[April 30, 2010]
Welcome to 10.Q series. This section features interviews to humanitarian photographers, their work and photography for non-profit organizations.
This week 10.Q features Karl Grobl:
“Karl Grobl is a humanitarian photojournalist specializing in the photographic documentation of relief efforts and development work of NGOs worldwide. His images have appeared in Newsweek, CNN, Geo, Town and Country magazine and The Chronicle of Philanthropy, but the largest majority of his photos appear in the annual reports, newsletters and communications materials of his clients. Karl’s non-NGO work is represented by Zuma Press, the premier international editorial picture agency and wire service. His 2005 Haiti photo-story “City of God” was nominated for a World Press Photo Award.
Over the last ten years, Karl has worked in over 50 countries including Afghanistan, Sudan, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines, East Timor, Cuba, and Haiti.
Following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami Karl spent more than a month embedded with five different non-governmental organizations documenting tsunami relief efforts in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. One year later he returned to document the reconstruction.
“My goal is always to create high-impact, evocative images which not only inform, but also stir a viewer’s emotions, images that cause reflection upon and empathy with another human being’s struggle. When successful, my photos reveal a common humanity, allowing viewers to see a bit of themselves in other human beings, half a world away.”
In addition to his rigorous international travel schedule, Karl teaches photography workshops and leads international photography tours. He is a regular lecturer on photography and photojournalism. Karl also works as a technical consultant for several photographic and photography-related technology companies and was featured in a world wide advertising campaign for SanDisk memory cards..”
1. Tell us about you and your photography. What kinds of shooting have you done? Have you worked for any humanitarian organizations/magazines etc.? Could you name any current or former clients?
I call myself a humanitarian photojournalist, but let me be clear about that title… the humanitarian part refers not to me, but to those I am working with and photographing. I don’t consider myself much of a humanitarian, especially when I compare myself to those who I have had the privilege of working for and with; people like you Heber, doing the real work out there, on the front lines, living and working in difficult, often dangerous conditions, helping people who are much less fortunate than ourselves. You are the humanitarians, I’m just another guy with a camera, traveling around the world, hoping (and believing) that perhaps one of my photos will, in some small, indirect way, help someone.
I started out in this profession because I was frustrated with my old job as a sales manager for a large orthopedic company (Johnson & Johnson). I felt like I wanted to make a difference in this world, and the way I hoped I might do that, was not by selling another knee joint, but by using my photography as a tool to inform, inspire and motivate others.
While still working in the corporate world, I began freelancing for a local newspaper, that’s where I honed my photography skills. That experience taught me how to make honest, compelling, story-telling images. I have never taken a photography or journalism course, but I certainly wish that I had, it probably would have made me a better photographer, sooner.
I created this business of shooting for NGOs, from a crazy idea I had, and that crazy idea is what I have been focused on for the last 10 years. At the end of 2009, I did a self-review of my business and much to my surprise, I discovered that I had shot for eighty-nine (89) different NGOs. Since, you’ve asked for some examples, here’s a list of twenty-five (25). They include, World Vision, Vision Fund, World Relief, World Concern, World Emergency Relief, Lutheran World Relief, Direct Relief International, Health Volunteers Overseas, Hagar International, Education Development Center, Family Care International, Family Health International, Catholic Relief Services, Freedom From Hunger, Action Without Borders, African Development Foundation, African Medical and Research Foundation, America’s Development Foundation, Mercy Corps, Plan International, Population Services International, Treat Asia, The Asia Foundation, The Seva Foundation and USAID.
In addition to my work shooting for NGOs I lead several photo tours each year through a partnership with my friend, travel photographer, Jim Cline, http://jimcline.com/PhotoTours/tours.htm I really enjoy leading the tours, teaching others, and sharing my passion for photojournalism.
2. We all know that you don’t get into humanitarian photography to become rich, so what does humanitarian photography mean to you? What’s your vision for it?
Yes it’s true, we don’t get into this to get rich, but I did get into this field with the goal of making it a viable, money-making career. Of course there may be easier ways to make (more) money in photography, but “making it” as a photographer specializing in NGOs is not impossible by any stretch of the imagination, it just requires adjusting one’s expectations, and fully understanding the commitment and the lifestyle that is required to sustain this profession.
My vision for humanitarian photography is simple; create honest, compelling images that tell the story of my clients and the people they serve. While in the process of creating the images, maintaining and respecting the dignity of those who are being photographed, is of paramount importance. When it all comes together, the images are an effective tool for attracting potential donors, humanitarian workers and or volunteers.
I should add at this point that clients universally request images of smiling, happy, proud people who have benefited from their programs. Positive, uplifting imagery keep donors motivated and involved in funding projects that they see, are making a difference. Gone are the days, when most NGOs would use “shocking” or desperately sad images to attract attention.
3. How did you get into humanitarian photography? Where did you get the idea to shoot these kinds of people and groups?
I started as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, built confidence and learned the art of selling. After a few years I moved into orthopedic medical devices and surgical equipment sales. Over the years, I eventually got promoted and moved into management. I started mentoring, training and managing other sales people. During my work in the healthcare field, I accrued vacation time, which I used to travel to the developing world to take pictures. I became interested in and began photographing indigenous cultures. One day I was working a medical trade show and I met the president of Health Volunteers Overseas. She had a tiny table top booth, adjacent to the colossal Johnson & Johnson booth that I was working in. I tactfully suggested that their booth and written materials might be improved with some nice portraits of the people and landscape images of the places where they had programs. They had programs in some of the countries that I had photographed, so I offered to donate images that I thought could better illustrate or attract attention to their cause. Health Volunteers Overseas was happy to have access to some better pictures, I was happy to help and at the same time, get some exposure and experience.
After that initial involvement, I continued to assist them whenever possible. One year, I was heading to Nepal for vacation, so I asked Health Volunteers Overseas if they wanted me to stop by the hospital that they were working with in Katmandu to take some pictures. They said yes. This was my first volunteer opportunity and it would eventually evolve into the idea that I could actually do this for a living. After all, it seemed to me that there were other NGOs and perhaps they needed photos too!
Over the next few years I solidified my plans and made preparations for an eventual leap into the photography business. I built a website to showcase my photography and to try to promote myself (that’s back when photographers were just getting into creating websites…when you created web sites by typing HTML). My wife and I paid down all of our depts. (car house etc) and started a savings account. I estimated that I needed about 24 months to make a profitable photography business so we saved until we had enough money to live without any income for a two year block of time. It took us six years to save the money necessary to comfortably (or not so comfortably) make the leap. While my departure from corporate life was still in the works, I secured a grant from a large company to fund the expenses of sending me all over the world to document the work of Health Volunteers Overseas. The deal was that I would donate my time and photography skills, and Health Volunteers Overseas would get a library of images with which to promote themselves. I was working for free, but the benefit to me was that I was able to build a portfolio which I would then use to promote myself and my new business to similar organizations.
My 24 month plan was just about right; a month or so before we ran through all of my savings, I started making money; not as much as I had made in the healthcare field, but enough to live on. I had officially launched a career as a photographer for NGOs.
4. What are the challenges of shooting for NGO’s or non-profit organizations?
Pick any overseas photo shoot and the challenges are the same. Cultural hurdles, logistical hurdles, geographic hurdles, long hours, security issues…I could go on and on, but the challenges of any photo shoot are just part of the job. The photo is not going to take itself, so you just do whatever it takes to get there, make a good image and then deliver it to the client. NGOs, like any other business, try to get the best images they can at the lowest price possible, many try to get their photos for free. One of the biggest challenges that I have been able to overcome is convincing clients that the value I bring to them, is worth the price. Perhaps that ability comes from all those years I spent as a salesperson.
I’ll give you an example of the expense being worth the price….
On the surface, one could argue that I could equip myself for under $2,000. I could do my job with a Canon Digital Rebel and an 18-200 lens. But I convinced myself that I needed to spend $12,000 for 2 Canon Mark II bodies; one with a 16-35 f/2.8 and another Mark II body with a 70-200 f/2.8. Was the decision correct? Heck yes, I have never once regretted my purchase. As a photographer you purchase the right tools for the job. As the communications officer for an NGO, you hire the right photographer for the job. Budgets come in different sizes, find clients who can afford you, convince them that you’re worth it, and then deliver the goods… in fact, go a bit farther and deliver more than you promise and they will keep coming back to you.
5. How much do you travel every year?
I travel about 10 months of the year. The overwhelming majority of my clients don’t have humanitarian aid programs in the United States, so when I am at home in California, I’m not making any money. I minimize my time in the United States, using it mostly to re-connect with wife, family and friends. It’s also the time when I can communicate with clients, one-on-one.
6. Who’s been an inspiration for your photography? How do you stay inspired?
Like many, I have always followed and admired Steve McCurry‘s portraiture. In my early days, before creating my own “style”, I always tried to emulate McCurry. Salgado is another of my favorites, I’ve also followed James Nachtwey. I consider him to be head and shoulders above just about anyone out there, in terms of his ability to create images that literally knock you over and leave you speechless. But I’m not only motivated and inspired by imagery, I particularly like this quote by Nachtwey, he said it while accepting the TED Prize in 2007:
“Photographers go to the extreme edges of human experience to show people what’s going on, sometimes they put their lives on the line because they believe your opinions, your influence matters, they aim their pictures at your best instincts, generosity, the sense of right and wrong, the ability and willingness to identify with others..the refusal to accept the unacceptable.”
Beyond those examples, the internet is full of great photographs made by photographers that we’ve never heard of. Perhaps more than anything, those “unknowns” are the one’s that motivate me to keep improving my craft. In order to continue to be successful in this business one has to continually improve, hopefully staying one step ahead, or at least on par with one’s competition.
I also find inspiration in books, magazines and blogs relating to this small niche business. My favorite blogs are David du Chemin’s Pixilated Image, he has a great way of expressing what we’re all thinking, but are unable, unwilling or afraid to admit. I also enjoy Matt Brandon’s Digital Trekker blog and Gavin Gough’s beautiful website. Steve McCurry and Nevada Wier also have informative blogs. Ken Rockwell, a friend since the early 1980′s is fun to read. He’s controversial and says whatever he wants, some people love him, others don’t. I also routinely visit The Boston Globe’s “Big Picture Blog“. VII Magazine, MediaStorm, and InMotion (Magnum)
7. How do you normally approach people from other cultures? What are your limits at the moment of shooting people in need, or in a complicated situation?
I approach people in my own culture and in other cultures the same way; with the thought, “if I were that person, how would I want to be treated in this situation”. That usually means, I start with my cameras down, and first and foremost, show interest in that person. I show interest in what they are doing and in what their situation is. Empathy is a powerful thing, and it’s really not so surprising to me, that when treated with respect and dignity, folks all around the world are willing, and often eager to share their stories. Heck, I’m answering your interview questions here; it’s a way of telling my story.
Some might say, yeah, but if you were poor or if you just got hit by an earthquake or a tsunami, then you would feel differently. My experience has taught me otherwise. No matter what the situation, most people what to share their triumphs and tragedies with a larger audience. I spent a month in Banda Aceh after the tsunami, everyone I met wanted to talk and wanted to be photographed, they appreciated that someone cared enough to want to know what they had been through.
What are your limits..this topic comes up quite often, and I get asked this question a lot. Most recently this topic came up with regard to the Haiti earthquake (which I did not cover because I was on assignments in Southeast Asia).
Since Haiti is so geographically close to the U.S. many photographers and photojournalists went. Columnists started writing that some photographers were going to Haiti, not so much to tell the story of the tragedy, but to build portfolios for themselves at the expense of the victims. I suppose that’s possible, and if it’s true, it undermines what most of us are trying to accomplish.
The public is savvy these days; people are getting hyper-critical, and maybe that’s good, because it makes us all think about what we are being fed by a whole host of information sources, and it makes us, as photojournalists, more aware of our responsibility to create truthful images.
As an example… here’s a scenario that we see, all too often on TV… The camera pans across a destroyed landscape, chaos and danger everywhere, perhaps gunshots, explosions or screaming is heard. The camera stops and begins to zoom in on a flack-jacket-wearing news reporter. He/she begins to talk about the tragedy that is unfolding around them, but it seems like the story they are telling is secondary to their attempt to show you how cool they are, and how dangerous it is to be standing where they are. Sensationalism and self promotion works to attract viewers but have no place in true journalism… The story that we’re all trying to tell is about them, not us!
But I’m getting off of the topic of “what are the limits of shooting people in need” I think that the limits are different for different people, we all approach things as we see them. Rescue workers and relief workers are there to do rescues and relief, my job is to create images. In my experience, sometimes the folks most adamantly against pictures being taken are the “rescuers”. In some cases I can see their point and feel their frustration. Although rare, I have seen photographers get in the way of rescue efforts. That’s totally unacceptable. In terms of when I would put down the camera and help rather than shoot, those instances are rare. Of course if someone is going to die if I don’t do CPR or something like that, then yes I would put down the cameras, but thankfully I’m almost always surrounded by people qualified to help.
I want to share with you a quote by Steve Coll, a NY Times author and Pulitzer Prize-winner. His quote is one that I will remember when I’m doubting my usefulness as a photojournalist.
“Journalism is not a particularly esteemed profession, but its capacity to bear witness remains one of its more redeeming attributes. At moments like this in Haiti, during a natural disaster of this scale, you do feel at times ghoulish and intrusive upon both the grief of survivors and in relation to the more directly useful efforts of rescuers and humanitarian relief workers. And yet all of those classes of participants in the crisis will recognize, most of the time, that journalism helpfully amplifies their own condition or potential.”
8. How do you promote your work?
Primarily with my website and blog, they are both indispensable promotional tools My blog seems to be where my efforts are bearing the most fruit, so I am in the process of updating and upgrading it. I also connect with clients by email and telephone (Skype when I am overseas). There is no substitute for talking.
9. Tell us about the last piece of gear that you deemed important enough to buy. How about the one that’s been most important in your career? (It can be a lens, camera, accessory, etc.)
Funny you should ask, I just blogged about purchasing new gear. For the last 6 years I have been shooting with Canon Mark II bodies. They have served me well, but technology has marched forward and they are dinosaurs. With the advent of newer cameras that provide cleaner images at higher ISO settings, I have decided that in order to continue to provide my clients with the best possible images, I need to upgrade. The whole story is on my blog http://karlgrobl.blogspot.com/2010/04/its-official-im-announcing-retirement.html
10. What would be your advice for a photographer who is just starting out in this field?
Go for it… Ignore the naysayers, you can make a business out of shooting for NGOs or just about any “niche” that you could possibly dream up; it’s just a matter of desire, commitment and effort. If you want it bad enough, you can plan it out and make it happen.
I’ll end by telling you a quick story which illustrates just how much I love what I do, and how fortunate I feel for being able to pursue my dream.
One day while shooting a job in Sudan, I had an epiphany. I was sitting in the front of a land cruiser, one of 2 in a caravan. We were speeding across the open desert for hours, heading for a remote village where the drug company and NGO that I was shooting for had a malaria program. I was sitting in the front seat, while the drug company executive and the country director for the NGO were sitting in the back. I could hear their conversation, one asked the other, “if you won the lottery, what would you do “the drug company executive talked about upgrading his villa in Spain and spending more time there, the NGO country director talked about retiring and enjoying more time with his family. Although I was not part of their conversation, I thought to myself, if they had asked me what I would do if I won the lottery, I would have said, “I would be doing exactly what I am doing now (shooting pictures of humanitarian stories for NGOs) with the only difference being that I would do it for free”, I guess you could say that I had already won the lottery!
Pulitzer prize winning author, Edith Wharton once wrote: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” I often keep her words in mind as I work, documenting relief and development efforts of my NGO clients. Edith’s words help keep me focused, especially when the sheer gravity of an enormous human tragedy starts to wear heavy upon me.
Based on the belief that everyone has a responsibility to use their talents to assist those less fortunate than themselves, I feel compelled to focus my efforts and photographic skills to help shine a light upon global humanitarian issues; to tell the story of people in need, and those working to help them.
As one of a small community of photographers specializing in the documentation of humanitarian relief and development, my goal is to create high impact images which not only inform, but also stir one’s emotions… images that cause a viewer to reflect upon and empathize with another human being’s struggle. When successful, my photos reveal a common humanity, allowing viewers to see a bit of themselves in other human beings, half a world away. Ultimately, I hope that people connect with my photographs and that the connection provides an impetus for change… if that occurs, then my work is successful.
While working with NGOs, I routinely find myself surrounded by inspiring individuals and am constantly in awe of their commitment and dedication, working day-in and day-out to improve the lives of people in countries far, far away. In many ways my brief photographic encounters abroad seem insignificant. As a witness and a conduit of information, the impact of my efforts and the satisfaction that comes with it, is not immediate; it comes later, when the images I have created for clients are used to help to increase awareness, volunteerism and donations. Success for me is when I feel that I’ve been able to reflect back, some of the light which shines so brightly from the aid workers I encounter; those amazing folks out there on the front lines, doing the real work