Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life


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A shorter version of this post appeared in Nikon World Magazine this summer

SOCM members Sharon Criswell and her husband have a small subsistance farm in western Tennessee where they try to grow their food and raise their animals as organically as possible.

As journalism markets have diminished, there has been a lot of attention on NGO and non-profit work.  Its been called a new kind of journalism.  Last year, I had the opportunity to work in the non-profit world.  I wouldn’t call it journalism—a dispassionate look at a situation.  Covering a non-profit turns out to be more like a partnership, with its own frustrations but also with its own rewards.

My journey began when a friend sent me a link to a program developed by Getty called Grants for Good.  “It’s right up your alley,” she wrote.   I checked it out.  Two photographers would be awarded grants to help a non-profit develop photography that would be used to improve their profile and help raise public awareness of their mission.

I’ve always liked nonprofit groups.  After college, filled with idealism, I headed to East Tennessee where I spent four years working for a variety of nonprofits, including an environmental group called Save Our Cumberland Mountains or SOCM.

These days, along with my photographic career, I’m still involved with non-profits.  One works with poverty relief in Vietnam and Burma.  Another works with education projects in the Congo.  But SOCM seemed like a natural choice for my Getty grant project, which required that I partner with a non-profit group.   SOCM’s main mission is to empower people and train them in techniques to change what they see as injustice.

I had practical reasons for my choice.  The other non-profits I’m involved with operate on the far side of the world.  If I worked in Asia or Africa, the grant would not provide enough time for me to develop a substantial project.  But Tennessee-based SOCM was nearby and not too expensive.  Working there, I’d have the time I needed to develop an extensive photographic project, as well as to collect audio and video for multimedia components.

SOCM’s work wasn’t as visual as that of the other groups, but I believed in what they were doing. I was also excited by the opportunity to help a group that dealt with average Americans living in non-exotic locations.  One of my pet complaints is about photographers going after predictable visual situations of pain, heartache and tragedy.  Here was an opportunity to deliver on what I have espoused during my professional life—to show how change is actually effected at the community level.

A spill of toxic coal ash at the Kingston Tennessee power plant in late 2008 left the area devastated. Two years after the event, cleanup efforts continue.

So, I approached SOCM’s leadership about the idea of working with me on the grant project.  They were more cautious than I’d expected—being seasoned, they knew that nothing is free. But in the end SOCM agreed to work with me, if the grant came through.  They were redesigning their website and the pictures I could provide from the grant would be a huge help in presenting their image to the public.

To my surprise, I was awarded one of the grants.  Then the real challenge began.  How would I make interesting photographs of a group whose main tools for empowering people consisted of meetings, emails, letters and phone calls?  Adding to this challenge, SOCM was also in the middle of an organizational shift, as the woman who had directed the organization for 30 years was stepping down.   They had not yet found a replacement.  At the time I had no idea how much this leadership transition would affect my coverage.

When I began working with SOCM after college, they were focused on coal, minerals rights and taxation issues in eastern Tennessee.  Over time, the group became statewide, taking on social issues like green jobs, immigration, health care and racial equality.

But when I arrived in Tennessee to start my project, most of the new social issue programs had not been implemented, and were still being researched.   Well, I always wondered how you can photograph research of this kind.  I was about to figure it out.

Along with showing how the organization was shifting directions, I faced two major challenges.

First, how could I photograph an organization whose strength lies in empowering people and developing community leaders?  SOCM members meet and talk.  Then, they meet and talk more.  They write emails and follow up with more talking and meetings.   Few attend rallies or shout epithets.   This would be tough, since a few meeting photos go a very long way.

Second was logistics.  I had a limited budget and limited time.  How could I efficiently and equally cover the membership of a group that stretched across Tennessee?

The solution for both challenges was planning…followed by more planning.  I had to coordinate people’s schedules, activities and events.  On top of that, I had to weave in coverage of new programs that I learned about as I traveled around the state.

I found that the key was to be a good listener.  People in Tennessee love to talk.  Home visits always involve long hours of wonderful storytelling and listening.

Lenora Clark adjusts one of the solar panels powering  her Tennessee home. She and her husband Bobby live off the grid, supplying their own electricity, water and most of their food.

So I began my work in the homes of members, talking to them about their goals for the organization.  I continually asked what would they want to see if they were going to put together a set of pictures about SOCM.

Their comments became my shoot list.  I found green jobs and training situations.  I interviewed people struggling to obtain health care.  I photographed land affected by mineral extraction or aerial spraying.   I developed stories on members who lived off the grid, or grew organic food.   Since SOCM was focused on renewable energy I found stories on people developing wind, solar and biofuels.

One hurdle was that I lacked “proper” media credentials for the project.  As a result access to many government and corporate facilities was difficult.   For decades, SOCM had an antagonistic relationship with the Tennessee Valley Authority or TVA, which handles almost all the energy production in the area of SOCM’s membership.  Many of the alternative energy projects as well the traditional coal, TVA managed oil and gas production.  They were not overly excited about cooperating with this project.   Without a clear media outlet for the photographs, corporations involved in “green” industries like solar panel manufacture were reluctant to open their doors to me.

Mikel Crews is combating a variety of physical disabilities that appeared after helicopters repeatedly sprayed his central Tennessee home with herbicides.

I worked around this as best I could, sometimes photographing operations from public property, other times finding alternative organizations to represent themes I felt needed to be included in the project.

I finally realized that the key to portraying SOCM was to show its members, both in activities and as people.   Meetings were central to the activities, so I worked very hard to deliver a few really great pictures of those situations.  I started making environmental portraits of people who were, in a variety of ways, struggling for a better life.  Those became as important to the finished project as the aerials of strip-mined mountains and overdeveloped farmland.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment for me was internal.   I had to come to an understanding with myself: I was doing a project in service of a non-profit organization.  The grant wasn’t just about my vision—I had to serve the needs of the group as well.   Doing so forged a new kind of partnership.

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