How to turn a Volunteer Assignment into a Vacation and a rich Photographic Opportunity, by robert j. mang
This article was published on the Digital Photography School website in November, 2010.
Objectives: to go on a photography retreat in a new and interesting environment, expand one’s photographic portfolio, volunteer, travel, learn a language, and immerse oneself into a foreign culture.
Here’s how I did exactly that, and more…
The challenge was to incorporate three of my primary interests – travel and cultural immersion, photography, and cycling – into one overall event. I also wanted to add a volunteer opportunity to that list. In the end, I achieved those objectives to a far greater extent then I imagined possible, and as an added benefit, I was able to use part of the cost as a tax deduction!
First I needed to decide where to go. I had never traveled in South America and was in the middle of taking Spanish lesions, so South America seemed like a logical choice. Next, I need to find a volunteering and photography opportunity.
I did this by going to Idealist.org, where I simply searched for photographic volunteer positions needed in South America. Voila! I found several NGO’s looking for photographers to help them. I picked one, Awamaki, that was working in the Peruvian Andes helping the local weavers keep their ancient textile craft alive.
Next, was to find a bike tour in the same region. That was simple, and is the subject of another story…
Of my six weeks, two was spent cycling, and four was committed to working on the volunteer assignment. Those turned out to be a remarkably rewarding four weeks.
Living in Peru
I lived with a local Peruvian family in the mountain village of Ollantaytambo at 9,200 ft. elevation, midway between Cuzco and Machu-Picchu. My “home-stay” was arranged by the sponsoring non-profit. I had my own bedroom, which had a dirt and concrete floor, and no heat, but there was (usually) electricity, and always a ready supply of boiled water do drink. The food was good, if not filling, and there were lots of blankets to keep me warm. The shower was a little risky given the exposed 220-watt wiring of the heating element, but I decided getting an electric jolt first thing in the morning was just the trick to wake me up; however, my showering did start to become a bit less frequent.
The days that made up those four weeks were simple and thoroughly enjoyable. After breakfast with the host family, I took a daily Spanish lesson in town, and then I usually had lunch back home. Each day during my 20-minute walk to town, there was an amazing sight worth capturing. I was never without my camera.
After dinner, my evenings were usually spent working the photos on my laptop. Some days I took short trips visiting the other villages, ruins, and sights throughout the Sacred Valley.
Festivals and markets were especially rich in photo opportunities.
Spending four weeks in one village allowed me to immerse myself in the day-to-day activities of the area; I was able to slow down and capture images that the day-tourists could never see. I’ve always taken trips that were more “deep vs. wide”, but this took that philosophy to a new level, and I can’t say enough about the benefits. Living in what is arguably third-world conditions for a month certainly had its challenges. Intellectually we can say we understand how it must be to live that way, but doing so certainly changed my perspective. I will never again take “hot water on demand” for granted.
Taking photos of people while they are in their everyday environment can sometimes be delicate. Asking permission in their language is a necessity. Most of the time it’s not a real problem, but often people will ask for money, so knowing “the going rate” will save you a lot of uncomfortable moments. In Peru, the going rate was about 1 Nuevo Sole, or about $0.33 USD. I would always carry some small trinkets for the children (never candy, as they don’t have fluoridated water and don’t have access to quality dental care). Occasionally someone would just say “No”, so after saying “Lo siento” (I’m sorry), I’d move on.
Planning the trip
The planning and execution for this sort of trip is surprisingly easy. If you eliminate the cycling portion, which had its own set of complications, made more interesting because I brought my own bike, the rest is simple. Deciding what camera gear to bring was one of the most difficult decisions. I ended up brining my Canon 40D, three lenses (11-17, 17-85, and 70-300), a tripod, 5-1 reflector (which turned out to be invaluable given how at 11,000 feet the contrast between the blazing sunshine and jet black shadows made taking portraits difficult), and a flash. Plus all the other sundry items like extra battery, chargers, cable release, etc.
I took an early retirement last year, so finding the time was no problem, and my wife is completely supportive of my need to get away for some adventure. Financially, while not the cheapest excursion one can do, it was very affordable. The NGO I worked with was also registered in the US, so everything do to do with the trip was tax deductible as part of a charitable contribution. I’m not a tax expert, buy my advisor said that approach would be better than handling it as a business expense.
Peru is an amazingly inexpensive place to visit, particularly if you are off the tourist track. My room and board was around $500 for the month. Airfare was around $1,000. All that was left to spend money on were incidentals such as taxi’s (very cheap), entrance fees to some ruins, occasional meals out, and various everyday sorts of items.
Please feel free to ask any specific questions on how to do this either in the comments below, or via the contact page on this site. While I was in Peru, I kept a Travel Blog that highlighted some of my day-to-day experiences, with an emphasis on simple photos captured during the day. There are more photos from the trip in my Flickr Peru Collection.
Robert J. Mang is a photographer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.