To ring in the new year, Karl Grobl, a self-described “humanitarian photojournalist,” launched a new video journal, “Come Along for the Ride,” to provide insights into his work as a visual storyteller for NGOs worldwide. For the past 10 years, the photographer has been documenting the relief efforts and development work of clients like World Vision, World Relief, World Emergency Relief, Freedom from Hunger, Catholic Relief Services and many others. Grobl has worked in more than 50 countries, from Afghanistan to Vietnam, covering issues like HIV/AIDS, prostitution, micro-finance and education. His images are used to help NGOs tell the story of what they do through annual reports, websites and other multimedia communications.
He also recently started leading photography workshops to provide professional and amateur photographers with a platform from which to launch their own photojournalistic careers.
I chatted with him on Skype while he was on location in Bangkok to learn more about his latest project.
Why did you start the “Come Along for the Ride” series?
Ten years ago, there weren’t a whole lot of people doing “photography for nonprofits;” now it’s gotten to be kind of a buzzword.
It’s a dream job for most photographers because just about everybody wishes they could travel around shooting picture stories in interesting locations and get paid for doing that. So, I started this blog series and I’m doing a workshop along with my photo tours, where I teach people how to tell picture stories with the intent being that maybe they’ll do something for a nonprofit and get into the business themselves.
I can’t do this forever, so why don’t I train other people how to do it?
What does it mean to be a “humanitarian photojournalist”?
Humanitarian photojournalism is very strictly making photographs for humanitarian aid organizations, helping them explain to the world what it is that they do, with the funds they get, and the programs they implement around the world. There’s a much different look to the work of a humanitarian photographer as opposed to someone who makes pretty pictures. One has a very real, journalistic, non-contrived photograph that’s “newsy” or event-related, versus, an image of a couple of baby lambs in the hands of beautiful children up against the background of the Andes mountains. Not to say that that’s a bad thing. There are photographers who make beautiful photographs for NGOs, but my niche is to do it in a journalistic way.
The tendency is for these humanitarian aid organizations to do a lot of blogging and social media and what they want is newsy content about what’s happening in Sri Lanka today, or what is Asia Foundation doing to reintegrate the Tamils after the civil war. There’s a constant need, much like a news organization, for content that tells a story from yesterday and the day before.
How did you get into this line of work?
I was working in medical sales for Johnson & Johnson orthopedics. I loved the job, but I also loved my vacation. I would spend two weeks going to some developing country to photograph indigenous cultures.
This one time, while working at a trade show, I came across this booth and there was a tiny 6-foot draped table, trying to get orthopedic surgeons to volunteer their time in the developing world to teach and do surgery and go on medical missions. I thought, wow, they don’t have much in the way of photographs to attract people to the booth to get them excited about places where they might go volunteer.
When I went on these two-week forays into the developing world for my own personal photography projects, I noticed a huge discrepancy in the quality of healthcare. I thought, is there anything I can do to use my skills as a photographer to help these people? Maybe I can start with taking pictures that speak to a physician in the U.S. who says they really want to go help.
I needed to find a way to make enough money to support myself but also derive satisfaction from being a small agent of change for better in places that I visit.
What is unique about photography that makes it an effective tool for social change?
It allows people to see the similarities between themselves and someone half a world away. A photo is a thing that someone sees first, and based on whether the photo moves them, they dig deeper into the story. And it doesn’t usually have to do with shock value, like bloated babies’ stomachs with flies on their eyes, but rather a photo that connects to someone, so that they say, hey, that could be my child, or that could be me. It’s a personal connection.
How do you measure the social impact of your work?
Often times it’s difficult to measure the impact. I get a fair amount of examples from my clients who say they showed a series of photos to high-level donors at this one dinner and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Or I’ll get an email and someone will tell me that they see my photo and it moved them so much that they’re now donating to some organization. I get just enough of a trickle of emails, comments and thank you’s that I get the sense it’s working. The communications departments at these NGOs that I work for wouldn’t be hiring me if those photos didn’t ultimately result in positive cash flow for them.
Give us an example of one of the most memorable stories that you have documented – what do you want people to take away from it?
I covered the tsunami in Indonesia for Catholic Relief Services. I flew over to Banda Aceh; it was completely devastated. There were ruins everywhere, bodies everywhere. It was a complete mess. Everyone back home was emailing me, worried about me being overcome by this tragedy, and what I really got out of it was that it was the most motivational and uplifting experience I’ve ever had. Yes, the tsunami devastated many countries in a huge way, but what I saw was the sheer weight of the humanitarian response. The entire community came to the aid of these people and did whatever it took to make sure that whoever was surviving had something to eat and a place to stay.
I was on the beach, rambling around the disaster zone. There was a guy who was standing on the concrete foundation of what used to be his house. He had lost his entire family. He was swept into the forest and clung to the top of a palm tree until the water receded. He had absolutely nothing left in his entire life.
He sees that I’m sweating like crazy. He has three coconuts to his name and he picks them up, chops one open, gives it to me, chops another one open, and gives it to my translator. Here’s a guy who has nothing left in the world and he’s worried about me being thirsty.
Another example: When I was working for World Vision in Cambodia, I was shooting a woman with HIV/AIDS, lying in her hut. It was 95 degrees and 95 percent humidity. She has her skeletal hand across her baby, and I’m trying to make these photos but I’m having a hard time because it’s really dark. She says something in Khmer to her relatives, and the next thing I know, they start removing the door from the house so that enough light can come in to make the photo. She was really concerned that I create a good picture of her situation because she wanted everyone else to understand what she’s going through. Three days after that, I understand that she expired.
What career advice do you have for aspiring benevolent media creators?
There are a hundred thousand people that would love to have my job but there are few that can say I’m willing to pay the price to get there. You create that by doing photography and learning journalism and working for a newspaper. You put together a business plan that says in order to make a living doing this, I have to charge this much, convince them that their investment in me is worthwhile, and showing a portfolio of images that demonstrate to the NGO that this is what I can do for you.
The photography aspect of it is one thing, but more important is understanding customer needs, selling yourself, and delivering a product to the customer.