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Photography as a tool for Social Impact

When we think about photography most people usually think about casual imagery for social media. However it is so much more. Throughout history photography has not only been used as a tool to document your immediate surroundings, but also a powerful tool for change, an instrument of social impact.

In this episode we dig into how photography can be used for social impact and how it can be used to pursue sustainable change.

You can listen to the whole interview podcast over on our podcast page or by clicking here at Photography as a tool for Social Impact.

Muaz

On this episode of Blazon, I’m talking to JC Candanedo, who is a London-based Visual Artist. JC uses photography to explore Human Rights, Mental Health, and Identity. These themes influence his commercial work in Fashion, Beauty and Portraiture. 

JC

My name is JC Candanedo and I’m a photographer and visual artist based in London. My work explores Human Rights, National Identity, and Mental Health. And I use this exploration to inform my work in fashion and portraiture. And I’m also a member of the AOP, Association of Photographers. I’m a member of the Conway Hall Ethical Society of Humanists UK. And I’m also a Student’s Career Mentor at Kingston University. And basically what I’m trying to do with my work as a photographer and as a visual artist, is to try to make this a better world.

JC-Candanedo-portrait

Muaz

Oh, perfect. So one thing that really interested me is the aspect of socially conscious photography, which is a really interesting statement. Could you describe what that means to you?

JC

Well, it basically means that the realization that we as human beings and not only as creatives or businesses, but just as human beings, we have an impact on the world. Um, it’s an eye-opener, it doesn’t matter, whatever we do. If we just wake up in the morning, we have an impact. And then we have to decide as a responsible individuals, if we want that impact to be positive or negative.

So if you don’t do anything by default, your impact is random. It can be a negative impact, but if you decide to do something about it, then automatically your impact is going to be positive. And I prefer to have a positive impact in the world. So that when I say that I’m a socially conscious  photographer is because I’m always trying to be aware of what’s going on around me and trying to have a positive impact on the planet and humanity.

Muaz

That’s amazing. I find that a lot of people these days like to delegate that to other people, rather than taking responsibility of their actions on themselves. It’s important to call out companies and you know, and all sorts of other entities, but it’s also important to take responsibility yourself for what your impact is and what you can do about it.

JC

I totally, I totally agree. This is something that we can also see even at government level, for instance, what first got me so interested in how I was impacting the planet and humanity was when many years ago there were some scandals around how local authorities, not in the UK, but where I lived before, uh, they were giving contracts to recycling companies that were giving those contracts to friends or relatives, because there’s a lot of massive business around recycling.

And I started researching what that meant, and it made me realize that in a way local authorities and governments in general, they sort of like delegate the responsibility of having a positive impact on the environment to the citizen, to the individual, by, by having this recycling programs. And you’ve spent all your lives, separating your rubbish into different containers and trying to be super responsible with your rubbish. But after my research, I realized that on the one hand, less than 40% of what we separate gets recycled. The rest goes directly to landfill. And on the other hand, it doesn’t really matter how much you recycle, 70% of the waste that is causing the problem comes from the industries.

So even if we recycle a hundred percent of everything that they produce, we still have that 70% that comes from industry. So that made me ask myself the question that, what are we doing? Like, what are we doing that it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter how much effort I put into this. It’s not going to solve the issue. So I think that we sort of like copy that behavior from governments ourselves. 

Muaz

Perfect. And it is so important to understand that nuance. And also to know that you have to do your part to like raise the profile of certain issues, but even on like the really small side on a micro level, for example, you constantly hear statistics around 1200 or 1600 liters of water used to make a t-shirt, you know, a cotton t-shirt. But then when you tell people that one cycle of a clean cycle on a washing machine uses 80 liters of water. So what are you doing about it on a personal level? They’re like, Oh, I didn’t realize that, you know, in just 10 washes, I’m using like 800 liters of water. So it is really interesting about how a lot of this is so nuanced, but it’s important that the knowledge gets out there .

JC

Most definitely. And everything adds up. I don’t want you to think that I’m saying that I’m against recycling. No, that’s all. I mean, that is, that is one small contribution that you can do, but there’s so many other things that you have to focus on. Like what you just mentioned about how much, how much water it takes to produce a cotton t-shirt if you start by researching every time you buy clothes by researching the brands where you’re buying from, or by repurposing clothes, buying second hand, or, you know, all those things in the end, they add up to so much more than just those, you know, the, the weight of their individual actions.

Muaz

Absolutely. All interconnected. It’s important to be aware of the larger picture. And the fact that 70% is controlled by the industry just shows you how vast the problem is. If you put your head in the sand, not only are you doing a disservice to yourself. By not highlighting these issues, you’re doing a disservice to like multiple generations, I think.

JC

Definitely. And you and I work for an industry that is one of the biggest polluters in the planet, and it’s, it’s such a complex issue because it’s really difficult to tackle because it not only starts at the source, which is, you know, the production of the garment. But it goes all the way to the behavior of the consumer. So you have to tackle it from so many different perspectives and it makes it really, really an unmanageable issue. 

Muaz

Absolutely. Because even when you think about how the recycling happens, if you’re just shipping it to a country where they end up either putting it in a landfill or burning it, that doesn’t really help the scenario. I mean, in effect it probably makes things worse. 

JC

Definitely. 

Muaz

How can photography be used as a tool to highlight these particular challenges? 

JC

So photography can be used to highlight any type of challenge or any type of social issue. It is a very powerful tool. Of exploring our surroundings and showing the rest of the world, the issues that we care for. I, I find that when I run my workshops on how to have a positive social impact with your work, I see a lot of photographers and creatives in general. They don’t quite understand how they can use their creative work to promote positive, um, impact, because it sounds very overwhelming. Where to start? Where does one begin? And I think that those small actions that we’re saying before. Definitely, you know, account for something. If you divide your life into your, as a creative, you divide into your personal life, into your business life. In your personal life being aware of all the things that you can do to prevent this problem. So like we were saying before recycling and repurposing and researching where you buy from those are very good starts. The United Nations on their website has a link to the sustainability goals and there is this a very good guide that they have called the Lazy Person’s Guide to Improving the World, to changing the world. And there, you can see a lot of like small actions that people can take in their personal lives to improve the world. But that’s at an individual level. As a creative, from a business perspective, making decisions like who are your providers? What sort of materials do you use? If you are a makeup artist, are you using makeup brands that are sustainable and ethical, the same goes for a hairstylist. Can you reduce your electricity consumption?

If you’re a photographer there has been for a long time that debate of whether film photography or, uh, digital photography were, you know, more environmentally friendly than the other. And in the end, I think that people have the idea that when you work in digital, you take those images on digital files and you put them in your computer and then they disappear from the planet they’re in the cloud. This, this entity that nobody knows where the cloud is, but the cloud in the end is just massive farms of servers that are taking space, you know, somewhere in the planet. And they usually have to cut down a lot of trees to be able to install those farms. They use up a massive amount of resources, electricity, air conditioning. They have to call down those servers. So thinking that by shooting digital you’re more environmentally friendly is not a hundred percent true. Reducing your computer usage. For instance, using less resources, turning off the lights, all those things, they all add up as a photographer. Definitely you can contribute to the planet. If you follow those guidelines. 

Now how to have social impact as a photographer. The first thing I would say is behaving like a decent human being, being more ethical, treating people fairly. If you hire, um, other freelancers, pay them fairly. When you work with your suppliers, try to work with suppliers that are also sustainable, and that also have ethical business practices in place. 

When you work with your clients, if you’re after the money, then there’s nothing that you can do about it. Like you just thinking about the money and that’s it. But if you really want to do something good for the world, try to research your clients as well. Not only your suppliers. But also your clients. Who are you working for? Is this company ethical? Are my images going to be used in a campaign that is going to be ethical? Or is it, are they going to be used to promote an unsustainable brand? Do I want my name attached to a campaign that is promoting something that I don’t believe in. So you need to ask yourself those questions and if you’re trying to put together projects or work that improve the world and improve humanity, you don’t have to travel to the other side of the planet.

You just have to sit down, take a breather and look around, and I’m sure that you will start finding things that can be solved. Because there’s definitely this, these social challenges that are everywhere. 

Muaz

That is surprisingly accurate, you know, because even though I’ve been in this country for almost 20 years now, I’m originally from Kenya and the social challenges that you find in a country like Kenya, I’m from Mombasa, in Mombasa are so similar to what you would find in London in the UK and that surprises people when I tell them that. But you know, there are social challenges in every country. Some countries hide it better than others, in some countries have safety nets available to their population. But that doesn’t mean that that safety net works for everyone. You know, and there are things that everyone can do to highlight those particular challenges. So your absolutely right there, I, I completely agree with that. 

JC

Definitely. And, um, also not everyone, even if we live in first world countries in the global North, not everyone has access to, to the, to the programs that either governments or organizations implement to solve this issue. There are still people in the UK who do not have access to the Internet. And this is something that has been highlighted throughout the pandemic. And to think that there is someone in your country, a country as rich and as powerful as the UK does not have access to the internet because they cannot afford it or the infrastructure is not available, it makes you really realize what you were saying.

Muaz

Yeah, absolutely. And when it comes to understanding, especially, you know, going broader than photography; as a creative, you’re absolutely right. Your understanding about that. You need to be ethical with how you go about your business. So even at Revstance, for example, we work with a lot of emerging talent and even in the platform that we’re going to be building, where it will be primarily emerging talent. And one of the questions we ask, especially for a brand, have you been to the factory where you’re actually making these products? You know, if you’re not making these products yourself, in this country, if you’re, for example, making it, uh, somewhere in Europe or further out of the field, how well do you know the conditions of the people that are making that product? Would you be comfortable being in those conditions? That’s a question you need to ask yourself, you know, because if you are not comfortable working in those conditions, why would you put another person? Why would you be okay with another person being in those kind of conditions? You know? And it’s something that should be obvious, but it’s really not.

And that’s, what’s makes this challenge a lot more glaring. You know, you think a lot of these things are obvious, you know, that they’re common knowledge and all that. Yeah. People just expect things to be in a certain way, but it’s, it’s really not. 

JC

As they say that common sense isn’t as common as the senses, right? But I think that there’s something that even comes before that. Some people listening to this today, may ask themselves, but why, why do I need to be more ethical and why they need to be more sustainable and taking out of the equation, you know, the obvious answer because you want to leave a better world for the following generations. Let’s say that you are an extremely social person, and you’re only thinking about yourself. You’re a start, you know, emerging designer and you’re starting your business now on all your care is about the money. Businesses can not function in societies that do not work. And if the society that you live in doesn’t work because of social issues or because of environmental issues, then your business is not going to work. So starting at that very egotistical, selfish level, that, that gives you a reason why you have to think about this. And you have to think about your impact, just, just from the most selfish, um, point of view, than if you’re, definitely the conscious of, uh, how you impact the world then the rest comes after.

Muaz

Absolutely. And if these aspects are not part of your company’s ethos, right at the beginning, your challenge only increases as you go forward. So a lot of the advisory work and consulting that we do, we find that the earlier you solve this challenge, the easier it becomes for you later on. Because once your cost base is tied into potentially subpar practices, it’s more expensive to change it later on. You know? And, and the thing is it’s got to the point where the world is changing. Governments are starting to recognize this now, you know, so this is going to cost you. Right? There is going to be a significant transition cost. Because even if you look in New Zealand, there are adding legislation that require you to meet certain standards.

You know, and that that’s only going in one direction. Right? So if you, as a brand, don’t take care of this now, it means you’re going to fail. If not this year or next year, within the next few years, your business operating model is going to be unsustainable. 

JC

Yeah. Especially in times like this, when it has become mandatory to have, sustainable and ethical practices in place because society is asking for it. Your consumers are asking for it. And then as you mentioned, government legislation is going to force you to do it anyway. So why not apply it from scratch? 

Muaz

Exactly. So, you know, as an advisory service, we have to play devil’s advocate sometimes, you know, um, and we actually have these weird conversations and we’re like, it doesn’t matter whether you’re, you know, of what your mindset is, even if your mindset is just about making money, right. In order to make money in the current environment you have to follow these particular guidelines. You know, it’s not about, I mean, you obviously want to be, it’s important to be ethical. It’s important to be a good person, but the reality of our environment is you’ll have to be one now, you know, and, and that makes me feel good.

You know, the fact that, you know, all of these societal pressures are making people function in a way that I think they should be functioning anyway. So. The societal challenges that are making people vote with their wallets, and I’m hoping this is something that continues. And that’s why it makes me really happy when, when people like yourselves use our platforms to put these messages out, because it, because it makes a difference because someone that looks at your work or it looks at a particular brand, that’s doing something would end up applying that as a baseline of what other people should be doing, and that is incremental. So, yeah. Um, you can tell I’m pretty passionate about this area. 

JC

I can see that, I can see that. I mean, you have to set an example, you have to inspire other people to do it. And like I said, at the beginning, the reason why I started running workshops around the social impact and how to teach other creatives to do good for the world is because I saw that people just didn’t know where to start. There’s a lot of people who have good intentions out there and we’re not, humans are not inherently bad as, as, as one may think. There’s a lot of people who really want to do good, but then the challenges come when there’s not the money, but there’s not the knowledge. Or you don’t have the tools. Maybe you do have the budget and you do have the knowledge, but then the tools are not available. Um, so it is important that people like you with the consultancy that you do, or people like me with this sharing of information that I do, um, keep doing these things because we need other people in the industry to hear this and to learn and to apply them as well.

Muaz

Absolutely. Could you give me an example of something a person could do to pursue social impact. So an example project or an example idea that someone could pursue, or that you’ve seen someone pursue in some effect. Whether it’s through a course of yours or whether it’s, uh, so if you have a practical example in mind that you have seen.

JC

Photography related you mean? 

Muaz

Yeah. Photography. 

JC

So there is this really beautiful project, um, by an Austrian photographer and she, she moved to the Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. And she moved into this courtyard. Her name is Anita Strasser, and she moved into this courtyard and it was a beautiful building. And as soon as she got there, she started photographing the building. Cause that’s what you do as a photographer, you look around and then you start documenting what you see. And as she started photographing the building, she started running into her new neighbors and she obviously engaged in conversations with them, which led her into photographing also, uh, her neighbors. And as she got to know them better, she realized that the neighbors didn’t know each other. So there were people living in their own flats, you know, isolated from the rest. There wasn’t really a sense of community in that building. So it occurred to her that she could ask permission to all the neighbors of printing the images and creating an event, which would be an exhibition of the images.

And she set the date. Um, she took some sheds that were in the center courtyard of the building, and then she stapled all the images on those sheds. And then she asked people just to come like a potluck, just bring whatever you can bring to drink or to eat. She introduced each other and then everyone had a fantastic time.

They all met. That is a very, very simple way. Oh, but was very powerful. And it came from an idea that someone had in their own place of living. So when I said before, you just need to look around you and to find things that you can, you know, that you can highlight issues or that you can solve the issues that, that you have in your communities. It’s as simple as that, she didn’t have to put any effort at all. She just went out, took photos, met people, introduced them, and she created community and she generated change. 

Muaz

Perfect. That’s such a great example and that’s all it takes. Do you have an example of challenges that people can face as well, because I’m sure it’s not all clear sailing when it comes to.

JC

No, definitely it is not as, as simple and as easy as that, it’s a good starting point. And then the best starting point is having a good intention. You want to do something, but also it goes beyond wanting to do something. It takes so much more than just having the good intention. You also need to be part of the community.

You need to change that behavior that you, you just want to do something. It needs to be something that you getting involved with the community. You need to understand what is your role in the community that you want to affect? Because otherwise then you have like superhero complex where you’re trying to go to all the places where you see issues and you want to solve them or, or call attention to them.

Um, so I think that that would be like the first challenge that you face is understanding what is your role in the community and understanding that you’re not there to offer a solution as a savior. You’re there to getting involved in the community and maybe engage with them. And if you have the knowledge and the tools, maybe share them and teach them how to solve their own issues.

If you belong to the community, if this is something that affects you as well, like it affected this photographer Anita Strassor, then your, that’s your role in the community. You’re one of the members of the community. There are bigger, bigger challenges in the world. There are massive challenges in the world.

If you just visit the United Nations website and you see what are the sustainable development goals for the next, uh, years until 2030, you can really see what governments and what the United Nations are working towards and that can be something really overwhelming that, and I think that that is one of the biggest challenges that people who want to do good for the world face. Thinking that how can I solve this? This, this is so big. So that’s why starting small is easier. Because if you start just, you know, when things that you can manage, um, then that definitely makes it easier or the challenges that you can face, um, is not knowing what to solve. Literally, you could be sitting here thinking, listening to all this and thinking. Yeah, but what, what kind of hits you? 

Um, And I would say, just explore what are your interests. If you, if you, you know, if you’re interested in nutrition, maybe there’s a new distinct project around food. Um, and if you’re a makeup artist, for instance, and you’re interested in nutrition, how can, uh, eating better improve your skin, your complexion. Or like for hairstylists, that could be, how can we use natural sources, um, edibles that could be used, you know, to take care of the hair better. For instance, like all of those things, they sound so silly, but when you say them, you go like, yeah, you’re right. Like it could be exploring that. 

And it’s been documented to exhaustion, I think right now within the fashion industry. How can we produce more sustainable collections using better materials et cetera, et cetera? But there are a lot of creatives out there that do not, that are consider as, as if they belong within the video fashion industry, but they’re not in the media or they’re not in this, um, documents and reports that we see constantly, on the news. And that’s why I mentioned hairstylists and makeup artists or, or stylists as well as, or photography assistants or photographers, because I think that… We’re like sort of like the supporting roles in the industry we’re the invisible bunch and it can be really difficult in this topic in particular, wanting to do something good for the world to, to realize what can you do.

Muaz

Absolutely. And I always also hear people say things like, “oh, this is silly.” You know, what difference is that going to make? And I don’t think people should let that stop. Something silly should not get in the way of doing something useful. 

JC

I agree. And you know what, it’s silly to who? You know, if what you’re doing is silly or not, because the only way to measure if you are having an impact, if you’re having social impact in particular is to ask the beneficiary, the person who receives that help is the only one who can tell you if what you did is useful.

It could be really silly to think that you created this exhibition in this community, and then you brought people and everyone met each other, but what for, but maybe she created long lasting relationships. Maybe someone got married out of that, and then you helped, you know, um, create a new generation of people just because you put people in touch. So, so the beneficiaries are the one who have to tell you if it makes sense or not. 

Muaz

Absolutely. And people probably don’t realize how self-critical they are of themselves. 

JC

We are our worst enemies. 

Muaz

Absolutely. And that is a challenge. The fear of rejection is a challenge. Cause that photography example you gave, what if the first person she asks, well, what if the first five people she asked to take their photos said “no”, you know, so that’s something that you should expect as well in an accept that might happen. But that doesn’t mean you need to stop. Maybe you’re going about it in the wrong way. But you know, that shouldn’t stop you from continuing. Because some of the stuff that I work hard to be considered silly, but you know, it’s about just making these step-by-step changes and, you know, and just try incremental improvement.

JC

I’m going to give you an example of something that happened to me yesterday. So I’ve been writing on my blog for six years. And for over like a year and a half, I have a reader who always writes to me asking me if I could add audio version to my blog post, because they’ve had a child and they don’t have time to read. So they, they would love to play those audio versions. And it took me a whole year to do it. And as of 2021, there’s always an audio version in every blog post.  And it is a lot of work, but I do it because you know, this, I have this avid reader who really wants it. So then I think it could add another layer, maybe invite other people also to engage with my content. And then that’s, that’s all, I knew that this particular reader was now listening to the audio content. Yesterday, someone sent me a text and told me that they had spent the whole day listening to one of my blog post and they had repeated it three times because they really needed to hear what it was said there.

So going back to what you were saying, what, what is it for? What, why did I add those audio versions? Why do I have to add those extra two or three hours every week every time I post a blog post just to add the audio version? And the answer was, you know, this very recent yesterday, because there are other people who are also experiencing my content that way and who are finding it useful. So there’s, there’s the answer to that question. 

Muaz

Absolutely. That’s amazing. You don’t know what your, you know, what the impact will be. You don’t know who you’re impacting you know. And in a digitally connected world, people’s reach is a lot wider than they expect, because  such a large percentage of people who probably view your content, don’t interact with your content. So even though it’s having an impact on them. You’re not getting the feedback, you know, of someone typing back, “Oh, I love this content. Oh, you know, et cetera, et cetera”. But it has, it is having an impact on them. So putting that positivity out there, you know, putting that additional way for people to interact with your content, to be able to consume your content, you know, will always be net positive I think. 

JC

I agree or you, you, you have to because you care. And I care for the people that have access to my content. I care for starting creatives. I can relate because not so long ago I was there myself and I’m sure you as well. So this, that’s the reason why I do hold this because I really care. And I want them to, you know, to not have to go through the issues that I went through.

Muaz

Absolutely. So you have a social impact course? 

JC

I do. Yes.

Muaz

Amazing. Could you tell us a bit about that? 

JC

So I was mentioning before I run this workshop, I run different workshops on different themes, but this one in particular, I started running it because I realized that whenever I spoke about social impact, like the now, whenever I spoke about the challenges that the world is facing people around me or the photographers or other creatives, were confused. They didn’t know how we could do anything about it. I mean, when, if I tried to explain it and then they acknowledged that they understood that, yes, we need to do something. They didn’t know where to start. And for some reason, um, it was easier for me maybe because of the networks that I belong to or the people that I surround myself with, or all of the workshops that I’ve taken or the information that I read that I understand that I understand a bit better. So trying to share that knowledge with others was what drove me to, to start running those workshops. And in those workshops, I divided the workshop in three different sessions. In the first sessions, uh, we speak about what social impact is and what is not. Because, um, there are a lot of things that are impacting, but not necessarily social impact.

When you speak about social impact, you speak about change that you want to see in society. And then in that first, um, session, I talk about that positive change that we want to see in the world. Then I look at it from the perspective of how to design projects for social impact. Um, how can any creative get involved. Not only photographers. So I have the photography version, which is a hundred percent made for photographers, but I also run it for creators in general. How can anyone get involved in designing a project for social impact. What does that mean? What are the steps that you need to follow and what do you need to understand to run those projects? And then the third part of the session we go beyond that, we speak about our businesses. How can we have businesses that are, uh, social impacting. How can we run businesses that are beneficial for humanity and for the planet. And we go through the spectrum of businesses. 

Charles Armstrong is the founder of The Trampery, which is a social enterprise that offers affordable desk spaces to creatives in London. And he came up with this spectrum of businesses, according to where they position themselves in relationship to the impact that they have in the world. So in that third session or the third part of workshop, I go through that, um, spectrum and try to make people align themselves within the spectrum to see where they are from, uh, companies or businesses that have no positive impact on the world whatsoever to those who are on the other side, who do charitable work, which is not our case because we are for profit businesses and that idea that you can have profit, but also you can be good for the world is something that I always try to make creatives understand.

You can find JC online at:

  • Website: www.jccandanedo.com
  • Instagram: @jccandanedo
  • Patreon: @jccandanedo

You can listen to the whole interview podcast over on our podcast page or by clicking here at Photography as a tool for Social Impact.

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