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Photography & Volunteering Abroad: Do It Right

Volunteering abroad is one of the most hands-on experiences you can have with the local community in a foreign country. It allows more insight and depth in understanding another culture’s values, traditions, beliefs, and lifestyles. It can also educate you on the country’s government and politics, economy, and education and healthcare systems.

It is normal to want to capture memories when traveling abroad, but even more so when those experiences impact us so much so that perhaps our entire perspectives are changed. This is often the case for those who volunteer abroad. However, not just any photo will do.

It is important to understand how your volunteer abroad photos are being perceived by the audience you’re sharing with. What is the facial expression of your photo’s subject saying? Or the environment where you captured the moment? What about your own smiling face among those whose reality you’ve entered? Even things that are commonly overlooked by the casual social media user such as lighting, angle, or color contrasts? Read on to learn more about the implications of your travel photography, and how not to make those mistakes on your next adventure for good.

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Be Considerate

Volunteers often go abroad to help in the local communities, whether they be child care centers, hospitals, schools, community centers, or others. While you may have met someone wonderful while volunteering at the local clinic, consider whether taking photos in such a location is appropriate. Would you dare to take a photo of someone in a vulnerable situation back home? If the answer is no, then applying the same rule while traveling is a sure-fire way to prevent insensitive photos from making their way into your memories.

Get Consent

Before assuming that everyone loves to have a camera snapped in their face, make sure to get consent. This is especially important when volunteering at projects that may have strict privacy protection for their clients such as schools with young children. Sometimes getting consent makes it hard to capture the moment as it is, so if you’re far away and unseen by the subjects, snap that perfect shot, but don’t forget to approach the people in your photo to share it with them and get consent to keep and use it. Everyone is entitled to their privacy, so respect it.

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Keep it Personal

Photos are never taken with a completely neutral attitude. You capture what YOU see, hear and feel, and that’s often translated to anyone you share your photo with. So before capturing a photo of just anyone or anything, it’s important to get a bit of background and history so you capture the photo that belongs to a story you’ve taken the time to learn and understand. Whether capturing photos of a city, animals, or the local people, the history behind these subjects are so important to the story being told through your lens. It also helps to know a little background to write compelling captions which help steer away negative perceptions, and provide more clarity for your audience.

Contextualize Accurately

Always keep your photos in context. Photos capture a very small frame of the reality you’re witnessing, so it’s important to keep it in perspective. What you decide to include in your shot will create the viewer’s perspective of the time, place, and people. Consider the facial expressions of your subjects, what they’re doing, the environment in which they are doing it in, and how the lighting (or lack of) affects it. A photo can tell a sad story of a happy child, or a beautiful story of a harsh reality. Remember, first learn about the subject, and then decide how to create the truest expression of that in a photo.

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Use the Mind’s Eye

At the end of the day, it isn’t about the photos. It’s always about the experience, the education, and the moment. Photos might help you to remember, but don’t abandon the here and now because you’re busy focusing your lens on what’s already perfect with your eyes. Trying to capture a moment makes it hard to live in it. So, take some time to be without your camera. Make connections because you care to learn and understand, and not just because you care to share that understanding in a photo. Read the history because you know it’s imperative to the present, and train your mind’s eye to capture not only the visual, but the audio, the scent, and the feeling of being.