Bil Zelman contacted me recently about some pro bono work he’s been shooting and in particular how rewarding it is for him. Ultimately it ends up benefiting his business too with genuine interest in the work from Art Directors and nice press placement. Here’s what we talked about:
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you arrived at a successful commercial photography career.
In art school I developed a particular style of hard-flash, in your face, street photography that landed me some museum shows. This was a handful of years ago when 6×6 transparency film and a tripod were standard for the commercial world, but things were just beginning to change. After sending out a few hundred ridiculously inexpensive promo pieces, I gained the trust of a local agency who hired me to shoot a campaign for Virgin Megastores. I took the campaign to the street with no assistants, very little experience and it turned out stellar. The work won a bunch of awards and suddenly the kid with two cameras and four lenses was getting calls. I suppose my confidence and naiveté mixed with my shooting style was something people were ready for.
I’ve always tried to bring something fresh and innovative to the table, and the believability of my shots has been well received and rewarded.
How do you determine what is pro bono and what should be paid, how do you know it’s not something the client should be paying for?
I don’t have any steadfast rules except that they have to be non-profit and preferably a charity. There are plenty of large non-profits which can clearly pay a fee for their photography. Also, many trade and lobbying organizations are nonprofit groups, but not charities so you do need to be careful.
I’ve chosen to work with non-profits which are local, for the most part, whose only budgeted alternative would be to have someone on their staff shoot stuff with a digital point and shoot. And who, after a little research, could clearly benefit from my help. I will also admit that I generally only accept projects where artistic excellence is appreciated and encouraged. Something you’re not going to find everywhere.
Also, when the entity is small and local, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between the budget of your local “keep kids off the streets program” and someone who can probably afford you like say Greenpeace. Beyond that it’s all about researching them and trusting your gut.
Pro-bono projects I’ve worked on recently would include:
My local Sudanese Center, which clearly operates on a tiny budget. They covered $380 of my expenses and my assistants and I donated time/equipment. When the children and families found out that they were getting their photos taken for free, 80 people showed up dressed in their finest at sunset in a field I had scouted (they were bussed from the center). It was an amazing feeling…and scary, as I had imagined 8-10 would actually make it.
The the International Pediatric Neurological Society. Sound fancy? It’s two doctors I know who donate time and resources in their spare time. They could never have afforded to fly a photographer to Kiev, and Peru, but really needed the help. Because of the two trips, on which they covered about half of the cost, they now have a fantastic presentation with which they can seek out funding and raise awareness to their cause. And I ended up feeling really good about it and landing three pages in Archive.
A local, neighborhood outreach program came up with just enough money for me to shoot 30 rolls of grainy b/w on their project; A well designed, oversize brochure to raise funds and awareness. Beautiful.
Anymore it seems like the big commercial guys are not shooting as much editorial and I would suspect that at times shooting commercial can seem tedious and un-fulfilling. Does this serve as an antidote to that?
Absolutely, I manage to shoot about a five or six good editorial pieces a year and crave more, but San Diego isn’t the best place to be for that kind of work. While I’m blessed with great commercial assignments, those projects are usually confined to product placement first and artistry second.
The charity assignments I’ve done have given me grounds to test new ideas and ways of working, are usually not collaborative (Yes, it can try your patience to have someone else edit, crop and manipulate your work all the time- No matter how well it’s done, or how good the intentions).
I feel so empowered to be able to use my camera as a tool for social change, large or small. Nothing has felt more satisfying, and nothing has garnered a greater response for me than this type of work. From simple thank you letters from complete strangers to Art Buyers skipping over ad campaigns and
celeb work and asking “where where the photo’s of those children taken.” It still amazes me.
It’s also a sad fact that no matter how good that cover shot or ad campaign is, there’s a shelf life before it’s thrown out with all of the other magazines. It kills me. Hopefully people will be able to use the images I create for their causes to raise awareness and even funding for years to come. A longevity we rarely see in other media applications.
You mentioned that photographers are missing out on a opportunity by not taking on these kinds of projects. Can you explain?
The positives to taking on these types of projects are endless. To improve the lives of others, to better your community, to art direct your own piece and have total creative freedom, to travel, to see and experience things you may have never thought possible, to be reminded that not everyone is middle class.
And even the self-serving part; to draw attention to your own work and your own vision and be noticed by others in a fantastically positive light. Images from my last trip to Kiev ended up being printed in both Archive and the PDN Photo Annual. One week of shooting with no production work at all ended up getting noticed just as much if not more than my bigger budget shoots for the year.
And, oh yeah, did I mention that you’ll feel really, really good about it?