Why to Consider Doing Photography Related Volunteering in Your Community


There is so much power in photography, as the old adage goes: A picture is worth a thousand words. Imagine if you did more than just create a photograph? Imagine if you taught a generation of people how to tell a story with a camera? Would you?

I have, and find it terribly rewarding! Well perhaps not an entire generation, but I have worked with some awesome teenagers in the Seattle area. Let me just say, it’s truly wonderful to see what can happen when you work with young curious minds.

I have mentored with a Seattle area non-profit, Youth In Focus whose mission is to empower urban youth, through photography, to experience their world in new ways and to make positive choices for their lives.


Youth In Focus offers film and digital photography classes at different levels; this includes a full darkroom and a digital lab. It’s a kind of after-school program, providing a lot of these kids an opportunity to have a creative outlet that may not be available to them through their schools. Students are issued a camera, film/media and receive assignments weekly. There are also field trips to local museums and even photowalks.

One of our outings was at Pike Place Market in Seattle. Some of the kids in the group hadn’t been to the market before, this made for a great opportunity to see the market as well for them to have access to us while taking photographs, real time. The bonus was that we teachers and mentors take photos too.



During my time with Youth in Focus, I worked with three different groups of students. Each group was amazing and entertaining too! The best moments are a round table discussion of each student’s images. Every week they select, edit, and print their favourite image from the previous week’s assignment. They may ask for guidance in selecting that image, especially in the beginning of the classes, as they’re just learning. You’ll find the best way to help them is to ask questions about the story they’re trying to tell or how they believe the composition could be better, etc. The goal is to get them talking about it, get them involved.

Connecting with the students via the art they’re creating is so powerful; seeing their improvement each week makes you proud. You’re excited for what’s to come and where they’re going to take it. It’s an experience not yet matched by any work I’ve done in my professional life. Perhaps if I were a full-time teacher I’d feel that, every day. I imagine you’ll get as much, if not more out of the experience if you try it.

At the end of each quarter the kids select their best one or two images to display as a part of an open house show. There’s a potluck dinner, and a gallery of images to view from each class. It’s so impressive to see what these kids create.


Now you’re thinking, “Wow! I want to do that, I want to help kids and teach photography!” but then you think, “I don’t have the time” or perhaps, “I’m not a teacher”. That’s okay, you don’t have to be a teacher, you just need to have a desire to share the knowledge you already possess. As for time, if you really want to do it, you can you can make it happen. I did, and will again.


Other challenges may be that there’s not a program like this in your city. Do a little research to see if you can find one, or reach out to a local high school and see if you could collaborate with them to put one together. I’d be willing to bet you can find other photographers in your area that would help you make it happen. If you’re in New York City, check out NYC Salt, which offers a similar mission for youth there.

If for some reason you can’t find the time to invest in such an opportunity, but you still want to be involved, you might consider making some sort of donation; old cameras, photo equipment, or of course good old hard cash. These kinds of groups are always in need of cameras, film, memory cards, rechargeable batteries and the like. Youth In Focus uses eBay to sell equipment that is donated but can’t be used in the classroom, then puts that money back into the classrooms.

Working with a non-profit like Youth In Focus or NYC Salt are not the only options. There are projects like Help Portrait, founded by Jeremy Cowart and Kyle Chowning, or The Giving Lens founded by Colby Brown. Those are just a couple, there are so many opportunities available, you just have to seek them out.


There is great joy in giving back to your community, it’s challenging, educational, and it fills up your heart.

Are you ready?! Get out there and make it happen!

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Kate Hailey is a Seattle based portrait and headshot photographer. Kate teaches photography and iPhoneography workshops; she also does social media consulting for photographers and creatives. Kate has completed four photo a day projects, often referred to as “365 Projects”, these projects were solely captured on an iPhone and edited on the iPhone or iPad. Follow her on Instagram: @KateHailey.

  • In my city to get to do this you can’t just call out of the blue; you have to know “someone”…

  • Oh that’s a shame. With Youth in Focus, they have an application process, it is pretty stringent since you’re working with kids and all, including a background check. But again so worth it!

  • zo taylor

    good idea! and by the way some volunteer organizations really want you to contribute your photo work to them. i think it is good for you because you learn to do the task, you learn to overcome shyness or difficult conditions, and if your photos are good it will earn you popularity and appraisal.

  • Hi Zo, yes, great points. I recently visited a local medical group who’s focus is on cancer research and finding a cure. They’re building is filled with a variety of art, including some Ansel Adams prints. Quite something!

  • Greg.

    Here is an idea. Young cancer patients. Kids just love to dress up. Talk with wig manufacturers and others and do make overs for them after the worst of their chemo or treatment is done. Give them back that bright smile!

  • Geoff

    This sounds great Kate. Also daunting. What sort of age group is best to target? And education level as well… does that make a difference?
    Obviously, as a man, you run the risk of your motives being questioned: it’s a fact of life. Have you any advice as far as that’s concerned? Getting a declaration of good behaviour isn’t a problem fortunately 🙂

  • J Public

    As a School Governor … I can suggest that this sort of scheme might work well (and be able to access funding) in the U.K. with certain pupils that are disaffected with the mainstream, have classroom phobias, etc. (i.e. “naughty kids” who are interested).

  • Hi Geoff,

    With Youth in Focus, the age group is 13 – 19. I think could be awesome to either find a group locally to get involved with, or form a group. Forming a group with qualified instructors and mentors, and obviously doing the paperwork, like background checks and stuff. The most important thing is creating a safe, giving environment for the students.

  • Hi Greg,

    Absolutely! Every year during the holidays I’ve lead Help Portrait style events, often working with under privileged clients, who in some cases have never had a portrait made before. There’s something magical in giving the gift of photography.

  • Exactly, in some instances. Some of the kids I’ve worked with have faced a variety of challenges in their young lives, providing support, and a creative outlet for them to express themselves is priceless.

  • Geoff

    I’m in a photo club, Kate. That might give the project some legitimacy (and ease access to the relevant people) while providing support. I’ll get in touch with other members and see if there’s any enthusiasm…
    Thanks for the idea anyway 🙂

  • Reflections by Laura

    If you can’t do this on a large scale, it’s doable one-on-one. When I mentored a refugee child through a local program, I let the 11-yr-old use my small digital camera to take pictures when I introduced her to places in our city and nearby. I went over care of the camera and how to operate it. I talked about holding the camera still when you pressed the button, but limited my suggestions on shooting because my goal was just to get her interested. You can overwhelm and ruin the experience, which is not what you’re after. Little steps in the right direction are recommended.

  • Geoff, that’s a great place to start. When I did Help Portrait projects, my network through Meetup.com and Photo Groups really proved an awesome resource.

  • That’s also another great idea. So true. With Youth in Focus there were a few levels, beginners were given small point and shoot cameras and assignments. We walked them through applying those assignments to their environments as well. Small steps without a doubt.

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