When A Picture Is More Than Just A Picture: How to Organize Your Own Charity Photography Auction

Eric’s Note: I am pleased to feature this article by Colin Corneau, a Brandon, Manitoba based photojournalist and street photographer. A few months ago he organized a charity photography auction, and wanted to write this article to share his experiences. Also check out his past article on this blog on why he shoots street photography solo here

Colin: We all know the pleasure of creating a photograph that we really like, and the pleasure of one that other people like, too. But it’s not often that a photograph can reach the level of making a difference to other people – occasionally, a photojournalist will produce an image that inspires others to positive action or someone will make a photograph that alters how we all think about something.

Those photographs are few and far between though, and a lot is left up to chance. But there is a way that you can help your photographs hit that higher level – an auction whose proceeds go towards a charity.

I did just such a thing recently when I put 25 of my images from Nepal – made during a trip there in April 2012 – up for public bidding and channeled the proceeds towards an NGO (non-governmental organization) I encountered during my time there.

That experience was very rewarding, and it helped me learn a few points I’m going to pass on today to help you organize your own event.

1. Be as specific as possible

It’s not a coincidence I listed this one first. This is an important point, and one which will really make the difference between attracting the audience you need to succeed and falling short. First of all, who are you raising money for?

In my case, it was a charity (www.ecdcnepal.org) with a personal connection – I visited their operation in Nepal personally while in that country – that was easily understood by others back here in North America. After all, helping children in trouble is almost instantly translatable to most people.

In your case, it could be a food bank, saving a heritage building for a new use in the community, a program to help the unemployed, or something else. Whatever the cause you want to assist, make it as clear as possible. A good rule of thumb is, could you explain it in one sentence, or one line printed on a poster?
If something can be seen and grasped within 10 or 15 seconds by someone who knows nothing of the topic then you’ve got something that is much easier to convince others of.

2. Location, location, location

This, along with the other elements of the actual event itself, will go a long way to either assuring success or not. Knowing what kind of crowd – both in demographics and head count – will factor into this one. For example, if you’re trying to attract businesspeople and Chamber of Commerce types, then a punk bar or grungy warehouse won’t do you any favours. And putting a crowd of 50 into a hall meant for 200 will also convey an impression you don’t want, either.

Try find a place that is spacious, accessible and welcoming to as many types of people as possible. For example, my auction was held in the art gallery in my city – an open and bright space that had plenty of room but also electrical and internet connections for the equipment I used.
Your choice of venue will be made a lot easier by having as clear an idea as possible what you’re aiming to do (see previous point).

Don’t be shy about getting creative with your choice of location, though. A photo auction is a bit like an exhibition but just different enough that you can break out of the traditional norms of a gallery show. Try finding a location that can spark interest in your event – I once attended a showing by the Canadian collective “PhotoSensitive“, displaying photographs of cancer survivors along the span of a historic iron railway bridge, converted to pedestrian use. As long as your basic logistical needs are met, you’re free to set your event wherever you can imagine.

3. Preparation

Underestimate this one at your peril! Give yourself plenty of time to not just produce the actual photographs – digital printing or traditional darkroom? – but the framing, as well. In my case, I hand-printed my black-and-white images in a traditional darkroom and had the colour images digitally printed by a lab. Both take time and you’d be wise to give yourself plenty of leeway for delays or setbacks along the way.

If you’re having your prints framed by a shop, they’ll appreciate having plenty of time to work carefully and be able to deal with any delays. I got my finished prints to the framers with about a month to spare – that gave them time to order in matte board (which was discounted, saving me some production costs) but also helped them do a quality job, as well.

You’re going to have enough details and worries to contend with, as it is — there’s no need to add another, entirely preventable, one to the list.

4. Getting The Word Out

Here’s an aspect of your auction you’ll want to put some real effort into, as well. After all, you can have the best photographs of your life, for a cause that would win a Nobel Peace Prize, but if no one knows about your efforts, you won’t raise much money for the cause.

Fortunately, this can be done on a tight budget. First of all, look around your community for any media outlets that feature free events listings — newspapers, radio, television or websites, most outlets will have something listing what’s going on for people looking for something to do. These listings are an easy way to get the word out. They’re there for the taking, so take them!

You might also want to invest the time in crafting a good ‘press release’. This is simply a notice sent to newsrooms and other media outlets to let them know what you’re doing. It can lead to interviews and is often a very effective way to get the attention you need. I had a short piece on my auction taped by a local television station, and had a lot of people comment to me afterwards that they’d seen it; this is exactly what you want when you’re trying to get people to attend your event.

Traditional methods such as posters are also a good idea, and you have some leeway in terms of costs. Obviously, high traffic areas in places that are frequented by the people you want to show up is a clear choice.

In my recent experience, I found social media and an online effort really paid off. I created a Facebook page (and got the word out early and often through Twitter as well) which garnered the most attention. The one proviso I’d include about Facebook is to not look at it as a definite sign of commitment, rather as a way to get the word out. It takes zero effort to click a mouse, and “liking” something is not the same as actual action!

I had the good fortune of having a friend who’s a terrific designer (@adriaansen) which led to me having a consistent visual theme running through my posters, invitations and accompanying website. Good design is a matter of skill, not necessarily expense, and never underestimate how professionally you can present your idea with the use of great design.

5. The event itself

Much like a wedding, you can plan for months but when the big event finally happens there’s not much you can do except just go through with it. Before that time comes, however, try to envision the actual auction the way one of your customers would see it — what will they see or hear when they walk in? How will they see your photographs up for auction? Will they have food or drink to help everyone mingle? Will you use a silent auction or use an actual auctioneer?

All of these questions have answers that dictate what sort of work you have to do in order to prepare. And the main consideration you should have in answering them is, “will this help make a quality event that helps my cause”

The auction I organized used a live auctioneer – I was very lucky to know a local company that was eager to lend a hand once they learned about the charity being assisted. There’s no question that a live auctioneer helps create more excitement and, in turn, helps loosen purse strings! If you can’t find an actual auctioneer, consider finding a volunteer who’s game or even a local celebrity. Once again, the limits are only your imagination.
I also provided food and wine, which necessitated a temporary government permit in my city. Remember the small details when making your final plans!

A successful auction essentially boils down to details — predicting and planning for those details will help ensure your event is a success, so long as you have a strong, clear central idea. Just like creating a work of art, or writing an article, it’s that initial spark that is most important. Good luck!

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Have you ever held a photo charity or auction? If so, share your experiences and tips in the comments below! 

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