Five Questions with Laura Morgan
Current Occupation: Photographer
Workshop: Project South Africa & Bali: Island of the Gods
Nonprofit Assignment: James House
Instructors: Jamie Rose, Chris Anderson & Seth Butler
What motivated you to take a Momenta Workshop?
My first of two workshops with Momenta was in Cape Town, South Africa, working with a community non-profit called James House. In 2009, I’d been asked by a friend to provide photographs to help promote her small nonprofit, “Testigo Africa”. Based in Arusha in Tanzania, Tracey was raising funds to provide clean, safe drinking water to the people of Longido, a Masai village she’d developed close links with. There had been a devastating drought, and the women and children in particular were suffering.
I was very inexperienced but excited and willing, and it was a fascinating and humbling trip. While Tracey had given up work to devote herself to the project, I was aware I didn’t have the same level of commitment to nonprofit work but wanted to contribute to society somehow. I had recently retired through ill-health from a tough corporate job and was looking for a new role in life– hopefully involving photography and travel –-while staying sane (!) and ensuring my recovery from stress and depression.
So for the next couple of years I continued to enjoy travel photography trips with experienced photographers but also revisited Tanzania in 2012 to do some follow-up photography of the successful implementation of the project. I was inspired to join a photographic trip to Northern Thailand with COSA, a charity supporting villages affected by human trafficking. Traveling with the director (a former photo journalist), the purpose was to develop my photography skills, to learn from him and do some meaningful work at the same time. It was even more of an eye opener than my trip to Tanzania but the promised guidance wasn’t there.
My photography was used extensively on their website but I had wanted to learn more. Frustrated, despite not wishing to pursue a career in non-profit photography, I looked for training so I could become more skilled and acquire a deeper understanding of the photographer’s role in storytelling. Momenta Workshops appeared to be the obvious choice and so I signed up for Cape Town!
What surprised you most about the location you visited or the experience of working with a nonprofit?
I had already traveled in South Africa including Cape Town, so I was reasonably familiar with the country and the area we were staying in. The workshop exposed me to different aspects of life there. There’s a huge difference between being a tourist versus working with local people.
My biggest challenge was the workshop process itself: Being given a contact in the nonprofit and the freedom to “get on with it”! There was support of course but it was a more grown-up experience than I’d anticipated, and I was quite intimidated.
The nonprofit staff and the director were extremely busy. Despite the fact I was there providing a free photographic service to them, they weren’t initially very accommodating. I was also struggling to develop my personal project as I simply wasn’t connecting with anyone well enough. My confidence was low, and I sought advice from Jamie. She was happy to intervene, but I knew I had to take control in my own way.
I returned the second week with a clearer agenda. I explained I was not going to be able to deliver the agreed work unless I was given more cooperation. I handled it politely but firmly. I was able to do most of the work in the remaining days with the help I required.
I also found inspiration for my personal project: an abandoned child’s chair in the grassy field at James House. It evoked for me the whole ethos of the nonprofit as it was named after James, an abandoned orphan and the first child they helped.
What was the best lesson you took away from your workshop?
Apart from the sometimes painful but extremely helpful photo critique each day from Jamie, I think I learned to better value myself and what my photography can offer. In my former role as a manager I’d been able to assert myself with confidence, yet something about the creative process of photography and the feeling I’m putting my heart on the line makes it much more difficult for me. It’s a risk, but one worth making, and if the work I create is appreciated, that’s meaningful to me and hopefully to others. Then I feel I’m achieving something worthwhile.
What was your favorite photograph from this workshop and why?
I have chosen one of the images from the “Little Chair” project as it was so much fun and so satisfying to do. The idea to use diptychs was inspired by some work we’d been show at an evening session, but the conceptual nature of the project felt very “me.” The people photographed enjoyed it, I absolutely loved the process, and the final photo book was a piece of work I’m very proud of and was delighted to send a copy of to James House. The series included adults, teens and children, staff and clients and their collective creativity was amazing!
What would you tell a potential student to help them prepare for their experience with Momenta?
Be brave and embrace the opportunities afforded by being paired with the nonprofit even when it’s challenging. Respect the people you work with and enjoy their differences, especially if you are in a culture you are unfamiliar with. Research the area you will be visiting. Be open to the feedback from the instructors, listen to their advice, and don’t waste time justifying what you did and why! Ask for help and advice when you need it, that’s why you have support, so don’t waste energy worrying. Enjoy the camaraderie and learn from other students. Work very, very hard (not that there is a choice!) and try new things. Enjoy it.
See Laura’s Work: