Why Volunteer Projects Can Be Valuable.

When you volunteer and collaborate with charitable organizations, especially creative and performance-oriented ones, you get some leeway to try new techniques and new looks which can be the lifeblood of your quest to stay relevant. 

I've done a number of video projects for corporate clients over the years and a prerequisite for most of them was the need to be "safe," not do anything visually or stylistically risky and they nearly all revolved around doing interviews in fixed spots. Hit the mark on the floor and don't move. Even if you love the "idea" of filmmaking that's a quick way to go stale, lose interest and start showing up just for the money. 

Over the years my work as a photographer and a filmmaker for Zach Theatre has allowed me the freedom to continually explore and take chances with gear, color looks, compositions and so much more. 

Sometimes, when I've bought a new lens, I've just called up the marketing team at the theater and asked if there was anything they needed images for. When I bought the Sigma 85mm f1.4 for the L-mount system I called and asked if I could come by and shoot some of the early dance rehearsals for "Christmas Carol." No guarantee to the theater that I'd turn out anything they could use but my track record with them is pretty good so they were happy to have me there. I shot for hours and worked the lens hard. I shot a lot at f1.4 and f2.0 (which is probably why you would buy that lens!). Having thousands of frames from the same low light venue to compare I could probably tell more about the virtues and limitations of that lens by the end of the weekend then I would find out walking around with it, casually snapping a frame here and there. 

By the same token no one at the theater actually asked me to go out and buy a gimbal (or three). I knew that it was a look they really wanted but since I was volunteering they were okay with me trying to fudge it all with handheld cameras or watch me try to move fluidly (not) with a camera welded to the top of a monopod. But their collective desire somehow invaded my brain and I decided to give something new a try. Now I'm pretty delighted with what we produced and I'm looking forward to using gimbals extensively on my own projects and on projects for clients with actual budgets for video. 

But the important point is that I might never have tried one without both a push and the comfort of knowing my collaborators would let me try my hand at it and look the other way if I made grievous mistakes. 

Had it been a commercial project I probably would have hired one of my friends who already has an impressive track record with gimbal work, added him to the job as "mobile camera op" and moved myself to the role of "director." I would not have run out and bought a gimbal and taken the chance that I'd not be able to master it in time. Or give it the time and attention needed for me to become at least competent. 

People ask me a lot why I bother to do some pro bono work for arts organizations and sometimes I question myself as well. Zach Theatre pays me to photograph their tech and dress rehearsals but they don't always have a budget for stuff that I think would work well for them. Stuff that would elevate their social media or provide for pre-marketing shows. Since I love attending the theater and am friends with dozens and dozens of the creative people there I like giving back a little extra. 

But if I do an exemplary job (luck?) then I have another good piece in my portfolio to share with prospective and ongoing, for-profit clients. And I'm sure you know how hard it is to effectively self-assign and create good portfolio pieces consistently. At least a volunteer assignment, even if it's self-assigned, gives you a framework to keep you focused and gives you the discipline to follow the project all the way through to the end. 

I can't point to any specific, giant project for a commercial client that's ever come my way as a direct result of a volunteer opportunity but I also am serially baffled when people all over Austin already know my name and reputation before we've even met. Since I hardly market they must be getting the branding message from somewhere...

But really, I got into photography because I loved the process of taking photographs of all kinds of people. I love to make environmental shots as we'll as studio stuff and, guess what? Theaters are full of interesting, vibrant, high energy people who love to be photographed. I'd call a sprinkling of pro bono work a win-win. 

An added bonus: My family and I get to see a ton of really great theater performances! 


James Weekes said...

This is the proof that you get more by giving. What a wonderful thing you do for an organization that really deserves it. As you say, you both win.

crsantin said...

Volunteerism is a wonderful thing. I wish more people were compelled to volunteer. There are so many organizations and causes that need a helping hand, not just with photography. Any volunteer work I've done has always been exceptionally rewarding. If you are a shy introvert, it's a great way to meet people.

Joe said...

Volunteering talent, creative ideas, and just plain hard work are some of the most personally fulfilling activities that one can and a traditional American bedrock of community.

Entire international organizations such as Rotary are built around Rotary's core concept of Service Above Self, but it always still comes down to the energy and commitment of individuals to make the world a better place.

Supporting the arts is particularly important, I think, because they can be among the most enriching experiences yet typically the most financially strapped. Studies of economically successful 21st Century local economies suggest that a strong arts sector is one of the better indicators of a financially healthy local economies. I'm not sure which is the chicken and which the egg in that instance, but the two seem well-correlated.

Mark the tog said...

I volunteer for selfish reasons. It is fun.
I like to meet people, try out more creative stuff and see what I can contribute to an organization's success.
I shot photos of dogs for adoption for several years. It was always exciting to try some new ideas on how to add appeal to the photo that would result in more adoptions.
Now that I have dialed back my commercial photography business I have more time to shoot for a local theater company. They appreciate what I do and they look a lot more professional.

Drew N said...

It makes me happy that you get so much out of it... because we certainly couldn't do what we do at ZACH without you. I'm grateful for your collaborative spirit and support of Austin Arts. You're a gem, Kirk Tuck.

Mitch said...

This was one of the benefits of working as a full time photojournalist for a very large chunk of my career. Even when assignments were sometimes dictated (show up at X at Y time to cover Z event)the work created was all at my discretion and direction.

And whether you have a dream job like that, or do self produced projects, or do volunteer work that gives you leeway, having more say (or "the say") in how you create is invaluable to your growth as a photographer. And career/life satisfaction is logarithmically proportional to that freedom.

I sometimes take corporate PR jobs for not a lot of pay because they are usually low budget, and they will enable me to do some good for an organization benefiting from the corporate largess. And if I'm not working for a big payday, I generally get left alone and can home in on what the community/charitable/civic organization needs to spread their message and self direct what I feel like shooting. After getting the corporate shots with "the" person with "the" sign in the background of course. The benefiting organizations are always thrilled. And sometimes ask me to come back, for pay. Or I come back, on my own to help.