How NGOs Work With Photographers: Doctors Without Borders

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By David Walker

For nearly 40 years, Doctors Without Borders (aka Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), has been a catalyst for world-class photojournalism from difficult places around the globe. And its role in bringing epidemics and humanitarian disaster to the world�s attention is bound to expand as news organizations cut back their international coverage.

Currently, MSF is working on a major project about child malnutrition with several photographers from the photo agency VII, including Ron Haviv, Marcus Bleasdale and James Nachtwey. The project will be completed next year. MSF is also behind an ongoing Web project about war in Eastern Congo called Condition:Critical, with still images and video by Agence Vu� photographer Cedric Gerbehaye.

Previously, MSF worked with Nachtwey, Haviv, Gary Knight, Antonin Kratochvil, and Joachim Ladefoged on Forgotten War: Democratic Republic of the Congo, a book and exhibition, and helped fund Pep Bonet�s project on the African AIDS crisis, which was published in his book Posithiv+ in 2006. In the 1980s, MSF supported Didier Lefevre�s work in Afghanistan, and Sebastiao Salgado�s coverage of the Ehtiopian famine.

�We have the luxury of working with some of the best photographers in the world, and we don�t discount that,� says Jason Cone, Communications Director for Doctors Without Borders in New York.

While MSF hires established photographers for occasional major projects and for �emergencies� such as epidemics, paid assignments account for only a minority of the work that MSF does with photographers, Cone says. More frequently, the organization provides access and logistical support�including local transportation, meals, lodging, and information�to photographers who are working on issues or in regions where MSF is also working.

�We work with photographers where our interests and passions align,� Cone says.

For instance, photographer Greg Constantine began working several years ago on his project called �Nowhere People,� about ethnic minority groups that have had their citizenship stripped or denied, and are stateless. He approached MSF about going to Bangladesh to do a project on the Rohingya, a stateless people originally from Burma.

�We gave him briefings, and information on how to access certain areas,� Cone says. In exchange, Constantine provided MSF with images for use in its reports and fundraising materials. (MSF�s relationship with Constantine has since evolved to include occasional paid assignments).

MSF�s primary mission is to provide medical assistance to people in need, and one of its strategies is to expose the underlying conditions of a crisis whenever it feels policy makers need prodding. To that end, MSF provides access and support to photographers and other journalists.

�We have always had an aspect of speaking out and bearing witness for our patients,� Cone says. �That was born out the experience of our founding members in Nigeria and Biafra� in the early 70s.

MSF does help promising photographers with access and logistical support, but the NGO is choosy about the photographers it works with, even when it isn�t paying them. Cone says photographers must first demonstrate sensitivity to the dignity and privacy of subjects through work they�ve done with other NGOs.

Of course, photographers assisted by MSF have to agree to provide some images to MSF for use in its reports, Web sites and fundraising materials. But photographers also have to show an ability to distribute their work independently through magazines, newspapers, and other media outlets. �The most successful collaborations we have are those where [images] in the end are published outside our annual reports and fundraising pieces,� Cone explains.

Photographers interested in working with MSF have to agree to certain ground rules, too. They have to be willing to work under the same security guidelines as MSF staff. �They can�t just jump out of the car and shoot� wherever and whatever they want, Cone says. �We�re an NGO. We�re not about independent journalism. We�re up front with [photographers] about that. They have to be willing to accept that they might be held back in terms of their reporting.�

When it hires photographers, MSF calls upon the most talented of those it has built relationships with on a non-client basis. MSF covers assignment expenses and pays less than traditional media outlets �because we�re non-profit,� Cone explains. Photographers are free to market their work elsewhere, and MSF limits its own use of images to help protect their market value, Cone says. �We�re cognizant of the fact that freelancers need a market, so we�re not going to be freely handing out their photos to media outlets.�

Mostly what photographers get for working with MSF�whether they�re hired or not�is access to stories that might otherwise be impossible to cover. For many photographers, that has meant a chance to hone their journalistic skills, build their reputations, and most importantly, make images that help change peoples� lives for the better.

Photographers interested in working with Doctors Without Borders should contact Jason Cone at

Related: How NGOs Work With Photographers: Human Rights Watch



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