8 Ways to Make a Difference with Volunteer Photography

There is a well-known saying: “Love what you do, and you never work a day in your life.”  For professional photographers, we can imagine that, more than likely, this holds true for them.  There’s no doubt that the reason we are involved with photography, whether it be for hobby or by trade, is because it is an enjoyable activity, and we get satisfaction out of it.

Photo by Nikki A

But most of us aren’t content with just enjoyment in what we do; as humans, we have a deep need to improve on the world in which we inhabit, to make a difference.  We all have different ways of doing this, and photographers are no exception.

This doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking, and it doesn’t have to be something visible to your clients.  It only needs to be something that improves the life of another person in some way and in turn provides you with the knowledge that you’ve done something positive for your fellow man.

It can be tough to single out a particular area in which to put your skills to good use, so I’ve provided a few ideas to get you started.  We all have certain philanthropic ideals and groups that appeal to us.  The only thing you have to do is pick one and get started!

1. Heartfelt

Probably the toughest contribution to make on this list (at least mentally), Heartfelt is an outstanding organization that provides free photographic services for parents of stillborn or terminally ill infants and children.  Heartfelt is based in Australia, but there are equivalent organizations in North America and around the world.  Parents of the infants are given a final photo session to keep memories of their little one alive.

Volunteering for Heartfelt means having equipment ready to go on a moment’s notice, and being emotionally poured into an often tragic situation with total strangers, suddenly becoming a documenter of intimate portions of their lives.  It’s definitely not an easy thing to do, but can be very rewarding if you’re willing to commit to it.

Digital Photography School published an outstanding description of a Heartfelt experience from one of their volunteer photographers; be warned, this will be the most touching story you’ll hear today.

2. Community Events, Portraits, and Startup Businesses

Another way to contribute your skills is offering photography services to local businesses or events in your area.  For amateurs, you’re more likely to land a small job if you’re doing it pro bono, and not only are you adding to your portfolio, you’re accumulating invaluable experience, to boot.  For professionals, it’s a great way to do your part for your local community.

New businesses are especially eager to use volunteered services since their capital is likely distributed elsewhere already (overhead and stock, namely), and marketing is usually the last area they budget money for.  Some situations to look out for include:

  • New restaurants needing photos for menus
  • Graduating seniors looking for individualized portraits
  • Surprise proposal and engagement sessions
  • Community event photography
  • Local non-profit organizations
  • Museums or parks

3. Animal Shelters

Keeping with the theme of volunteering in an area that’s important to you, animal lovers such as myself might be much more comfortable volunteering their services for organizations that assist domestic animals.  In addition to county and city animal shelters, there are thousands or breed-specific rescue groups around the country.

While private rescue groups usually keep the dogs until their are adopted out, many county and city shelters unfortunately have a kill policy if that animal isn’t adopted in a reasonable amount of time.

What better way to help advertise that dog or cat’s plight than an adorable portrait? If you call around to some of these groups in your area, you might find some that are willing to take on a volunteer photographer.  This would allow them to keep their staff doing what they need to do, and give you some great experience with moving subjects!

4. Cancer/Health Charities

For many families going through a bout of cancer, cancer treatment or other serious health issues with a loved one, the little things sometimes make all the difference.  I’ve seen stories in the past involving local photographers coming in to do specialized portraits for the patients, and it’s hard to think of a more charitable cause.

A private portrait session can take the patient’s mind off of their struggle, even for a few moments, allowing them to focus on something positive and fun.  Bringing props, doing themed photos, dressing the patient up in makeup or donning outfits that are meaningful to them are all ways of making it a great experience for both you and them.

5. Military Families

Our members of the military and their families make some of the greatest sacrifices in life; they deploy to dangerous, remote locations of the world and spend time away from their loved ones, all to preserve the liberties we’ve come to enjoy.  It’s hard to think of another group of men and women that are more deserving of a volunteer service such as photography.

The major thing to remember here is the soldiers and their families are apart, usually for long periods of time. One of the most effective ways to make this easier is to bring them together in some way. Photography can do that.

There are organizations already out there that do this, such as HeartsApart.org and Operation Love Reunited, so volunteering for one of these groups is an option, as is striking out on your own to offer your services.  Family portrait sessions can be setup around a theme or a message that they’d like to send to the service member.  Again, little things are of great help; imagine how much easier a military member’s time overseas would be if they had great photos of the people waiting for them back home.

6. Social Work and the Homeless

Regardless of your stance on the homeless problem in America today, you’d be hard pressed to deny that it IS a problem and a big one.  One of the best ways to do your part to help with any situation is bringing the issue to the forefront, and getting your audience’s attention.

Lee Jeffries is a photographer becoming known for using the homeless as his subjects.  His pictures are breathtaking and heartbreaking as well.  His photos are usually close-up portraits and expose every gritty, dirty detail of life on the streets.

Many homeless people may not care to have their picture taken, like many regular people. But if you have the opportunity to do a portrait, take it.  Photos can be taken in their environment, and can make for some dramatic shots.  Unfortunately, there are distressed and helpless people almost everywhere, and bringing their situations into public attention is a great way for photographers to do what they can to help.

7. Children’s Services

Children are some of the most photogenic subjects available, but can also be some of the most challenging. Volunteering your skills to photograph kids won’t be easy, but in the end will definitely be rewarding.

There are countless ways you can contribute, but here are some currently existing ones to get you started:

  • Child identification photography (keeping current photos for safety purposes)
  • School events and functions
  • Youth football, soccer, little league baseball
  • Services for children with health issues, such as an organization like Inspiration Through Art

8. Elderly Services

Lastly, we can’t forget about our elders.  They depend on us for many things after a certain age, and one of the most rewarding things you can do as a photographer is offer your services at no charge, to help make their day better.

Nursing homes and other assisted-living facilities can be lonesome, bleak places for many elderly people, and even those not living in these could use a little brightening of their day sometimes!  Here are some things you can do to help:

  • Personalized portrait sessions
  • Photographing events and activities in a nursing home or senior center
  • Portraits of seniors with their children and grandchildren
  • Photos of their interactions with service animals
  • Events at local senior community centers

So regardless of what you choose, there is a way for you to give back to your local community, your area, or your country with volunteer photography. You’ll never have a feeling like giving to someone without expecting anything in return. and an even better feeling knowing that you did something positive for that person.

How many of you have taken the time to get involved with volunteer photography?  What are your favorite organizations? And what are other ways of giving with your photography skills?  Talk back to us in the comments below!

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By Tim Gilbreath

In addition to being a regular contributor at Photodoto, Tim is a web developer, photographer, and musician. He's also a gamer and retro/pop culture aficionado, and spends his days on the sunny West Florida coast. He maintains his website at TimGilbreath.com. You can also follow him on Twitter, . @SarasotaTim


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