After photographing weddings and portraits for almost 20 years, Ron B. Wilson felt he’d hit a wall. He wanted to reconnect with his first love, photojournalism, which he’d studied in college, so he plugged “photojournalism projects abroad” into Google. That’s when Photographers Without Borders, which connects professional photographers with nongovernmental organizations around the world, appeared. “I clicked on the website, and within two or three minutes of reading their bio and seeing the projects they’d been working on, I knew I wanted to get involved.”
The process: To join a Photographers Without Borders project, you first become a member and submit your portfolio. Once your portfolio has been approved, you can apply to join a specific project, for which you need to raise several thousands of dollars for your lodging and in-country expenses. Wilson has done five projects so far—about one a year—and continues to experiment with new and creative ways to raise money. For example, he’s recently found success offering photo shoots in exchange for donations. He’s also offered fine art prints of his photos as an incentive to donate.
On the ground: Projects typically last about 14 days—plenty of time to immerse oneself in the cause, Wilson says. When he arrives, he meets with the organization’s representatives to find out what kinds of images they need and the style they prefer. His focus is education, and he’s joined projects in Guatemala, Botswana, India, Guyana, and the Ukraine. “I’ve learned to slow down and get to know people first,” he says, before bringing out his camera. The organizations usually request 500 to 1,000 images, and Wilson selects 50 of his favorites for Photographers Without Borders’ exhibitions and quarterly magazine.
The benefits: It’s incredibly rewarding to provide a nonprofit with professional images that will elevate their image and website, communicate their mission to the public, and ultimately lead to grants and funding to support their cause, Wilson explains. “Photography has the power to change the world. It’s really simple: One photo can make a difference.”
Most memorable experience: Riding on the back of a motorcycle through dense fog in northern India to photograph a school that Azad India Foundation was setting up in a rural village. Visibility was near zero, Wilson explains, which made the two-hour journey both harrowing and surreal. Rickshaws, cows, chickens, dogs, goats, bicycles, motorcycles, and cars would appear and then vanish immediately into the fog. But the journey gave him perspective. “I felt like I saw the work they were doing so differently because I was so scared on the way there. I could have easily just said I don’t feel comfortable doing this. But it made the work more important that day.”
Amanda Arnold is the associate editor of Professional Photographer.