My first trip with The Giving Lens (TGL) was to Morocco in 2016. I’d never heard of the organization before that and hadn’t ever been on a travel photography workshop when a notice for the trip popped up on my Facebook feed, and I immediately knew I wanted to go. I’d visited northern Morocco in 2014, after discovering that my direct paternal ancestry was Amazigh (Berber). I had thought of returning on my own to visit southern Morocco (Marrakech and the Sahara), where most of the people I met I could count as distant cousins—and that is exactly the itinerary TGL offered. Add to that professional guidance and a chance to travel with avid photographers and to be of service to the community, and I was thrilled to have my application accepted.
The Giving Lens adds a humanitarian dimension to the travel photography workshops it runs. By teaming with a local not-for-profit (a non-governmental organization, or NGO), The Giving Lens offers participants a chance to make a difference in the lives of the communities the NGO serves (generally vulnerable or marginalized ones), largely through teaching young people the basics of photography and guiding them on photo walks. I have gone on a Giving Lens trip each of the past three years—first to Morocco, then to India, then Jordan. Each has been an extraordinary combination of travel to special places, learning from our leaders and other participants, and forging a strong personal connection with the communities we’ve worked with.
Each TGL workshop is led by two professional photographers. Trips are open to people of all experience levels. Prospective participants must fill out a detailed application and be interviewed to make sure that they are a good fit. Before each trip, participants procure simple cameras for the NGO and its clients, either through donation or purchase. Workshops generally cost less than a standard professionally led photo workshop would, and between 30 and 60 percent of TGL’s profits from each trip are donated to its NGO partner(s). The Giving Lens itself has applied for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
Founded in 2011 by travel and humanitarian photographer Colby Brown, TGL runs six or more workshops a year to longstanding destinations including Cambodia, Cuba, Tanzania, and Peru as well as new ones such as Guatemala, Mongolia, and Uganda. All three trips I’ve been on have had the same two co-leaders, Michael Bonocore and Daniel Nahabedian, but about a dozen photographers regularly or occasionally co-lead TGL workshops.
We spent the first two days in Marrakech attending a half-day cultural, culinary, and linguistic introduction to Morocco; spending time with our NGO partner, El Fenn Maroc; and exploring the city with local photographers. The third day, we drove to the town of Ait Ourir and met our young students at a community center. We went with them on a photographic scavenger hunt, aiming to get shots of all the items on a list, such as “something yellow” and “a rooster.” We rode in horse-drawn taxis to the town’s weekly souk, an open-air market where you could buy anything from coloring books to livestock. The kids naturally took to photography and needed little guidance, coming to me only when there were issues like a depleted battery.
On our second day with the children, we photographed a rickety bridge and visited two Berber villages. Then the kids sang us a farewell song, and we parted ways. Over the next five days, we rode to the Sahara and back, spending a magnificent night—after braving a sandstorm—in the Erg Chebbi dunes at a tented camp run by our travel partner, Open Doors Morocco. We also worked with another NGO at a Gnawa music club to take promotional photos and videos of their house band before returning to Marrakech.
For my next TGL trip, our team met in Jodhpur, where we stayed at a guesthouse run by the Sambhali Trust, an NGO that helps Dalit (untouchable) women, and children through education, job training, and social services. At the Sambhali Trust’s Fatima Center, we met our students, 15 young Muslim women dressed in pink saris. After introductions, we handed each woman a camera and gave a quick tutorial. They then led us through their neighborhood, and many of them invited us into their homes to meet their families.
We spent the next two days with them exploring Jodhpur’s Blue City—where nearly all the buildings are painted shades of blue—and the city’s market area. We also visited two other Sambhali Trust schools, spending time with their students and documenting the NGO’s work. On our own, we visited temples and palaces, spent a night in a village, and ended up in the city of Jaipur, visiting an elephant sanctuary on our final day. But the three days we spent with the women from the Fatima Center were the high point of my trip.
On TGL’s Jordan trip last November, we visited some amazing destinations, spending two nights in a Bedouin-run tented camp in the Wadi Rum desert, exploring the magnificent ancient city of Petra, floating in the Dead Sea, and seeing the Roman ruins at Jerash as well as Jordan”s capital, Amman. The heart of the trip, though, was working with Project Amal ou Salam (Project Hope and Peace), an NGO that runs schools for Syrian children displaced by the war. We spent much of two days with these children, taking photo walks near the school and culminating with a picnic in a hillside park.
The workshop didn’t go as smoothly as my other two TGL trips. We had little preparation for our time with the kids and less time than I’d hoped. The language barrier and a balky camera led to a misunderstanding between me and Hamad, a boy who I was in effect mentoring. Our walks were up and down steep hills, and I found them grueling. When it came time to leave, I felt I hadn’t connected with the kids the way others had. But I also realized that they seemed to enjoy their time with us and get a lot out of it, and that was what really mattered.
Before we parted ways, Hamad used my camera to take a photo of me. When I studied it later, I was astonished. Although my gaze was intent, my features were soft. I looked relaxed and open, and about 10 years younger than I am. Despite my discomfort, it was clear that this work agreed with me.
I’ve had two key realizations about my TGL experiences. First, this work can really open one up emotionally, which can be scary but is ultimately a very good thing. I’ve come home with a new perspective and a clearer sense of what’s really important in my life. The second is that being of service to the children and the NGO is paramount, regardless of anything else we might do on the trip. Although few of these kids are likely to make photography their livelihood, we teach them a skill that could prove useful to them and their community. By putting cameras in these young people’s hands, we empower them with a tool to record their own experiences and tell their own stories, rather than let outsiders, however well-intentioned, speak for them or define them.
I’m looking forward to my next TGL trip, wherever and whenever it might be.
This article originally published at PCMag