10.Q Interviews: Jake Lyell – Documentary & Humanitarian Photographer

© 10.Q Interviews | Jake Lyell

Welcome to 10.Q Interviews.This section usually features interviews to Humanitarian, Cultural & Travel Photographers, their work and photography.

This week in 10.Q Interviews, Jake Lyell:

“Jake Lyell is a documentary photographer based in between Soroti, Uganda and Arusha, Tanzania, East Africa. He has photographed in twenty five different countries throughout the world but is now focused on Sub-Saharan Africa. Experienced in editorial photography, he specializes in work for non-profit groups, documenting social issues, and promoting greater understanding between cultures.” [More about Jake...]

1. Tell us about you and your photography. What kinds of shooting have you done? Have you worked for any humanitarian organizations/magazines etc.? Could you name any current or former clients?

Since I’ve moved to Africa I find I do all kinds of work. I do a lot of editorial jobs for various clients from European business magazines to Marie Claire, a US women’s magazine, to Ugandan musicians and singers. Last year I worked as a still photographer on Christy Turlington-Burns’ “No Woman, No Cry” documentary. I also license my work through Alamy and Demotix. Most of the work, however, is still with NGOs. Currently I work with PSI, BRAC, Baptist World Aid Australia, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Water Aid UK.

© Jake Lyell | www.jakelyell.com

2. We all know that you don’t get into humanitarian photography to become rich, so what does humanitarian photography mean to you? What’s your vision for it?

That’s a tough one. It’s very difficult to know whether or not your work makes an impact. That’s the idea, right? I suppose NGOs wouldn’t hire you if it didn’t. However, I just recently did a project on a very sick child named Grace, who died of the AIDs virus, and the mother that mourned her. I got a lot of feedback on it in the way of phone calls and emails. People even sent me money through Paypal to pass on to the mother, Sarah, to help her bury her daughter and get back home. Most of the time I don’t know how my work impacts people but I have to hope that it does.

I have my own humanitarian projects in Tanzania and Uganda that I document and raise money for anualy among friends and family back in the States. I’m also trying to get my church back in Virginia to be involved in youth mentoring and educational projects here in Uganda. A cynical person would say that attitudes of people in the world remain the same no matter what pictures are shown to them. I’d like to think that actions and lifestyle have changed among my own circle of friends and family in the US since I began doing what I do.

© Jake Lyell | www.jakelyell.com

3. How did you get into humanitarian photography? Where did you get the idea to shoot these kinds of people and groups?

I taught ESL one summer in Tanzania ten years ago with a program for college students. I took so many photos that summer that if I wanted to print them all I had to switch my major from business to photography, which I soon did. I kept returning to Tanzania and other parts of Africa as a volunteer throughout college. I developed a passion to help people and raise awareness about the things I saw in the developing world. I decided that I should endeavor to do this through my photography. As luck would have it, I had a college professor who had done a fair amount of work for NGOs. He first introduced me to the idea of humanitarian photography and he was able to give me some ideas about possible steps to take to start getting work. It would turn out to take a while before that began to happen. When I graduated from university I assisted other commercial photographers, did freelance Photoshop work and would take trips to places like Haiti, Peru and Tanzania on my own dime. I would approach NGOs that were working in those countries and pitch work to them. Sometimes I was more successful than others in getting work, but throughout the process I gained a broad portfolio that I used to market myself, which I did relentlessly when at home in the States. My first international assignment where I didn’t have to foot the bill myself in getting there was in Ukraine with Heifer International. Once I felt comfortable enough that I’d continue to get work, I moved out to Africa, which is something I’d always wanted to do. I spent last year based out of Tanzania. This year I’m in Uganda but continue to work in Tanzania as well as throughout Africa.

© Jake Lyell | www.jakelyell.com

4. What are the challenges of shooting for NGO’s or non- profit organizations?

The biggest challenge I find when working with NGOs is dealing with usage and copyright. Many times NGOs want to heavily restrict the photographer’s own subsequent use of commissioned images. It can be a challenge to earn fees that merit such restrictions. I’ve had to stop shooting for two organizations who I really enjoyed working with as a result of not being able to come to a mutual understanding with regard to these issues.

Another factor when shooting with NGOs is your inability to remain unbiased, though this isn’t a problem solely confined to NGO work. Sometimes you’re reporting, sometimes you’re doing advertising. I’ve seen a lot of NGOs work up-close. Usually it’s awesome and truly remarkable. Sometimes it’s lackluster, but you’ve got to make it look good anyway.

© Jake Lyell | www.jakelyell.com

5. How much do you travel every year? How do you manage your family time.

I used to travel to Africa a lot from the States but since moving here full-time two years ago I find I get a lot of assignments around the continent. This year I’ve been everywhere from South Africa to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Mali, Kenya, Tanzania, etc. Occasionally I get the odd job outside of Africa. I rent a house in Soroti, Uganda. I have an awesome girlfriend who’s very understanding of my work schedule, or lack there of. I used to spend most of my free time traveling around and shooting personal work in far-flung places whenever I got the chance. Lately, outside of assignments, I’ve settled down a bit more and kept the personal work closer to my place here in Soroti.

I’ll travel to the States this year for Christmas and see my parents. My mom and dad are wonderful people and I wish I could spend more time with them. I’d have given up on career aspirations of being a photographer a long time ago if they hadn’t supported and encouraged my work. They’re paying for it now though, since they have to run from the mailbox to the bank and deposit checks for me.

© Jake Lyell | www.jakelyell.com

6. Who’s been an inspiration for your photography? How do you stay inspired? Do you read blogs? If so, which ones would you recommend?

I don’t usually read blogs. I’m a news junkie and that’s about all I read on the internet. I also find that I get discouraged when I look at too many other talented photographer’s work. “Why can’t I see things that way?” I always ask myself. Nevertheless, Evelyn Hockstein, Finbarr O’Reilly, and Kuni Takahashi are some of the shooters whose work I am consistently awed by and can’t resist following.

© Jake Lyell | www.jakelyell.com

7. How do you normally approach people from other cultures? What are your limits at the moment of shooting people in need, or in a complicated situation?

Speaking the language, or being sure that you have someone beside you that does, is the most important thing when shooting people from other cultures. I speak Swahili, so that helps here in East Africa to explain to my subjects the motivation and purpose behind my work before I start shooting. At 5′ 6” I’m also a very unintimidating guy. I think I have a good rapport with people and I can make them feel very comfortable. It doesn’t always work, however. Last month I landed myself in a police station in Cameroon by taking too much liberty with my camera in a crowded market.

The world has become desensitized to much of the suffering that exists here. Simply taking a picture in most cases won’t cut it any more. For the story I did on Grace, the child that died of AIDS, I found that in order to make it ring, I had to make it deeply personal and show that Grace and her mother were just like a mother and child in Europe or the US. I did this by interviewing, gathering quotes and showing the intense emotions felt throughout the process. I also recorded video on this project, which I felt was much more effective in the portrayal of humaneness and grief. There were times when it was so difficult that I couldn’t take pictures and I had to instead stand by and cry with Sarah, Grace’s mother. After Grace’s death, Sarah gave me a piece of cloth that belonged to her daughter. I knew that I hadn’t overstepped my bounds but instead perhaps helped her get through some dark hours.

© Jake Lyell | www.jakelyell.com

8. What are the characteristics that a good humanitarian photographer needs to have? What would be your advice for a photographer who is just starting out in this field?

It’s essential to learn to live very simply and avoid as much debt as possible. (I would also offer this advice to anyone, not just aspiring humanitarian photographers.) For the first couple years only plan on spending your money to invest in equipment and travel. Save up a bit so you can take some personal trips abroad to build up your portfolio. When starting out it’s important to have a lot of patience and determination. Make sure your current job is flexible enough so that when the assignment does come along, you can drop everything and leave. I struggled for a number of years to try to get the ball rolling on photojournalism and humanitarian photography. As I mentioned earlier, I did freelance Photoshop work and commercial assisting for other photographers to support myself. If I got really slow I’d even take up substitute teaching. These as-needed jobs allowed me to be available when things started coming up. Eventually they did and I was ready for it.

As I said, a good humanitarian photographer needs an excellent rapport with people. At the same time he or she should feel very comfortable with getting up-close and intimate shots. Sometimes it’s obvious that the photographer, not the subject, was intimidated. Most of all, one’s heart needs to be in the right place. You should have a genuine concern for your subject and their well-being and be motivated to advocate for their cause.

© Jake Lyell | www.jakelyell.com

9. Tell us about the last piece of gear that you deemed important enough to buy. How about the one that’s been most important in your career?

The most important step I took in the last year was to start employing video. I’m still learning but I always tell clients, “by the way, why don’t we throw some video footage onto the shoot?” Many of them take me up on it. So the Canon 5D Mark II and the two microphones that I’ve bought to go along with it have been very worthy purchases. I’m getting ready to purchase a 7D as a backup video camera. Video is an area where I have the potential to greatly expand my business and I look forward to doing so in the coming months and years.

© Jake Lyell | www.jakelyell.com

10. How important is social media for you? How do you manage it in your work? Any tips to share?

For marketing I use an old fashioned website and blog. I’m not on Twitter and my Facebook account is just for personal use. I do update my blog regularly with new stories, photos and videos. I find it’s effective in showing clients my latest work and it’s currently my only platform for showing video. It’s also allowed me to be more noticed among the large pool of photographers doing similar work. According to my Google stats my blog gets almost twice as many hits as my portfolio website.

© Jake Lyell | www.jakelyell.com

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    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Olwick, John Batdorff II, Ed Brydon, heber vega, The ONE-SHOT Project and others. The ONE-SHOT Project said: New Interview Posted! This time to Jake Lyell, humanitarian photographer based in East Africa. http://bit.ly/afTFVB #10Q [...]

  • http://dojoklo.wordpress.com/ Doug

    Great to see you here Jake! Thanks for the candid responses – this has been one of the most informative 10Q interviews with its true in-the-trenches perspective.

  • http://www.garyschapman.com gary s. chapman

    Thanks for sharing the nitty gritty stuff Jake. Great words and photos.

  • http://www.tonycece.com Tony

    I first saw your work when I found your video about Grace. I was moved by the moment you shared with them. Thanks for investing so much in your work.

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    [...] work.  You can learn a great deal from the experiences of those who have been at it for awhile.  This week’s edition, with photographer Jake Lyell, is especially candid about the process of becoming and working as a [...]

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