Industry Insights: Carol Allen-Storey on building a career in NGO photography

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In collaboration with Direct Digital – the leading international photographic equipment rental service – 1854 Media and British Journal of Photography presents Industry Insights, a series delving into the ins and outs of working in the photography industry.

The UNICEF Ambassador for Photography recounts how she got her start in documenting humanitarian and environmental issues for the likes of WWF, Save the Children and the Elton John AIDS Foundation

Over the last two decades, Carol Allen-Storey has built a career chronicling complex humanitarian, social and environmental issues – from women’s rights and child welfare to conservation and HIV/AIDS – for NGOs including World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Save the Children, the Elton John AIDS Foundation and UNICEF. She was appointed a UNICEF Ambassador for Photography in 2009, and, among numerous awards, has been a part of five Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibitions. It is perhaps surprising, given her success, that Allen-Storey didn’t get started until she was 50.

In fact, a far cry from humanitarian work, Allen-Storey worked at Chanel for 15 years. She left her post as executive vice-president of their worldwide marketing and enrolled on a foundation photography course at Central Saint Martins, graduating from their postgraduate course in the year 2000. “Everyone thought I was going to go into fashion photography,” she laughs. “I said, ‘no’.” She knew from the offset that she wanted to dedicate her practice to meaningful advancement of the causes she cared about; the question, of course, was how.

“After I graduated, a friend of mine was sitting on a donors panel for WWF,” she remembers. “He said to me over dinner, ‘WWF has a real problem with image; it’s all about the panda. Which says nothing about all that they do for people and women’s rights.’” The friend had come to her for advice purely from a marketing point of view, but instead, the conversation set the tone for what would become Allen-Storey’s superpower as an NGO photographer. That is, not simply the ability to take affecting images, but an adept knowledge of how they operate as part of wider marketing and fundraising strategies. She would go on to harness this skill-set to create her own opportunities, instead of waiting for them to come to her.

© Carol Allen-Storey

“I’m not afraid to be told to eff off,” she says. So she reached out to WWF’s marketing team. After securing a meeting, she presented a proposal and storyboard as to how she could use photography to draw attention to their little-known educational and women-focussed programming in Tanzania. “My deal with them was that they covered my costs but they didn’t have to pay my fee,” she says. “I made eight trips over two years, and I learned along the way.” The work culminated in an exhibition in London in 2004, where Allen-Storey threw herself into pushing print sales and schmoozing major donors. It was via this exhibition that she met a representative from the Wildlife Conservation Centre in New York, who was looking to turn a conservation project in Rwanda into a tourist attraction to bring in funding. 

“They wanted to develop a mass marketing campaign,” she recalls. “I told them, ‘bringing in backpackers will leave rubbish, footprints and no money.’ We needed something upmarket — to appeal to the Rolls Royce of the tourist trade. So I put together not just my vision for the imagery and the storytelling, but a whole wider marketing proposal.’” 

Whether it’s marketing, videography, languages, writing, interviewing or all of the above, multi-skilled photographers will always appeal to NGO commissioners, not least because they’re working on stripped-back budgets. And so continued Allen-Storey’s trajectory, each gig gradually broadening her network as she made clear the combined expertise she could bring to organisations. She ran workshops in Africa, not just on photography, but the integration of photography with funding proposals, continuing to cement herself as an authority in a distinct – and valuable – space.

© Carol Allen-Storey.

“You always have to have a personal project. Something you care deeply about that you’re committed to developing. And it might take you one year or three years or ten years to do it — but start where you have access, in your own neighbourhood, and then you grow from there”

© Carol Allen-Storey.
© Carol Allen-Storey.

While it might seem obvious, it was the contacts she made along the way that proved instrumental to her progression. So “you can’t be so serious all the time,” she says. “People need to want to have you around.” Crucially, Allen-Storey has made a habit out of building relationships with people that run far deeper than commerce or professionalism; it’s through this that she’s excelled in her personal documentary projects – because she knows who can set her up in the right locations, with the right people – which, in turn, has helped her to land more NGO commissions in the arenas she’s passionate about.

“You always have to have a personal project,” she says. “Something you care deeply about that you’re committed to developing. And it might take you one year or three years or ten years to do it — but start where you have access, in your own neighbourhood, and then you grow from there.” For example, while at Central Saint Martins, Allen-Storey developed an intimate body of work around her husband’s cardiovascular health problems; after graduating, she was compelled by her loss of a friend to HIV/AIDS to turn her camera to the global epidemic. She maintains that one has to start with the immediately personal for that passion and authenticity to shine through.

Crucially, she notes that when you are documenting communities beyond your own, you are there to listen and learn, and you’re doing so on nobody’s terms but your subjects’. “I’m not a snapper,” Allen-Storey says. “Before my camera comes out, I’m sitting down with my subjects, explaining why I’m there, how much I appreciate their collaboration, what the purpose of the photo essay is. I’m letting them know that if I ever ask a question that makes them uncomfortable, they don’t answer it; anytime they’re unsure about a photo I’m taking, the camera will come down. It is always a collaboration.” It all comes down to a commitment to telling the truth, she says: to listening to the facts, and the lived experience of people on the ground, and portraying them accurately.

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© Carol Allen-Storey.