your volunteered services and you might be pleasantly surprised when something comes back your way in the future.

It may be in the form of paid work for the same organization. It could be from a contact you made during the photography session. A paid job could come from someone who has seen the photos you’ve produced and appreciates your skills.

But to volunteer yourself and then expect something in return is only setting yourself up for disappointment. You will grow as a photographer when you take on situations you might not normally photograph and it’s a good feeling to see your photos being used productively.

Women weaving silk on a traditional loom in northern Thailand. Why Volunteering is a Great Way to Grow as a Photographer

Women weaving silk on a traditional loom in northern Thailand.

The best thing about giving your service and photos for free is seeing the benefit they receive from them. Giving of what you find enjoyment in is a great reward in itself.

I continue to offer photography and video services for free from time to time as I still enjoy being able to help non-profits and individuals who are helping others. The photos accompanying this article were produced for a non-profit organization here in Thailand who help facilitate a local silk weaving cooperative.

Thai woman working on a traditional loom weaving silk.

Thai woman working on a traditional loom weaving silk.

Have you given back with your photography services?

If you have had experiences, good or bad, in volunteering your photography services please share them in the comments below so others can be encouraged to share their skills too.

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