Photographers Without Borders

September 18, 2018
Photographers Without Borders staff

While its staff works to make the world a better place, this year’s Your Workplace Thrive Award® winner aims to improve the lives of its staff.

Sometimes Jessie Golem can’t believe what she does for a living.

I feel like I am actually living my dream job,” says Golem, Operations Manager at Photographers Without Borders (PWB). “Sometimes I just have this moment of, like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe this is real; this is my dream and it’s happening.’”

The Toronto-based not-for-profit company, which is also the recent winner of the 2018 Your Workplace Thrive Award, works to connect photographers around the world with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that align with the core tenets of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals. PWB organizes trips that allow these journalists to create photo or video stories to be shared online, which document the work that the NGOs do. In addition, PWB produces a biannual magazine and a YouTube TV series.

For nearly a decade, Your Workplace’s Thrive Award has recognized organizations that create healthy and creative workplaces with cultures of trust and collaboration.

Golem thinks that one of the main reasons their organization stands out is because of the strong, supportive “culture of family” that they have cultivated and the quality of employees that they have.

“Our staff are very, very engaged and very interested and passionate about [our events] … We give them a space where they can use those passions and those skills, because we want to celebrate each individual’s contributions, and I think we have a very welcoming environment where we’re able to do that,” she says.

She adds that often it feels like they’re more friends than coworkers. This is partially a natural progression from proximity and regular teambuilding activities, like planned team outings and monthly photography contests.

“I’ve come to happily discover that many of our team will meet up for drinks after meetings … or if one of the staff members is doing an exhibit, the other staff will come out and support one another,” Golem says.

The close-knit atmosphere is also due to the unique circumstances of PWB, which allows for its workforce to go on work trips together to exotic locales. There are frequent opportunities for these trips that tend to bring staff much closer together, Golem says, and they are an obvious benefit of working at the organization.

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The inherent nature of travel and international relationships means that the company’s team is naturally diverse. And though PWB technically has a hierarchy, it emphasizes a horizontal structure where everyone’s opinion is weighted evenly, amplifying voices that might not otherwise be heard.

“That’s something you don’t see in a lot of organizations. I think that’s a very good thing that we do, having this great family and this great spirit of openness and transparency,” says Golem.

Butterfly effect

Golem explains that they are also very deliberate in their hiring process, especially after earlier missteps. She emphasizes that because the group is so small it’s easily felt if someone is not pulling their weight.

She illustrates this with an example of a marketing employee they took on who was underqualified for the position and nearly cost them an important advertiser.

“It had a negative effect right away and the whole team felt it. That kind of effect sort of rippled across everybody,” Golem says.

Though it is successful now, PWB runs on a lean budget. This means it is highly dependent on less consistent funding sources, like grants, donations and sponsorships. As a result, Golem says, any changes in income can have overarching effects on the organization, causing projects to get cancelled entirely.

Now they are sure to select staff carefully, valuing both their skills and their integration into the familial work culture. The executives also make sure to frequently debrief with staff to give feedback and constructive criticism, while also coming together to encourage and celebrate achievements, like the completion of a magazine issue.

For those they do take on, PWB provides many opportunities for leadership development, which lots of people use to step into other roles, like a former editor who eventually left for a journalistic opportunity at a large publication.

“Even for myself personally, I’ve been at [PWB] for about two years now, and my life is completely different. It’s been changed for the better,” Golem says.

She says that they now have many people who are passionate, dedicated and committed. Even when faced with challenges “everyone seems to accept, ‘Yeah we’re going to do this, of course we’re going to do this, because we’re amazing,’” she says.

“In numerous jobs I’ve worked in, I’ve seen if it’s a negative environment that you’re going to have a bad time and your employees aren’t going to stay on,” she says. “We’ve been very intentional about building a family and building a place that people are excited and proud to be a part of.”

Golem herself finds the work deeply fulfilling and rewarding and can say with confidence that most people in the workplace feel the same way. She attributes this motivation to everyone’s strong commitment to PWB’s work and values.

Lead by example

The values Golem references are based on CEO Danielle De Silva’s own principles. De Silva founded PWB in 2009, after travelling through India and seeing the impact her photography had on the organizations in the area.

From there, the organization grew from working with only a few NGOs to today taking on 50 projects and sending out more than 100 photographers per year, on top of its new magazine and video projects.

This growth matches the way that De Silva’s professional relationships tend to organically expand as well. One long-term professional relationship the organization has maintained came about after De Silva did a photo series on the Orangutan Information Centre in Sumatra, Indonesia.

After covering the organization, which rehabilitates and rehouses orangutans, De Silva was so inspired that she, along with a group of others, founded the Sumatran Wildlife Sanctuary. The staff of PWB continue to visit and fundraise for the sanctuary every year since.

And, though it is internationally focused, PWB is still in tune with Canadian movements. It recently begun exhibiting an “Indigenous Rising” portrait series and plans a feature-length documentary on the topic in the coming year.

De Silva makes sure to align every aspect of the company with its core value of working to achieve sustainable development goals. The organization does this through social media and merchandise tailored to deliver the message, as well as by coming together around national holidays like International Women’s Day. Though PWB sometimes works with politically affiliated organizations, it avoids any political affiliations of its own.

Aside from De Silva’s activism efforts, she is a well-known photographer, whose images have appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Vogue, and The Economist, and a lecturer for the Environmental Visual Communication program at Fleming College. De Silva has received many awards and in 2016, at the age of 29, was featured in Forbes’ 30 under 30 list. Despite the many accolades received, the staff at PWB are inspired by De Silva and feel that she is just as connected to the team as everyone else, even if she is sometimes out of the office on long trips.

Although Golem can’t share all their future plans, the organization does have some new initiatives in the pipeline, like a scholar’s program where PWB staff will teach NGO workers how to take photos, so they can produce their own media coverage.

“The next year’s going to be so exciting, I really do believe in our team to manifest all these exciting ideas and make this all happen,” Golem says. “Just watch out for us — we’re not going anywhere.”

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Alice Chen
Alice Chen is a young reporter with experience in news and magazine writing, photography, and digital content.

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