Home » FeatureSpring 2011

Focused for Social Change

by Fiona Soltes No Comment

Alumna Nancy Farese believes in changing the world one photo at a time.

Nancy Farese was once again on foreign soil, reflecting on differences.

This time it was a Ugandan village on the banks of the Nile, watching a woman in a “teeny, tiny hut” without electricity use a new solar-powered flashlight. Candles mean danger when flammable malaria nets are nearby, and Farese, camera in hand, was struck by the nuance. It was not the poverty that caught her artful eye, however. It was the sparkling white apron the woman wore, a sign of dignity in a village with no running water.

“It was such a combination of being impressed by the way she presented herself and daunted by the environment she was in,” says Farese, BA’83. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I could do this.’ She was so strong, so much stronger than I am. I love being put in situations that cause you to reflect on your own strength, resilience and morals. It feels healthy to me to do that.”

Farese was in Uganda documenting the works of a nonprofit called Living Goods (www.livinggoods.org). It’s a network of salespeople who offer products for personal hygiene and prevention and treatment of disease, and it’s just one in a long list of agencies Farese has touched.

Matching Photographers with Need

A photographer who first picked up her camera to take snapshots of her five growing kids, she went on to found PhotoPhilanthropy (www.photophilanthropy.org), an organization that helps match nonprofit organizations needing fresh images with photographers willing to take them. PhotoPhilanthropy’s mission is to change the world—one photo at a time.

Traveling for the Carter Center, Farese captured dignity and beauty in Ghana.

“The genesis of PhotoPhilanthropy was to put an award out there—to see if other people were doing this kind of work—and reward that kind of behavior,” Farese says. Launched in 2009, the Activist Award, which highlights photo essays of nonprofit work in various categories, drew 209 submissions from 63 countries in that first year. In 2010, there were 256 entries from 83 countries.

The initial interest and success helped Farese see she was on to something; in addition to the matching assistance, PhotoPhilanthropy also helps the photographers get their photo essays seen. The group encourages photographers to donate their efforts whenever possible; as for Farese, she splits her work between professional paid gigs and nonpaid adventures.

“We actually have a very specific protocol we suggest to all of our photo-philanthropists,” she says. “We work with students, adult amateurs and professionals, all levels of sophistication, and when you’re interacting with a nonprofit, you want them to realize that something very credible and positive can come out of this.”

Storytelling with a Purpose

Cate Biggs, a freelance writer and global issues consultant, met Farese in 2007 through a mutual acquaintance. As both were interested in using storytelling as a way to support groups doing important work in Africa, Biggs says, the two became fast friends.

It’s eye-opening … to see what people all over the world are doing.

“From the beginning, I think we recognized in each other a sense of humility about our roles as storytellers and a desire to always be reconsidering what we think we know—about others and the world,” Biggs says. The pair traveled in Liberia with Mercy Corps in 2009, documenting programs aimed at empowering women in a country now led by the continent’s first female head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. They tacked on work for several other organizations while there, and in November 2010, went to Ghana and Liberia with The Carter Center, founded by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. They’re now working on a book to help educate the public about The Carter Center’s efforts in peace, governance and mental health. The book’s second purpose, Biggs says, is “to inspire PhotoPhilanthropy’s base to hit the road.”

“Nancy is truly one of my favorite people in the world: a friend, mentor and model,” Biggs says. “I don’t know that I have ever met anyone like her, a blend of warm and gracious Southern manners, genuine compassion, professional rigor, sense of humor and deep intellectual curiosity. She is tremendously accomplished: fabulous kids, a community leader, a no-nonsense business woman, a superlatively talented photographer, a great sense of style, and all the while, really down to earth, open and downright fun.”

Amazing Stories Beautifully Told

Farese, who grew up in Georgia, now lives in San Francisco with her husband, fellow Vanderbilt grad Dr. Robert Farese Jr., MD’85, and family. The kids who first inspired her photography are now ages 16 to 24. When she’s not snapping photographs, involved in community activities or on the road, she enjoys reading, trail running and sharing stories with other Vanderbilt friends who live in the area. A French and economics major, Farese says her Arts and Science experience fostered numerous long-term relationships, similar to those relationships she builds now. She also credits her study abroad through Vanderbilt in France as helping her develop interest and comfort in being in different cultures and around different languages and people.

Farese photographed this woman and child at Phebe Hospital in Liberia.

She says she’s frequently surrounded by different cultures, languages and people today. “That’s now what I do a lot,” she says. Her list of travels, in addition to Uganda, Liberia and Ghana, includes Kenya, Tanzania, Haiti, and in 2011, Vietnam, with friend and fellow Vanderbilt alumna Liz Schwartz Hale, BSN’82, also a photographer.

“One thing I always encounter is this feeling of disbelief that I’m right here and experiencing this thing,” she says. “The camera, in some way, has become a tool that leads me to—or creates access to—really interesting cultural experiences.”

And she’s anxious for others to do the same. Recently, she returned to campus to share her work and experiences with undergraduate photography students.

“It’s eye-opening as Americans to see what people all over the world are doing to make people’s lives better and to address critical need in their communities,” she says. “There are amazing stories out there that can be beautifully told.”

photo credit: Liz Hale, BSN ’82, Nancy Farese

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