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Much of life as a professional photographer involves taking—indeed, our job description as photographers is that we take photos for a living. It is a beautiful way to make a living and see the world and all the richer, I have found, when we are able to create opportunities to give as well.
Above photo: A young Quechua girl walks the ancient trails of her family’s land, high above the Sacred Valley, Peru.
Growing up, I was home-schooled by adventurous parents who, from the time we were born, exposed us to foreign cultures through travel. At the age of 10, I was handed an old Canon AE-1 and encouraged to use it as a way to explore the places to which we traveled and to engage with the people we met. Traveling, for our family, was not about a vacation from daily life, it was a journey of experiential education that fostered a cycle of openness, curiosity, and connectedness that I still carry with me today. To stay connected to the roots of where my love of photography and travel began, I find it is important to carve out time to return to communities and partner with NGOs where I can volunteer and lend my skills with the camera to help them share their stories, thus balancing time spent taking pictures with a focused effort to giving back, as well.
Children filter into the community hall for a music class taught by a WAVEs volunteer on a hot afternoon, in Lobitos, Peru.
Photo class in Lobitos. In this day and age, no photo lesson would be complete without an obligatory lecture on the power of the “selfie.”
Finding ways to travel and give back
There are so many non-profits, both large and small, that are doing great work in this world. However, many of these organizations lack the resources to hire creatives to help them effectively share their story and the story of the people their work benefits. I have found there is a huge need for visual creatives who are willing to volunteer their time and skills to tell those stories and thereby open the door for others to learn, relate, and ultimately support the work of movements we believe in. I first began to explore this idea actively in 2009 when, fresh out of college and hoping to make it in the world of photography, I set out for Peru with a backpack, my camera, and the names of two NGOs whose work and ethos resonated in me.
A volunteer and local kid head down for morning surf lessons in Lobitos. As I think about creating images for an organization,
I try to bring together elements that lend a sense of place (here, it is surfing) and, more importantly, capture the honest and fun moments
shared between volunteers and local kids. Canon 5D MK III with 35mm f/1.4, 1/8000 second, f/1.4 at ISO 100.
WAVEs, the first NGO for which I volunteered, is a small organization located in the fishing village of Lobitos, at the end of a long dusty road in Northwest Peru. WAVES's goal is to inspire world travel and cultural exchange through surf experiences, while collaboratively building educational programs that empower travelers, local youth, and communities.
Keeping old traditions alive, this young Quechua girl is the daughter of one of the
Awamaki weavers, and from the looks of it, she may well be carrying on her mother's tradition and craft.
Canon 5D MK II with 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, 1/320, f/3.5 at ISO 100.
Awamaki: Leaving Lobitos, I headed into the Andes and, retracing the path of a trip that my family took 10 years before, I found myself back in Ollantaytambo, where I hoped my camera could help again to share the story of Awamaki, a small NGO working to help the local Quechua communities sustain their traditional way of life.
Wherever you decide to volunteer, be sure to take time to converse with locals and venture out on your own a bit. Following conversations
that mostly involved gestures toward distant ridges, and the promise of aguas calientes in the next valley over, we set out on old Quechua trails that took us
far from the beaten track. As we crossed over a foggy pass high above the valley from which we came, this fellow emerged from the rain.
I didn’t get close enough to see for certain, but I am pretty sure it had a long spiral horn coming out of its forehead.
How to decide where to volunteer your skills
First, you must answer the following question: What are you passionate about? It is not enough just to pick an NGO in a destination to which you want to travel, show up, take a few photos, and leave. Pick a cause and a part of the world where you will be excited to fully immerse yourself and engage with the people whose story you will help tell.
For me, Peru already held special meaning—my family had traveled there together 10 years prior—and, returning with a double major in Sociology and Spanish, I was interested to explore more fully the stories and communities that had sparked my imagination a decade earlier.
Once you have an idea of where you might want to go, start combing travel forums and talking to other friends, photographers, and travelers to see where your skills as a visual storyteller are most needed. Sites like idealist.org can be a great starting place for seeking out organizations that are in need of your skills.
Tools for the job
When traveling for this sort of work, I bring my full standard kit: two Canon 5D MK III cameras slung on durable and comfortable HoldFast Ruckstraps a set of Canon L-series primes, 15mm/24mm/35mm/50/mm/85mm along, which fits nicely in the KATA Bumblebee 220 and LighTri-318 UL Torso Pack for day trips.
Morning surf class with the WAVEs kids means lots of laughs and splashes, endless piggy-back rides and dance-offs, and plenty of opportunity
to get the camera soaked. For this shot, I loaded up the Aquatech housing with the 5D MK III and my 14mm f/2.8, 1/1600, f/8.0 at ISO 200.
It is also important to pay attention to the geography where you are headed. For example, when I traveled to Lobitos to volunteer with WAVEs, I knew we would be spending a lot of time in the water teaching the local kids to surf, so it was important to bring some sort of waterproof housing. I use an Aquatech housing and ports. For extended trips to rural communities where electricity is not a given, I pack a Goal Zero Solar Kit to keep camera batteries charged.
Using the Instax as a teaching tool, I gave the camera to the kids in Lobitos who seemed interested in photography, and asked
them to take 10 minutes, think about what is important to them, and then create a single photograph based on that subject. In our increasingly digital
world, it was great for them to have to think more deeply about creating a single image, made all the better by getting
to watch it develop in real time and then take it home to share with friends.
Tools for the giving
Standard camera kit aside, what I have found to be the most important piece of gear for putting the "give" back into the "take" on these trips is the Fujifilm Instax 210. While I use the 5D to take the video and images that can be used later for the promotion of the NGOs with whom I partner, the Fuji allows me to create instantly and give photos to the local folks with whom I interact.
When I stopped for lunch with one of the local families, the kids lit up at the sight of the instant photos coming out of the Instax.
There’s nothing quite like experiencing the look of joy on a child’s face and joining in their unbridled laughter and excitement as they use the Instax to take what might be their first photo ever, and then watch it magically reveal itself in their hands. It is an experience that transports me back to the essence of why I began taking photos; it is the taking, yes, but it is also the giving and the ability to use a camera to share moments that draws us all together, captivates for an instant, and then ripples outward in a fashion that is both positive and empowering for all involved.
Goofing with the local pirate crew in Lobitos. Canon 5D MK III with 35mm f/1.4, 1/8000, f/1.6 at ISO 100.
While they rested in the shade after a hot day of marching and music, I snapped a few shots of this father and son. I left the prints with them,
and they thanked me with warm smiles and hand shakes—the best form of currency I have ever received in return for a photo.
Canon 5D MK III with 35mm f/1.4, 1/2500, f/1.4 at ISO 100.
After my month of learning, sharing, exploring, and engaging with fellow volunteers and locals in Peru, I returned to the States with a deeper understanding of Peruvian culture and the organizations where I worked. I set about editing my photos, hoping that some of what I had captured would convey what I had experienced. I was confident that the work WAVEs and Awamaki were doing was important and was eager to share their stories and, more importantly, the vignettes of joy and positive change that I saw in the communities where they worked.
I rose with first light after a cold night, high in the Andes. As the clouds shifted across a distant ridge, I saw a figure emerge and, waiting
until the clouds framed the figure from both above and below, I attempted to capture the sense of atomity
and mystical wonder that these mountains gave me.
The images I captured in Ollantaytambo have since been used by Awamaki to help raise funds and create a visual experience to share their story through social media and their website.
Volunteering doesn’t have to be all work and no play. In fact, at it’s best I’ve found it to be a solid mix of both. In Lobitos, volunteers
are encouraged to find that balance with a healthy dose of surfing, and often we would rise before the sun to get
into the water. Canon 5D MK III with 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, 1/2000 second, f/2.8 at ISO 100.
The video and images we captured in Lobitos were used by WAVEs in the creation of a short film (Capture - https://vimeo.com/10968171) that premiered at multiple film festivals around the US and South America, raising awareness, funding and volunteer support.
It is easy to become so caught up in the day to day routines that we forget to take a step back and shift
our perspective, yet find that perspective is an important part of telling the story and creating a sense of place.
Canon 5D MK II with 24mm f/3.5 TS, 1/500 second, f/3.5 at ISO 100.
Peru revisited, four years later
The expectation that we can affect some deep and lasting positive change in communities that are as foreign to us as we are to them is an idea with which I still wrestle. What I have come to realize is that we often receive as much or more than we are ever able to give. Volunteering in this fashion is not “charity work,” but rather is an exchange, and at its best, this exchange leaves both the local communities and the volunteers who visit feeling more connected to the world as a whole, and empowered to work for positive change. There’s no doubt in my mind that my visit to Peru was a formative experience that positively shaped my outlook on the world and my approach to photography as a career, but I wondered what the effect had been (if any) on the communities and friends I engaged with during that trip.
I spent the morning helping this family in Lobitos replace their dirt floor with a concrete slab. During a quiet moment I grabbed the
camera and stepped back into this doorway behind a blowing curtain, waited for the curtain to blow in front of the lens, and snapped this shot.
Canon 5D MK III with 35mm f/1.4, 1/250 second, f/1.4 at ISO 100.
With that in mind, in May, 2014, I returned to Lobitos to volunteer again and help facilitate an audiovisual workshop for the WAVEs kids and community. When I was last in Lobitos, in addition to filming the documentary Capture, I had also worked with my friend Jeremy to set up a photo program for the kids. We had left feeling somewhat unsure of the outcome of that project—as only one boy (Henry Espinoza) had consistently shown up for the classes.
Henry Espinoza, learning the basics of the camera from Jeremy Koons, during our first photo class in Lobitos, four years ago.
Henry and I playing around with the Instax on my most recent trip to Lobitos. Photo by Gary Parker
As I was to soon discover, one motivated kid with a bit of passion and talent is all it takes.
Four years later, Henry is using the tools we gave him to start telling his own story—the truest story of Lobitos that any of us could ever hope to tell. With the initial guidance we gave him, and the continued support from other WAVEs volunteers and staff, he has grown into a talented and confident photographer. Meeting with him to go out and shoot on my first day back at WAVEs, he confided in me that though he is from a family of fishermen, his parents have finally come to accept and take pride in the fact that he is following his path as a photographer.
Now a young master of surf photography, Henry and I traded roles, and I became the student as we headed out to shoot the surf together one evening.
Canon 5D MK III with14mm f/2.8, 1/30 second, f/22, at ISO 100.
What amazed me even more was that Henry is not only making a go at taking photos, he’s already giving back by teaching photo classes to the other kids in Lobitos. It began with his younger brother, Jesus, but now, together with a pair of photographers from Lima, Henry is teaching a class twice a week for the other kids in the community who want to learn about photography.
Wherever you go, work to develop rapport and really engage. Be human—play, laugh, make mistakes, and goof off. It’s good for your soul, and
also your pictures. I spent the better part of the afternoon playing with the kids at this school and snapped this frame toward the end
of the day. Canon 5D MK II with 24mmTS f/3.5, 1/60 second, f/3.5 at ISO 200.
As I left Lobitos this time, it was with a quiet but irrepressible sense of joy and satisfaction, knowing that Henry will continue to fuel this creative cycle, amplifying and sharing the story of his town and WAVEs—the organization that has brought so many good people there to teach and to learn.
It is the small stories of success like Henry’s that reaffirm my faith in the importance of putting a bit of myself back into the world and the positive cycle that is engendered when we are able to do this. Next time you set out to travel, set your sights on taking the most amazing photos, but also on giving back wherever you can.
As photographers, we of all people know the power of a moment shared, inspiration exchanged, and how sometimes a thousandth of a second can change the course of our lives. So stay open, travel as far as your heart desires and feet will carry you, and next time you open the shutter on the world to take another picture, consider the possibility of how you could use the box of light in your hands to not only take, but give a little as well.
Resources for volunteering:
About Forest Woodward:
From my early days drinking fixer in the dark room, learning zone system and processing 4x5 negatives, to recent trips documenting surf culture in NYC, migrant farm workers in Napa, rock climbing in South Africa, or the street kids of Rio's Carnival, my pursuit of new experiences pushes me to continually evolve my vision, while reminding me of the importance of carrying my camera with humor, compassion and curiosity.