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How Photography Is Documenting Philanthropic Impact

May 20, 2015

How do you measure the impact of giving away $2.5 billion? That was just one of the questions facing the Atlantic Philanthropies as they moved toward a planned closure by the end of this decade. Their answer? Photography.


Started in 1982 by Charles Feeney, the Atlantic Philanthropies is a private foundation that focuses on promoting education, health, peace, reconciliation and human dignity. They fund a wide variety of charitable programs around the world, primarily in Australia, Bermuda, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, South Africa, the United States and Viet Nam. Feeney, who made his fortune through starting the now ubiquitous Duty Free Shopping stores, believes in the philosophy of Giving While Living, and he was an early signer of the Giving Pledge. In short, he wants to give his money away while he's still alive and can see the real-time effects of his philanthropy.


One of Atlantic Philanthropies key programs was investing in new building projects that would serve as catalytic centers for scientific and medical research, health care, engineering advancement and community engagement with the arts. Over the past 30 years their grants have helped build more than 1,000 academic facilities, hospitals, community centers, performing arts halls and other significant buildings around the world. These projects represent nearly one-third of the foundation's total giving since it started.


As the foundation began to plan its eventual closure in the year 2020 (an intentional timeline directed by Mr. Feeney), they decided that one of the best ways to let others know about what they have accomplished would be to document the direct physical and social impacts of Mr. Feeney's generosity. To do that, they turned to the recognized masters of documentary photography: Magnum Photos. Over a three-year period starting in 2010, the Atlantic Philanthropies awarded more than $1 million to the Magnum Foundation to support a team of photographers who would capture images of the tangible effects that have resulted from the many building projects.


A total of 24 photographers participated in the project, including well-known documentarians  Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Gideon Mendel, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Mikhael Subotzky and Donovan Wylie.


Their work was compiled into a beautiful two-volume book Laying Foundations for Change. Anyone can download the book for free through the website that was created especially for the project, and I highly recommend that you do so. 


If you want to see how to represent what visionary philanthropy can do, you won't find a better showcase than this. Its 396 pages are filled with wonderful photos of the quality and scope we've come to expect from Magnum, and the accompanying text connects the hundreds of images with equally compelling stories of the people who work, study and perform in the buildings Mr. Feeney made possible. It's a lasting tribute to both great philanthropy and great photography.


Tim Greyhavens

May 2015

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