Photography is a way to communicate without words. It transcends language and has the power to connect viewers across the world.
This sentiment has enamored Kate Gazaway for as long as she can remember.
From a young age, the process of preserving memories was ingrained in her, as both her mother and grandmother were avid amateur photographers. But it wasn’t until 2005 that she got her hands on an old Minolta camera and began developing her own film in the darkroom. With that camera in hand, she felt seen, known, and heard in a way that no other medium had previously allowed.
She continued to explore all aspects of this art form, and in 2007, Kate officially changed her major to pursue documentary photography in hopes of traveling to far-off places and helping those in need, though she had no idea what that would actually look like.
After graduating from college, she was offered a job as an arts camp director and photography teacher for an inner-city program in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. She didn’t quite understand what was being asked of her, but she approached her role with a sort of blind bravery. In the end, her teaching experience helped her realize that there’s a transformative power in being able to share extremely personal stories through images.
Two years later, Kate traveled to Nicaragua to help an organization document the humanitarian work they were doing there. Although she had only planned on staying in the country for a few weeks, she changed her mind and her plane ticket upon arrival and stayed for two and a half months. That same spark she experienced in Aliquippa years earlier displayed itself in a tiny fishing village with 17 eager students and five used cameras.
When she returned home from her trip, she was both inspired and confused by the prospect of what to do next. She knew she needed to do something; she just didn’t know what.
That’s when she remembered the musings of Dan Eldon and chose to take the path of the “creative activist.” Less than a year later, Kate decided to form a nonprofit organization that would provide photography education and resources to students in developing countries. She called it Picture Change.
Originally, Kate thought that she would venture to impoverished areas, teach photography basics to a few eager students, sell the students’ photographs in galleries back in the United States, send the money to host organizations, and call it a day. But at that time, she had a narrow understanding of what “poverty” and “charity” meant, and what her role would be in creating sustainable change within these communities.
Needless to say, she was in for quite the journey.
Through hard work and a lot of help, Picture Change became a reality. Within its first few years, Kate worked with sex-trafficking survivors in India, Roma refugees in Montenegro, east-Asian refugees in Tennessee, and a diverse group of Africans in Uganda. Along the way, she also conducted projects across Nicaragua’s fishing villages, lowland barrios, and mountainous coffee regions.
Although Kate admits that she grew up with an “American hero complex,” as she began to build relationships within these communities, her heroic mentality transformed into humility and empathy. Picture Change has, without a doubt, shaped the way she approaches poverty and those living in it. The organization has not only allowed her to experience different cultures, but to also realize that we are all important simply because we exist — that our circumstances do not define us.
Now, Kate approaches each new Picture Change project with an attitude of collaboration rather than charity, which is what continually dissolves the harmful, servile “have vs. have not” mentality that so often emanates from wealthier cultures.
Because of Picture Change, Kate has seen how a single image can connect individuals, promote empathy, raise awareness, speak truth, and silence ignorance. Her work has shown her just how much she doesn’t know about the world, and it has set her curiosity ablaze.
Over the last seven years, Kate’s students have ranged in age from seven to 44. Some have received formal education; some could not write their own name. Most live below the poverty line; some have endured horrific experiences. But all of them know what it’s like to be hungry, vulnerable, and violated in some way.
Through Picture Change, Kate has witnessed heroes emerge from these circumstances. She’s watched as over 60 students have captured moments that resonated beyond language barriers. She’s seen images reveal both the intimate and mundane experiences that make everyone human, as well as the beautiful and unique aspects of various cultures which she, as a foreigner, would not have noticed or appreciated otherwise. She’s realized that humans do not need to explain sadness, joy, anger, or love, because we can see it and express it, no matter what language we speak.
Today, Picture Change not only provides resources for its students to articulate these feelings, but it also empowers them to tell their own stories, earn a livable wage, and become proactive documentarians and leaders in their communities.
In Nicaragua, villagers now hire Picture Change graduates to take ID photos and photograph events such as weddings and graduations. In Montenegro, refugee aid agencies hire them to document progress in the Roma (“gypsy”) refugee camp where they grew up. In India, formerly exploited women sell their photos to tourists to help support their new lives outside the brothels. And Kate’s first student, Rosa, now runs her own (booming) photography business, teaches photography in her local community, and has traveled with Picture Change to assist with photography lessons in Nicaragua and Uganda. In that sense, the organization has come full circle.
Since its founding in 2011, Picture Change has been a small, grassroots operation, something Kate is grateful for because it has given her time to discover what works, what doesn’t, and what defines success for a nonprofit as it grows into a scalable organization.
For Kate, the past few years have been a somewhat-harsh, worthwhile lesson in what it takes to make a dream a reality. Picture Change started as an idea, but it became a tangible, living entity that continues to impact lives around the world. And, thanks to the contributions and influence of passionate individuals, it’s rapidly evolving into something greater than she could have ever imagined.
We photograph what we value. Because of Picture Change, students in developing countries are now documenting their lives.
Sometimes it just takes a camera to redefine how a person views their worth and their role within their community.
To learn more about Picture Change, visit picture-change.org.