Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘SOCM

Getty Grant Video

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Back in May, I put up a link with some of my work from the first “Grant for Good.”   This innovative project was sponsored by Getty Images.  The grant was a wonderful gift that provided support for me to document the work of a non-profit organization called SOCM that I’ve long admired.  Since then, I’ve been editing a video called “The Story of SOCM”  that combines stills, audio, video and historic pictures to tell the 40 year history of this amazing organization.  You can see the finished production here on YouTube, and on my website.  You can also read more about working on this grant project in one of my recent columns for Nikon World.

Written by kasmauski

February 26, 2011 at 7:04 pm


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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.

Getty Grant Project

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Web page of my work on the Getty Grant project

Last year I was a recipient of the first “Grant for Good,” an innovative project sponsored by Getty Images.  The grant was a wonderful gift that provided support for me to document the work of a non-profit organization called SOCM that I’ve long admired and been associated with.  Getty just posted a selection of my pictures from the grant.  You can see that work by clicking on “Karen’s Getty Grant Project” here, or in the “My Sites” section on the right side of this page.  My account of working on the project follows:

As photographers we often focus on actions resulting from the failure of process: wars, riots, hunger, poverty, and distressed communities. Even natural disasters are intensified because process fails. Deaths from the recent Haiti and Chinese earthquakes soared because of poor building construction resulting from corruption and poverty.

Yet actually photographing process—not its failure—is both difficult and visually challenging.

With the support of the Getty Grant for Good, this is what I attempted. I wanted to show how an organize effects social change working within the process of laws and politics.

To do this, I focused on a single long-lived grassroots organization that has been active in Tennessee for almost 40 years. Over several months, I visited and interviewed the membership. I wanted to show the often-quiet process of change at the grass roots level. I wanted to show the long-term commitment those in the organization make in the interest of securing social change.

There were challenges. When I started the project, I had no idea that the organization itself was in the midst of major transitions. As I began work, the organization still used its old name, Save Our Cumberland Mountains or SOCM.

SOCM began as a regional group based in east Tennessee, focused on environmental issues like clean water and strip mining. After graduating from college, I had worked with the organization before beginning my career as a photographer. But in recent years, the organization expanded to a statewide focus, with a broader mandate to address racial and economic issues.

This transition accelerated sharply over the course of my project. While I was documenting their efforts, the organization formally changed its name. The new name, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, retained the familiar SOCM acronym. The old director, a key figure in the organization, stepped down after 30 years of service. Two interim directors were appointed. A month after I finished my project, a new director finally came on board.

In the midst of this transition, both older SOCM members that I had known for years and newer members whom I came to know and admire were all helpful in assisting me with documenting both traditional and new activities.

The newly named organization was growing in many directions, like branches on a tree. Finding a central focus to tell this multi-faceted story seemed elusive. Once comprised of a largely white membership focused on a few environmental issues, the organization was now multi-racial and multi-ethnic. New chapters, spread across the state, focused on racial harmony, immigrant worker rights, and green jobs, along with the older environmental concerns.

In this unexpectedly complex tapestry, my challenge was to find a common thread. In the end, I found that thread in the members themselves. Despite a shift of focus, what SOCM did remained consistent, teaching people how to use the tools needed to make effective changes in both their lives and their communities. This was grassroots organizing at its best.

Since SOCM’s strength is in its membership, I made environmental portraits of members who had been active in the past as well those now taking leadership in the present. I documented those issues that are core to the traditional and contemporary focus of the organization.

Much of grassroots change is process, typically done through meetings. Though these tend to be nonvisual events, I felt coverage was important, since so much of SOCM’s learning process is shared in them. Here, members visit and bond, discussing concerns of importance to them and their communities.

My challenge throughout was to create images that can help SOCM capture public attention. Once engaged, visitors to SOCM’s website may become involved and participate in the organizations efforts.

SOCM is largely comprised of working and middle class individuals who deeply care about their communities, their families and the land on which they live. Many, whether they attend church or not, are spiritually inclined.

In my interviews I found most SOCM members to be articulate and well informed about the issues concerning them. Because of that, I placed extra emphasis on recording audio, and to some extent, video. I wanted the people of SOCM to tell their own stories in their own words. My hope is that those listening to them and seeing their images will be moved by what they hear and see, perhaps to the point of helping this unusual and long-lived organization continue to carry on its mission of social change.

Written by kasmauski

May 16, 2010 at 4:47 pm