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The Giving Lens Gets Focused

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Colby Brown and The Giving Lens combine photography and activism!

It wasn't too long ago that much of the westernized world was anticipating what the end of the world would look like. Would it be fireballs and solar flares thrust from space, throwing our entire modern infrastructure into whack? The poles reversing and causing mass chaos? Fire breathing lizards using cataclysmic floods as sippy cups? 

As we all know now, it was none of that.

Now that the day has come and passed without much, if any, fanfare. Save for hundreds of millions of dollars in box office tickets and best seller lists, record newscast ratings, and sold out duct tape, it offers the 'developed' world the opportunity to finally separate fact from fiction and determine what December 21, 2012 truly meant. 

We can begin this journey by a flashback visit to the United Nations on October 8, 2010. That was the date that those most qualified to inform on the topic of the end of the Mayan calendar, the Mayan elders themselves, defended from the mountains and highlands of Peru and, for the first and only time ever, graced the United Nations with their presence and their wisdom. The goal? To quell all the westernized sensationalist fears of what December 21, 2012 would bring, and to provide them with what the true significance of that date was.

"The sixth period will begin on December 21, 2012, a time when 'Mother Earth will be replenished with energy from Grandfather Sun,' they told us. For the Mayans, who have endured thousands of years of catastrophe, now is the time to celebrate the survival of humanity, not to mourn an impending disaster."

Now, if we were paying attention to anything other than Access Hollywood, Fox News, and our sponsored Twitter and Facebook feeds, we would have already seen and known this. Thankfully, while most of us were engulfed in what Kim and Kourtney were wearing and who “The Situation” was going to screw next, many more of us than you can imagine were truly paying attention and paying heed to the message of the wise.

One of those being photographer, traveler, and serial philanthropist Colby Brown.

I was first introduced to the work and life of Colby Brown when I joined Google Plus well over a year ago. I joined with the intent of meeting and connecting with like-minded photographers and do-gooders for inspiration and guidance and motivation to pursue what I always saw as my life's path: helping people, and telling their stories to help motivate and inspire others to do the same. This falls directly in line with the magazine I once started.

Enter Colby Brown. 

When I first ran across Brown on Google Plus, -I was tempted to dismiss him and his work as just another flash in the pan that would soon pass once he realized he was not going to be able to make it work. But then, as I dug deeper and deeper over the months and year after, I started to realize…this guy was for real. So when I was introduced to his organization, The Giving Lens, my pessimism immediately turned to excited inspiration. Here was a guy that was able to seamlessly blend together his love of travel with his undying and unwavering passion for altruism…and make it work

Since its advent in 2011, The Giving Lens has already held over a dozen workshops in locations that include Peru, Nicaragua, Jordan, Cambodia, Israel, and Palestine. According to the stated mission of The Giving Lens: 

"We believe that we can make a difference. We build trips that takes your hand and places it in the hand of a worthy Non-Profit doing incredible work. We get you, and a whole team of willing photographers, to that nation and facilitate your experience on the ground. We volunteer our camera, hearts, time, and energy in whatever way the Non-Profit needs most. Sometimes this is by documenting their work for media and website purposes. Other times it is by teaching photography classes to kids who need creative outlets to express themselves. And yet other times it can be physically getting our hands dirty and helping out. There is no limit to what we are capable of." 

And so far, their full intentions have been realized on each and every one of those trips, often leading to return trips and workshops.

So how did he get started, why did he decide to dedicate his life to this route, and what does he have in mind for the future? A recent interview with Brown for Ibarionex Perello's The Candid Frame podcast shed quite a bit of light on his insight. 

After beginning his travels due to simple curiosity and youthful eagerness to explore what the world has to offer, it quickly became much more than that. "When I'm out of my comfort zone and in these undeveloped countries and sleeping in places that people can't even fathom that individuals have to sleep in," Brown tells Perello, "I can get a true feeling for a family, a culture, an individual. Then, coming back and seeing the stuff that we deal with here - keeping up with the Jones', TV, commercialism - I developed this kind of empathy and apathy were I've become kind of empathetic towards these really important issues that I think we as a species have neglected over the years - whether it's hunger and malnutrition or clean drinking water."

He goes to explain that it used to bother him that the majority of the citizens of his own home weren't as concerned as he was with these tragic situations, but then he came to a very important realization: "Not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have been able to see how the vast majority of people on this planet actually do live." He explains, "We're talking that about 75% of this planet lives in less than ideal situations. Not everyone knows that or has had these experience, so the struggle to not make judgment calls on individuals when I come back here to the States has been a learning curve over the years."

And hence the seed for The Giving Lens was planted. "I just wanted to give back. I wanted to do something. So when I first started doing it, it was really just kind of reaching out to local communities…so I would volunteer for a local orphanage or take photos or write a story about whatever I was coming across and as my career began to progress and my brand became bigger and bigger, I was able to begin to start thinking about more creative ways in order to do more - in order to break those boundaries down between being a tourist and being a traveler." 

What finally did it was the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti that claimed well over a quarter of a million lives while affecting and displacing perhaps millions more. To this day, at least 500,000 remain without permanent shelter. 

"Once I realized what had happened, I wanted to go and I wanted to help. So another photographer and I got together and came up with an idea to create a service organization, but we didn't want to just come to a country and get in everyone's way. What we wanted to do was come and not just provide photos for these organizations, we wanted to tell stories that weren't getting told…we wanted to work with organizations that weren't getting the limelight…so I started researching different organizations and different places, and ultimately we put together this itinerary for 10 days to meet with all these smaller organizations that no one had heard of, and working on telling their story. 

"Having the experiences that we had with these amazing individuals, we were able to not only provide them with images, but also being able to come back and put together fundraisers and connect them together with larger corporations for sponsorships to enable them to reach and do more. It left a lasting impression on me and helped me realize I could do more."

And that helped the seed for The Giving Lens sprout into full blown existence. "The idea is to fuse photo education and the support of various causes around the world, mostly in developing countries," Colby explained to Perello. "What happens is, participants come to these 'workshops,' where half the time they're learning about photography, and the other half of the time they're directly supporting a local cause, which could be anything from child education to clean drinking water projects to species preservation to women's rights to refugee support. 

When I catch up with  The Giving Lens Chief Operations Manager Kate Havercroft, she tells me, "You could say we partner with grassroots organizations where the mission is always to empower the community to help themselves. We look for countries that are not outlandishly expensive to get to or stay in, so we can keep our costs affordable. Then we look at the type of work we've already done, and new areas we could move in to, pushing the boundaries of how photography can have an impact. I then begin to research Non-Profits in that country - their vision, values, practices, and long terms goals. You could say we partner with grassroots organizations where the mission is always to empower the community to help themselves."

Last year alone, they've worked in Peru, Nicaragua, Cambodia, and Jordan, and this year they've added workshops in Uganda, Tanzania, India, Thailand, Burma, and Cuba. The Giving Lens' approach is not to go into each situation with a pre-determined plan of action, but rather allow the process to develop organically by cooperating with the NGO's directly and finding out from them what exactly they need. "Sometimes it's as simple as needing more images and exposure to support what they're doing, and sometimes it's actually helping them develop photography programs for youth in their country, like we did in Nicaragua and Peru, so these young individuals can use donated camera gear to creatively express themselves unlike they've ever been able to do before." 

"The trips we've done have been incredible and the people coming our trips are having the time of their lives," an enthusiastic Havercroft expresses. "There are moments where I see participants exchange looks of 'can you believe this is really happening?' and that makes it so worthwhile. I'm so stoked for 2013!"

So are we. So are we. 

For more information on all of the above, check out the following links:

The Giving Lens: www.TheGivingLens.com

Colby Brown: www.ColbyBrownPhotography.com

The Candid Frame & Ibarionex Perello: TheCandidFrame.blogspot.com

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