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Some experiences are worth more than money. Volunteering your skills as a photographer may be worth more to you than some of your highest paying jobs.
You want to do good and help others. Offering your photography as a gift is a wonderful way to do this. But you need to volunteer properly, otherwise, it’s a meaningless transaction.
Let’s work through the pros and cons of volunteering your photography so that you can volunteer in a way that builds up you and the person you’re volunteering for.
There are good reasons to volunteer your photography beyond just saying yes because you feel guilty.
Volunteering shouldn’t just be about working for free. Think of yourself as giving a gift rather than merely volunteering or working for free.
When you consider your photography a gift you won’t feel as though anybody owes you anything and your motives will be pure.
You might consider sharing your gift of photography in order to grow as a person, especially if you don’t consider yourself to be compassionate.
Practicing acts of compassion through your photography is a perfect way to become more compassionate.
Empathy is related to compassion. If you live an easy life, you might not notice how much suffering there is around you. Photographing people living through cancer, poverty, or natural disasters can help you become more empathetic.
My wife is called out during all hours of the day or night to photograph families who have had a miscarriage or infant death. We were a year into this volunteer work when we too experienced a miscarriage.
You should jump at opportunities to volunteer when it involves something you just can’t resist. If you love cute animals then volunteer at an animal shelter. Gifting my photography to Habitat for Humanity allowed me to get up close to heavy machinery. Photographing things that excite you is good for your soul – and even better when it’s a gift.
Some volunteer opportunities will allow you to explore something new. Take it a step further by documenting your journey with a photo blog.
Explore an aspect of life that you know nothing about and see what you can learn as you volunteer your photography skills.
Volunteering your photography may be a good way to work on a project. For longer-term projects, you could explore a theme over the course of a month or even a year. Or maybe you bring only one camera and one lens to see what you can accomplish with a constraint.
Giving your photography as a gift allows you to think beyond merely working for free. So does thinking like an artist. Whatever the volunteer opportunity is, do it as an artist. Make a beautiful set of photos as if it’s an art project.
Don’t volunteer if your work is going to be shallow or self-serving.
New photographers often fall for the lure of exposure. You’ll often be approached with volunteer opportunities that promise amazing exposure for you. And you’ll almost always be let down.
On what grounds will it be good exposure? Is the event filled with your ideal client? Will you be promoted in a meaningful way (social media mentions often don’t lead to real exposure)?
Offering to volunteer your photography in order to gain experience rather than exposure is a great idea. Experience builds and lasts, but exposure fades quickly.
You might be told that the volunteer opportunity will be good for your portfolio. But is this the sort of subject that you would like in your portfolio?
It’s easy for enthusiastic people looking for a volunteer photographer to promise exposure and rare portfolio opportunities, but you need to be the judge of that. They likely know nothing about what is good for you and your portfolio.
Rather than hoping to build your portfolio, you should take it as an opportunity to explore. Be grateful if you happen to create an image that you will use in your portfolio.
Your volunteer work will probably lead to something paid, but maybe not anytime soon and maybe not the work you’re really after.
There are better ways to pursue paid work:
If you’re really after paid work, maybe you would be better off making cold calls for 10 hours. 10 hours of sales pitches is almost guaranteed to get you paid jobs. But 10 hours of volunteer work might not lead to anything paid.
Volunteer as a gift and that will be payoff enough.
You always say yes to everything because you don’t have the assertiveness to say no. When you volunteer just because you can’t say no, you’re letting somebody take advantage of your weakness. They might actually be disappointed to find out you said yes but meant no.
It’s wonderful to experience a new type of photography through volunteer work. It can even help you improve your craft.
But you shouldn’t volunteer for important photography jobs that you are not confident doing.
For example, if you’re strictly a landscape photographer who is uncomfortable photographing people then you should not photograph a person’s wedding for free. You will likely mess up their once in a lifetime photos.
Your volunteer work shouldn’t be burning you out. You and the person you’re volunteering for should both be built up in the process. This might be a sign that you’re saying yes when you mean no, or you are being taken advantage of. The point of charity and volunteer work is to build something good, not burn out those who want to be compassionate.
If you’re a working photographer it can be easy to neglect your own photography projects. Those projects might not bring you any money, but you should pursue them for the same reasons you would volunteer your time for somebody else. You need to volunteer your time to yourself just as much to other people!
You could volunteer merely for the sake of exposure, portfolio building, or the hope of paid work. Or simply because you just can’t say no. But these are not good reasons to volunteer. They are risky and might lead quickly to burn out.
But when you think of volunteering as a gift, then you and your community will experience growth in empathy and compassion. Your gift becomes an opportunity for exploration and may grow into a beautiful art project.
Exposure, portfolio building, and paid work become a side benefit rather than a primary motivation.
I’d love to hear about your volunteer experiences down in the comments!