All photos taken by Elaine McKellips.
At FOTO, we are committed to helping our fellow creatives flourish. In our Q&A style blog series, Coffee with Creatives, we are highlighting the unique expertise of some of our favorite professionals, sharing tips and information on relevant topics to bring you some practical insight and inspiration for the important work you do.
Today, we are illuminating the power of compelling photography with professional humanitarian photographer, Elaine McKellips.
First things first, how do you take your coffee? (And if you are not a coffee drinker, what is your beverage of choice to energize you?)
Elaine: Cappuccino, bone dry.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your photography business?
Elaine: Of course! I'm a photographer based out of Houston, TX, but I'm also an attorney. I used to work full time in the corporate world, but my creative side was hungry. I started doing photography on the side and loved it so much that I left the corporate world and haven't looked back! I still do some legal work part time, but in a way that allows me to travel as much as I want, so I guess you could say I've got the best of both worlds. I've been shooting for a few years now, but in the past year or so I've really shifted my focus to humanitarian / travel work. It's where I find the most joy in my work, and also where I feel I'm giving back the most. I want my work to inspire people to love harder, travel often, give back, and lead more intentional lives.
You describe yourself as a humanitarian photographer. Explain a bit more about what this means.
Elaine: I have a heart for capturing the good in the world and sharing it with others, whether that's a nonprofit building orphanages or a social impact business working with artisans and empowering women - those are the kinds of stories I love to document and that I want to see flood the media. As far as what it means to be a "humanitarian photographer," I think I'm still learning, and will be forever learning and evolving in that regard. I don't take the responsibility of telling other people's stories lightly, especially when it's someone living in poverty on the opposite side of the world. I always want to tell people's stories in a way that respects the dignity of that individual and portrays them in a way that they would want to be portrayed.
My hope is that my images and the words I pair with them can capture the reality of the struggles people face, without simplifying the complexity of the issues. My hope is that my images can find the balance between reality and the hope, joy, and empowerment that results from people and organizations fighting for something good.
Why are compelling photos so crucial to nonprofits and social impact brands today?
Elaine: We live in a world that's becoming more and more connected every day as a result of technology and social media advances. This gives nonprofits and social impact brands the unique opportunity to go deeper in the way they connect their donors and supporters to the people they work with, particularly those who are working internationally. I believe compelling imagery has the power to encourage people to support causes they believe in. It has the power to deepen understanding and to evoke an emotional response, which ultimately can lead to action.
Tell us about one or two of the causes you've been able to work with and what was most special about the experience?
Elaine: The first nonprofit organization I traveled with was Collective Humanity in 2017. Collective Humanity works with a group of artisans in a village about an hour outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Women have been historically marginalized in Cambodia, but you wouldn't know that by spending time with this group. They are hardworking, empowered, and resilient as they build a future for themselves, their families, and their communities. They redefined strength for me.
The women hand weave blankets on the most beautiful and intricate looms in their homes. The children linger around and play while their moms are hard at work. Because of their mothers, these children will be able to chase dreams of their own. This kind of generational nonprofit work is where I believe we will start to see true change in the world.
Funny side story: I traveled back to Cambodia with Collective Humanity again in 2018 and one of my favorite memories was an afternoon spent making papaya salad with the artisans. Their village is close to the Thai border, so their food is a little bit spicier. I'm kind of a wimp when it comes to spicy food, so the women had some pretty good laughs on my account. I was legitimately sweating a little bit. :) We taught the children how to say the English word of all the vegetables and they taught us how to say it in Khmer. Papaya in Khmer is phle lhoung.
Where's the most fascinating place your work has taken you to? What was so intriguing?
Elaine: So far, I'd have to say Cambodia! It's the first third world country I've ever traveled to, and I felt like the curtain was pulled back. I learned so much about its culture and history. Its history is rich in ancient traditions and religion, but it's also stained by political corruption, civil war, and a genocide that ended just 40 years ago. The country, its people, its government, and its infrastructure are still recovering and rebuilding. But in its future, I saw hope.
It's difficult to explain, but sometimes certain places just pull on your heart a little more than others, and Cambodia did that for me.
Any advice for other photographers who are looking for ways to support and serve causes that are important to them?
Elaine: YES -- do it! I can't put into words the joy I get from combining my photography work with causes that I'm passionate about supporting. It's so fulfilling. And life is way too short not to do the things that set our souls on fire.
Lastly, what Fotostrap(s) do you wear?
Elaine: The Pine! That thin pebbled leather is too good.
Looking for more inspiration from industry creatives? Check out these other Q&A's:
Coffee with Creatives: Misty Rodda's Tips on Keeping a Fresh Perspective
Coffee with Creatives: Katie Lamb's Tips on Finding that "Mompreneur" Work/Life Balance
Coffee with Creatives: Caroline Jurgensen's Tips on Running a Business with her Spouse
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