|Sent on:||Tuesday, December 20, 2011 3:35 PM|
The Charlottesville Photography Initiative returns the favor
As any media professional can attest, a story without pictures might as well go untold. For many local nonprofits, the Charlottesville Photography Initiative helps ensure that the medium is as strong as the message.
At its core, the CPI is a photographer’s guild, established to facilitate networking and collaboration between local documentarians. But what began in 2009 as a small network of photographers has since changed the landscape of local giving by providing cost-free photography to other nonprofits in the area, many of whom lack the resources to hire professionals.
One of the CPI’s early partnerships was with the Ishan Gala Foundation, which Mayank and Sejal Gela founded in 2009 after losing their young son to neuroblastoma. In December of that year, CPI founder Nick Strocchia documented the IGF’s first annual Splash for a Cure, a poolside benefit for pediatric cancer research, and the IGF still displays the lucid, vibrant and appealing photos on its website. In 2010, the IGF raised close to $80,000, and though it would be hard to say how much professional-looking publicity aided its efforts, the beauty of the CPI’s approach is that you don’t have to. For volunteers, it’s only an afternoon, but for the nonprofits involved, having a professional, personalized look could amount to a great deal.
“The contribution we give to these nonprofits helps take them to the next level, and in turn, they help bring attention to what we’re doing within the community,” said Strocchia, describing a karmic relationship that’s more than just PR speak. After moving to Charlottesville in 2009, he started the CPI on meetup.com in an attempt to draw out the putatively large local photography community he had heard about but never seen. New members trickled in for the first few months for group shoots, retail discounts and trips to lectures or exhibits. But it was one of the organizations’s initial pro bono picture-taking sessions that triggered its first and largest growth spurt. In December of 2009, the CPI took part in Help-Portrait, a global movement in which photographers take portraits of disadvantaged individuals and families, and get them developed and delivered for free. After Help-Portrait, the CPI went from 50 members to 200 in a matter of days, and the group soon decided to make community involvement part of its mission.
The growth of the CPI necessitated its own set of changes. Meeting in coffee shops and libraries was getting increasingly harder to do politely, so the organization moved into a commercial space at 300 West Main. Today, the CPI has 327 members—a handful of professional photographers and a great many beginners, amateurs and semi-professionals—some of whom pay a $40 annual membership fee that gets them into workshops at a discount. For Strocchia, co-director Christian DeBaum, and the rest of the CPI leadership team, having a larger membership base meant being under great pressure to engage it. Today, the group hosts more workshops, portfolio reviews, model shoots and socials than ever, and its list of beneficiaries is still growing. To name just a few, the CPI has sent photographers to the Charlottesville Track Club’s Fun Run, Walk and Roll and the Ragged Mountain Running Summer Children’s Camp; held critter-focused photo shoots with the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA; and set up photo booths and provided paparazzi for the Live Arts Gala and the Bridge/ PAI’s annual Revel, only stipulating that events be all-volunteer and vendor-donated. The CPI also partnered with this year’s LOOK3 festival, providing upwards of 100 volunteers to help run and document the three-day celebration of photography.
On Saturday, December 10, 272 of Charlottesville’s less fortunate had their pictures taken at the CPI’s third annual Help-Portrait, including many immigrant and refuge families, and many of the city’s homeless. For Strocchia, the experience was an educational one. “We’re out of our comfort zone, and so are the subjects, but it’s great that we can find this common ground between the two of us. It’s a connection that we need to learn to make with anyone we take a portrait of.”
According to Strocchia, many Help-Portrait subjects haven’t had a portrait done since high school, if ever, and their first impulse is often to send it to family. If “Why photos instead of food?” is a valid question for a charity event, the answer has to something do with the dignifying effect of portraiture, and the importance of interpersonal connections. Recently, Strocchia ran into a man whose portrait he took in 2009, who said that after sending his mother the photograph, they reunited for the first time in 10 years, and she introduced him to the woman he would later marry.
“It seems so small,” said Strocchia. “Just a picture that someone can walk away with.” And maybe free pictures would be small, if CPI’s subjects didn’t walk away and share them.—Spencer Peterson