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Where are the intersections between photography and philanthropy?

May 9, 2015

 Oprah Winfrey has donated millions of dollars to charities and given countless smaller but generous gifts to her audiences, so she knows a thing or two about philanthropy. When asked about what philanthropy means to her, she said:  "It's not just about being able to write a check. It's being able to touch somebody's life." To me, the ability to affect someone's life is the essence of why philanthropy and photography are so intertwined.


Humans are a visually focused species, and one of the fastest ways to touch someone is to show them an image of something they care about. Whether it's an earthquake victim in Nepal, an historical building that should be preserved  or an endangered species that may disappear without the funds to protect it, visual representations of humanity and our planet directly appeal to our altruistic instincts.  Photographers often need philanthopy to tell their stories, and philanthopy often needs photographers to show why their generosity matters.


The concept of philanthropy is one of those subjective notions that can mean many different things, especially when it relates to photography, so it seems worthwhile to add some clarity to what I mean when talk about these topics. Dictionaries tells us that "philanthropy" is the desire to promote the general welfare of our society, expressed especially by the donation of money to good causes without an expectation of receiving something tangible in return. That definition can be interepreted a wide variety of ways, and I'm going to refer to philanthropy in a rather wide variety of ways as well. In my mind, philanthropy, as it intersects with photography, refers to monetary and non-monetary support for:


• Individual photographers

• Advocacy organizations that use photographs to tell their stories

• Nonprofit/nongovernmental organizations that fund photographers for various causes

• Reporters and journalists who include photography in their stories

• Museums and galleries that exhibit photography

• Historic collections of photography

• Publications about photography and by individual photographers


This support can come from any of several different sources, including governments, foundations, nonprofit organizations, corporations, small businesses, private donors and online crowdsourcing. The ambiguous part in this definition is the phrase about not receiving anything tangible in return. When does something become tangible to a donor or supporter? Is a cash prize for winning a photography contest philanthropy, or is it an advertising cost? Does supporting a photo project in return for the publicity it might garner constitute a charitable act, or is it a payment for services? My quick answer is: it depends. There are no bright lines in this area, and in the spirit of philanthropy I'm going to be somewhat generous in my interpretation of the word. So give me some leeway, and let's see how this plays out.


In most of my posts I'll refer to still photography, although as the mood strikes me I may venture into video photography as well. There's no shortage of stories on either topic, so I'm sure I'll have more than enough to keep me busy for quite a long time.


The image above is reproduced under Creative Commons Licence, Attribution 3.0. It is attributed to FreeDesignFile.com, and the original image may be found here.

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