Oxfam's Kate Pattison: Getting into NGO photography

Oxfam's Kate Pattison: Getting into NGO photography

By Rachel Segal Hamilton IdeasTap 14/06/12

Oxfam’s cutting-edge campaigns with Martin Parr, Rankin and Alejandro Chaskielberg prove charity photography has left the clichéd, sensationalist images of the past far behind. We ask Oxfam’s Head of Stories, Film and Photography, Kate Pattison, one of the speakers at Magnum Professional Practice in London, how emerging photographers can use their talent to help others…

What is Oxfam’s policy on how you represent people photographically? 

We believe people should be represented as human beings with dignity. The way you judge whether or not a picture should be used is by thinking: if that was someone in your family, would you want it to be shown? Anything that takes away their humanity, we would never use. It’s also about breaking the stereotype about Africa being this place where people are victims. It’s [about] presenting people in their true light as agents of their own destiny. 

There will always be times when it’s important to show the situation as it is – if you’re documenting a humanitarian emergency and people are hungry, ill or injured, we do need to show that. But there are ways of doing it that move away from shocking sensationalism and show people’s humanity and strength – little things like [showing people] holding someone’s hand or cradling a baby. 

What’s the best way for a photographer to approach you with their work? 

Do something proactive. We’ve got 800 shops on the high street – go and do some photography in a shop. That’s going to make us think, “Wow you’ve actually done something that shows you’re keen to work for Oxfam”. If you don’t want to do that, just send off your most amazing brilliant picture. Embed it in an email and ask when’s a good time to call. 

Phoning out of the blue is tough because you never know whether that person’s going to be busy or not, and you end up gabbling down the phone, so make contact by email or even through the post. Contact us, say your bit, and don’t harass us every day after that because that puts us off you straight away, even if we like your work.

Image © Rankin/Oxfam

How can would-be NGO photographers get a head start in the industry? 

What’s useful these days is somebody who can write and interview people as well as photograph. NGOs don’t have a lot of money and if we can send one person to do everything – good for us. Think about what you need to make your photographs work online. If you can, record audio or film – that puts you at an advantage. If you have languages, or experience of working in foreign countries with translators, that’s useful. Volunteering is a good way in. if you can get into one of the [NGOs’] photographic or communications departments, you’re there every day learning what they want, and when they’re trying to find a photographer at the last minute, you could be that photographer. 

Do you ever use people who are already based in a country? 

We prefer to use people we’ve already met, so we can check they’re the kind of person we’d like to be working with vulnerable people, but definitely photographers who are travelling can send us details of where they are. There are always going to be times where we desperately need somebody on the ground. 

Any other advice on taking photographs for NGOs?

Remember to be original and unique and to trust your instincts about what you think is interesting. Charity images often get a bad press for being traditional and predictable. It’s a real challenge to grab the public’s attention for a second so that you can get your message across, and anything that you can do that’s different is the way to go.


Main image © Alejandro Chaskielberg; second image © Rankin/Oxfam. 

Are you a photographer? Submit your work on the theme of “Sport” to this month's Magnum Showcase. 

For photography-related articles, jobs and opportunities, visit the photography hub.

Closing Update

38148 Page views

Most popular
Our past collaborators