Nuru: Photojournalism and Social Entrepreneurship Intersect
JB Reed, a photographer turned social entrepreneur is using a new revenue model to raise funds for sustainable social ventures. After having his own work showcased in publications such as the NYTimes, New Yorker, Washington Post, and Bloomberg, he created Nuru, which celebrates photography and social change.
Dowser: In today’s highly connected world, where we can get news from all over the world and more aware of the plight of the people living in far off places, what role do you think Nuru Project plays?
We offer a deeper engagement with photojournalism images than people are accustomed to having. Whereas a news magazine is quickly replaced by the next issue, our prints live in the homes of our customers forever.
What was your ‘aha’ moment that led you to develop Nuru Project?
The concept behind Nuru Project — to give back to the communities where we photojournalists work — came following a Fulbright fellowship in Kenya. Like a lot of photographers, I felt a responsibility to help the people who I’d photographed, since they’d given me so much in terms of time, access, and friendship. So when I finished my project in Nairobi, I created a gallery show in Boston and the proceeds of my print sales went to a nonprofit working in the community I’d photographed. That became the model for future Nuru Project fundraisers.
Is it a nonprofit or a social enterprise? Because you’re selling photography, does it help make it sustainable?
From 2008 until the launch of our e-commerce website in October 2011, we gave away 100% of funds raised. Eventually, we realized that in order to reach our potential, we needed financial resources of our own. Rather than depend on grants or donations, we decided to fund our operations through earned income. Presently, revenue from print sales is shared 50/25/25 between our non-profit partner of the customer’s choosing/photographer/Nuru Project. So we’re incorporated as a non-profit, but we have characteristics that one associates with social enterprises.
Why have you selected the six or so nonprofits listed on your site – any particular reason or did they come to you?
At Nuru Project, we’re passionate about raising funds for highly-effective non-profits. Our first major partner was Acumen Fund, which invests in developing world entrepreneurs building scalable businesses that meet the needs of the poor. In partnership with their volunteer chapters, we created eleven Dignity-themed photo auction events around the world, raising roughly $150,000. The launch of our e-commerce website presented an opportunity to expand our roster of partners, so we asked Acumen to recommend peer organizations with similar reputations for effectiveness and transparency. They connected us with most of our present non-profit partners including Pencils of Promise, Architecture for Humanity, and Malaria No More.
From your own personal travels and work for international publications, what are your thoughts on photography for social impact – how does it make an impact?
Photojournalism has a long history of affecting public opinion. One of the best examples is the galvanizing impact that the work of Philip Jones Griffith, Eddie Adams, and Nick Ut had on the anti-war movement during Vietnam. There are different ways of telling stories though. One is through conveying current events like war in newspapers and another is through depicting the quieter moments of everyday life in a slower medium like prints. I’m interested in the latter. While we sell images that depict people who face the social challenges that our non-profits address, we don’t want to create a narrative that elicits pity. By selling prints that tell stories about people’s everyday lives — their families, their struggles, their traditions, their passions — we create a connection between print buyer and subject that is based on commonality and respect and we impact society through the funds those print sales raise for non-profits.
The photography on the site is exquisite; how did you find these photographers? And what was the idea behind having a personalized note from each photographer in his/her handwriting?
The wonderful thing about news is that tells us what is happening right now. The downside is that, like the passage of time, it’s relentless. So many of the images that accompany news stories are gone as soon as we’ve seen them, replaced by images of whatever happens tomorrow. At Nuru Project, we search photographers’ websites for these forgotten images, and when we come across something particularly special, we dust it off and present it in support of a relevant non-profit. We include a handwritten backstory from photographers to keep the image’s context alive once the print goes inside a frame and as a reminder that our prints represent an interaction between their subject and the human being who was behind the lens.
Photo credits: First: Martyn Aim, Second: Benedicte Kurzen/EVE