Bridget Besaw has found a way to combine her passion for photography with her love of the natural world. As an environmental documentarian, Bridget works with various environmental organizations to tell their stories through photo exhibits, books, and short film series. Over the years, she has partnered with a variety of nonprofits, including Maine Farmland Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Patagonia, International League of Conservation Photographers, and National Fish Wildlife Foundation. Bridget currently serves on the board of the photography advocacy organization Blue Earth. We recently had the chance to speak with her about her work and what she believes makes for a successful partnership between a photographer and a nonprofit organization.
In what ways can a nonprofit use a professional photographer to augment their program communications?
Keep in mind that a good photographer will have a strong individual vision for what they want to create in world. This kind of photographer can be a great asset to a nonprofit, helping them envision what is possible creatively. The organization itself will often have ideas of what they think is the best way to tell their story; the photographer, however, can really help to further fine-tune that vision from a visual storytelling perspective, and then to craft an effective project out of their shared interests. It is then up to the organization to be supportive and trusting of the photographer. So when a nonprofit is looking for a photographer for a specific campaign, they should make sure the photographer has this clear, passionate vision of how their images can engage the viewer and tell the story, and that this vision is aligned with the goals of the nonprofit.
Tell us about your work with the Maine Farmland Trust.
About five years ago, I was hired by the Maine Farmland Trust to do a photography project documenting their work in agricultural conservation. I followed seven different farms for six months. The images were made into a book as well as a traveling photo exhibit. For the photography project, we had to gain approval from the MFT board, comprised mostly of of farmers, who were quite skeptical about allocating budget for a photography project. But after seeing the success of the photo project, they agreed to fund the film project this past summer, which we are really excited about. It’s an advocacy piece for the local food movement, which is fast growing in the region. It does, of course, also speak to the main message points of the organization: protecting farmland and supporting farmers.
From your partnership with different nonprofits over the years, what can you share that has worked well? What hasn’t worked well?
What doesn’t work well is when an organization fails to trust the creative process and tries to micromanage too much. It’s also a challenge when the organization doesn’t know how to convey their own story, yet is unwilling to let the photographer guide them. What does work well is pretty much the exact opposite. Maine Farmland Trust is my dream client. They give me total creative freedom and they trust that I know their story and am passionate about telling it well. And I don’t mean to say that organizations should turn over the reins to artists and documentarians entirely. It is more about a level of trust and partnership that is deeper than the business transaction. When I work with an organization, I view them as my partner in the story we are telling.
What tips do you have for maximizing the return on investment on projects, for both photographers and their partners?
To the partners: invest in your photographer! Let them sink their teeth into something meaningful. As an artist, I can tell you that when I am invested in a larger project, I will roll my sleeves up and do whatever it takes to see it through to success. And I think these kinds of projects have always had a far greater payoff for the orgs than they anticipated. But make sure you have the right photographer for the job, one who has a clear vision, a strong knowledge of the subject matter, and an obvious commitment to raising awareness about it through their imagery.
For the photographers: make sure you are able to help your client beyond just the creation of the content. Oftentimes that means coming to the table with strategic ideas about how to pull off a project from a logistical, creative and funding perspective. And then on the back end, for distributing and promoting the project for maximum efficacy. Nowadays, advocacy artists, as I like to think of us, have to wear a lot of hats: photographer, producer, communicator, and marketer. It is no longer enough to be simply a great photographer, at least in the advocacy world.
–Serena Bernthal-Jones, 2013 Winter Intern
Read our other interviews with visual communication professionals:
Katie Homes, Climate Reality Project
Alexandra Garcia, International League of Conservation Photographers
Gary Braasch, climate change photographer