April 20th, 2011

My inbox fills these days with e-mails from photographers dreaming of becoming a Humanitarian Photographer. I used to dream of being a photojournalist, so I understand using these words. Today I want to have a little “reality check” on what it’s like to live this life. This is not a “feel sorry for me” post, but I just want to share what it takes to do this job well.

In the past 10 weeks, I have traveled non-stop to 10 countries on 4 continents and somehow made it to 5 conferences in the US. It’s not a vacation or a mission trip on these journeys. I’ve actually only had 1 day off in the midst of it all. For weeks before a trip I work with orgs to plan, scheme, brainstorm campaigns, book tickets, work on paperwork and all of this has to continue when I’m traveling on trips. I arrive in a country completely jet lagged and exhausted, but there’s no time to catch up on sleep– it’s time to start on stories right away. I drink a huge cup of coffee and dive right in. I am in LOVE with the people I get to meet and that is part of what drives me to keep doing this job. Seeing their lives change by doing these stories makes it worth it to me. I always push the organization I’m with to let me get up before the sun to shoot at ‘golden hour’ — cause you need the best light for images. I would be happiest if I could cut out shooting from 11-3pm every day…. unless it’s overcast, of course. I can never imagine the situation I’m arriving in and most of the plans I make are thrown up into the air. I still have to have plans to shape my days and ideas. I have to hope that a strong story forms, but what if it doesn’t? It’s a lot of pressure to know an organization spent a hefty sum to get get you to a country and you can’t guarantee that the story will come together. It works the same with the photos. I pray a lot before my shoots, and I trust that I’m going to capture images that the people I’m photographing will be proud of. But sometimes you just have bad lighting and there is no way around it. There are just those days that don’t go well.

It seems lately I’ve felt a lot of pressure to get incredible photos on every shoot. A part of me is worried that i’m going to wake up one day to not knowing how to shoot anymore and my fingers will turn into jell-o. But then I remember what I’ve been called to, why I do this. It isn’t for me. I don’t jump on planes because I want to be “The Humanitarian Photographer”.
I do this because because God has called me to do it.

I do this because I love people and I want to serve them.

I do this because I believe in the organizations I work with and want to see that their vision is fulfilled.

I do this because I’ve seen images raise enough money to impact huge communities.

I do this because I want to see people get clean water around the globe.

I do this because I want all children to receive an education.

I do this because I think everybody should be able to visit a doctor and receive medicine.

I do this because I want to see development done right.

I do this because I want to see people in poverty come out of poverty.

It’s not a glamorous life by any means. It’s a hard life in which I miss my friends and family on a daily basis. There is no stability or security, but I do know that this is what I’m supposed to do. I wake up every morning thanking God for the opportunity to love people in a new country. It is a gift to me to be able to spend time capturing the beauty that exists in some of the dire situations imaginable. I choose to capture this because beauty does exist in places like these and the world needs to see it. There is always a positive and negative side to every story. I believe it’s important to capture what’s really there, but not just dwell on the sadness. I strive to capture the strength of each person I meet. And I always ask the question– what does God see in this person that I’m not seeing?

This field of photography is not for portfolios or photo prizes. Humanitarian photography is about telling life changing stories that challenge people and have the potential to change people’s lives.

7 Responses to “Reality.”

  1. Thank you for writing this. I really appreciate your honesty on this subject.

  2. Great post.
    I was one of the people that asked you that question.
    It’s so awesome to see someone doing what they love.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this. I have a dream to do this one day for mission organizations, and to hear it from that perspective was very insightful. God Bless you and your amazing images!

  4. [...] Rwandan boys participating in an education and food program. Don’t miss her post about the reality of working as a humanitarian [...]

  5. Hello Esther,
    I love that you see the smiles and big hearts in the people you photograph. This also excites me about photography. That and witnessing the ecstasy of deep involvement in the creative process. I hope we cross paths one day.

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