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Best of ASMP 2008

A series of serendipitous events led Joni Kabana to join a Mercy Corps trip. As she photographed humanitarian support projects, Kabana saw the need to provide marketing tools for several of her new contacts. Using skills from a past career in corporate leadership, Kabana enlisted American volunteers to create promotional pieces from elements she had gathered, effectively linking creative talents with a global reach.

Joni Kabana — Portland, OR

Web site:
Mercy Corps travel blog:
Madagascar travel blog:
Project: Mercy Corps Phoenix Fund projects in India and Nepal

© Joni Kabana
All images in this article © Joni Kabana.

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

JK: Four years, full-time; 15 years accepting professional assignments and creating projects.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

JK: Four years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

JK: Portraiture, Humanitarian/Editorial, Food. Creating images that inspire others to take action, whether it is to assist a developing country, to purchase a product, or to dine in a restaurant.

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

JK: My intuition leads me to many creative places, both physically and mentally. I am known to save an article, torn from the newspaper, for months, even as the edges fray and the ink wears from the page. Then suddenly one day decide to book a flight to chase a part of that story, not knowing what I will find on the other end, or where the images will lead.

And lead me, they do. When my thinking mind shuts off, a certain propelling stillness is present. When I stop thinking about the viewfinder of the camera, then I know I have a better chance at capturing the charm of my subject.

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

JK: My relentless and, at times, terrifying curiosity. I shoot mostly with Canon equipment, and I dig a cheap plastic camera. My eye is currently on a pair of Holga and Diana novelty cameras sold with a peppermint swirl filter, ring flash, and fisheye lens. I like a bit of creative inconsistency in this controlled and highly technical art form. Keeping a sense of discovery in my profession fuels my devotion for photography.

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

JK: I voraciously examine an assignment, an article, a subject like it is a specimen under a microscope, but within seconds I can break it apart to reveal the minutia that can easily be overlooked. The expanding/contracting retina, the space between two lips, the tips of hair, a drip. I love the nuances, hidden places, misunderstandings, and forgotten aspects of a subject, whether it is a machine, a slab of meat or a dancer who has lost her limbs. I once went to a leper colony and photographed the subjects’ yearning eye contact rather than their afflictions. When viewing the images, the only way the viewer knows it is a leper colony is by reading the accompanying words.

Also, before making photography my full-time career, I had a successful corporate leadership career. Those years of hard core business skills are appreciated by creative directors while managing large shoots and developing a plan to produce an effective image.

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Tell us about the Mercy Corps project, and how you came to be invited to document their projects in India.

JK: Serendipity. I had just received word that one of my clients had decided to use a locally based photographer in Asia. The same day I had a meeting with Mercy Corps’ Phoenix Fund Donor Coordinator to explore a relationship for a different project. During our meeting, it was revealed that the trip had an open slot from a cancellation and the timing of the trip exactly coincided with the block of time I had held to be in Asia. Before we both knew what happened, my new friend asked me to go on the trip, and I jumped at the offer.

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: What were the conditions like during your travels in India? Were you traveling in a group? If so please describe the group dynamics.

JK: There were nine of us on this trip: the donors, the Mercy Corps coordinator and myself. Prior to the trip, I could not imagine traveling in a group because I usually travel alone or in a small team. To my delight, I loved them all — a blend of personalities, each unique, but when brought together it resulted in a dynamic and balanced force of fun and intention. We forged a bond in the difficulties, like harrowing drives up steep muddy mountains, trekking paths usually reserved for llamas, and being held in gun lock-down during a political strike.

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Did you face any technical issues that impeded your work while traveling and if so how did you resolve them?

JK: My cameras almost incinerated during a tent fire at base camp in Nepal. Luckily, I had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and made my way to the latrine area. Out of the corner of my eye I saw some fires burning in the distance, but sleepily thought it was the sherpas starting our breakfast. (How American of me.) It was my tent mate who had followed me and noticed it was the dining and staging tent that was on fire.

Other than that, I am well versed in international travel with equipment and had no issues on this trip. As a safeguard, I always travel with backup equipment provided by our local and very supportive camera store.

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: What propelled you to plan and promote additional projects to benefit the villages you photographed?

JK: There are many humanitarian support projects for basic living needs and small business loans, while giving developing nations the tools and know-how to be sustainable, which is what the Phoenix Fund is all about. I saw a gap in the area of marketing and promotions once the village established a workable business model to reach the global economy. It is now my life-long intent to continue linking creative friends and agencies with the needs of developing countries. Both sides benefit immensely.

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Did you face language or cultural barriers when working in the villages? Do you have any suggestions for how to deal with this issue?

JK: I was fortunate on this trip to have interpreters on site for the editorial images. However, when I found time to do my own portrait work, I did this alone, using my tried and true methods of communicating without spoken language. There are non-verbal techniques to gain trust, which I’ve learned traveling in Madagascar and other extremely remote areas of the world. These tricks are hard to describe in text, and are best shown.

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Please describe your work with students at the Communications school in Darjeeling. What were the conditions and skill level like in this school?

JK: The students and the director are some of the most eager and passionately artistic people I have ever met. They could, with proper training and better equipment, produce professional quality images. It pains me greatly to know these artists don’t have access to the tools and software they need to create competitively professional marketing materials.

I worked with one student for a day to enhance his composition skills. During that time with him, I learned that he had to make a decision each day about which images to delete from his card, as he has no other storage medium available to him than that in his camera. He works for the local newspaper, documenting political strikes, and each day was erasing a bit of history! I gave him one of my memory cards so he can shoot more, and would like to find a way to get a laptop and software to the school.

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Please talk about the American design school and web design firm that you lined up to collaborate on this project once you returned to the states.

JK: I contacted the head of the design department at one of our local community colleges, and she orchestrated her class into a motivated frenzy to design and produce 16 glossy print-on-demand books in less than a month, using various elements (such as my blog and newspaper article) I created during the trip.

After the books were online, I moved to e-commerce ideas and contacted an agency I have worked with to see if they could produce a website for the Nepal cardamom farm. They jumped on it.

I just can’t seem to do anything without some sort of collective party attached to it. And, I love a sense of community. It’s a rush for me when a group of creatives connect their talents, take those photos and do something with them. I’m always thinking, “how many people can benefit from this venture?”

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Do you feel that the extra effort you invest in a project and with your subjects beyond making pictures helps you to generate better pictures? Please elaborate.

JK: I am not sure they are better pictures than some of my two-minute street work images, but the time is very rewarding when I see so many people coming together and finding more purposeful meaning in their days. The world is only a click away with the Internet, and it is far easier to assist others in challenging environments. And I like a good rally.

I also like to see students getting exposure to the professional creative world and to developing nations. It so happens that one trip participant’s wife is a founding partner of a world-renowned agency headquartered in Portland. She was at a dinner where I debuted the books, and she graciously took time to review them all, selecting her Top 5 designs. How many design students get access to that kind of feedback? And I know of at least one student who is now working on two paid assignments that were a result of the project.

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: With projects of this kind, do you use any of your pictures for future commercial purposes (i.e: stock licensing or other commercial applications)? If so please describe your distribution network.

JK: A well-crafted image always leads me to other paths. There are numerous channels: magazines, advertisement, newspaper articles, marketing materials, annual reports, expanded trust levels in other countries, new relationships, and additional assignments that have come from this project.

ASMP: Do you ask any of your subjects to sign model releases? If so please talk about your procedure for this.

JK: I ask in most cases; however, in some remote countries people do not know what they are reading and signing, so I think it is exploitive to make them sign a release unless there is an interpreter present. I do collect addresses, even village locations, and have returned to villages to ask permission when a commercial request to use an image came up. I know that is not always possible, so I am cautious regarding who gets these images and how they are used. When on assignment, I make sure the subject knows what will be done with the image, how it will be used, etc. so they can make a choice whether they want to participate.

© Joni Kabana

ASPM: Have your experiences in working on this project spilled over to your other projects or image making? If so please describe how.

JK: Yes, there are many subject branches that have spun off from this trip. There is a little girl in Kathmandu that works the streets who is a potential subject for something more in-depth than my three images I took of her when I was there. One thing always leads to another. When a subject won’t go away in my head and it keeps looping as I go about my day, I know there is something that has to be explored further. I made sure I found a shopkeeper who knows her story in case I return.

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Can you see any long-term positive effects to your efforts in producing books for the villages? Please elaborate.

JK: The design students were so moved by their experience, they decided to donate 100 percent of the proceeds of the sales of the book directly to the villages. In addition, Mercy Corps and the village small businesses now have access to professionally designed print collateral and images to use to promote their businesses. I presented the work during a print review at our local ASMP chapter meeting. Feedback indicated that I might have inspired other established and just launching photographers to consider how creating images can serve multiple purposes, and what you do with the photo after it is created can instill a sense of rallied action in others.

© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Do you have any plans to return to these villages to document the people and businesses as they grow?

JK: My goal is to return to Darjeeling to work with the Communications school and bring with me a team of designers, filmmakers, and printers to hold workshops for the students, and bring equipment and software. I would also like to return to Nepal and tell the story of the street urchin whose image haunts me every day. Longevity in international relationships is important to me, which can be seen by my 13-year relationship documenting a young girl’s life in Madagascar.