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June 2008

The Compassionate Eye Foundation (CEF) is about to stage its latest initiative to help raise money for education schemes. Dan Synge talks to Canadian photographer and CEF founder Robert Kent about how it all started, and how he joined forces with Getty Images.

Few can seriously doubt the power and potential of the photographic image, but how many image-makers can truly claim to have empowered those less fortunate than themselves?

Vancouver-based Getty Images contributing photographer Robert Kent is one such person. Until a few years ago he was just another commercial shooter with bags of experience and an impressive list of clients from the travel and leisure industries to the business and banking sectors. His work was glamorous and lucrative and he enjoyed a lifestyle befitting his success. But still something was missing.

On returning from trips to South Africa and Cambodia in 2005, Kent had decided that enough was enough. "The penny dropped," he explains over the ‘phone from his Vancouver studio. "I'd been a successful stock photographer for over 10 years and realised I wasn't as fulfilled as I thought I was. It was time to make a difference.”

The immediate result of this realisation was the Compassionate Eye Foundation (CEF), which was initially financed almost entirely by Kent. In those early days, a charity dinner at his home raised some $2,000 (Can) and friends and colleagues chipped in with what they could. But to keep the Foundation going (by now he was financing a school building project in Guatemala), it was clear that another revenue stream was going to be needed.

As Kent's commercial stock photography work was licensed to Getty Images, he decided to set up a separate stock contract with the agency that would donate every royalty receipt to the charity. But what if other photographers could be persuaded to do likewise? That would really make a difference.

"For a photographer, using the value of your stock photography is a highly sustainable method of giving to charitable causes,” he continues. "The best thing about it is that an image can have a life span of up to seven years earning anything between $100 to $5,000 and more. It was also an example of artists and their agents collaborating for a better cause. “That's a rare thing these days!” says Kent, “It doesn't always have to be a difficult relationship.”

© Robert Kent

An example of the CEF stock photography for sale through the Getty Images site.

Getty Images’ vice president of creative imagery Andrew Saunders says of Kent’s initiative: “We were completely won over by his idea of using our normal business model to fund CEF’s good works. Our belief that images have the power to change the world shapes the way we give to our communities and our industry.”

Saunders explains Getty Images' role: “We were able to amplify CEF's efforts by inviting more Getty Images contributors to shoot for the charity and by engaging our art directors to help the photographers produce the most saleable imagery for our customers. We are also honoured to donate an additional share of each license fee to CEF to help further fund their projects."

In order to create a stir within the global creative community, Kent and his supporters organised a Summer Solstice Shoot on 21 June 2006. During this longest and lightest day in the northern hemisphere, a dozen Getty Images photographers donated over 200 pictures that were captured in a variety of locations including Thailand and New Mexico. And it wasn't just the people behind the lens that offered their services; models, lighting crews, hair stylists and make-up artists also donated their time.

At last year's event, more than 50 Getty Images’ contributing photographers and several of their art directors generated images that raised an impressive $24,000 in just one month. All the money raised was quickly absorbed by the Foundation's projects, which now include the funding of a women's group and an educational programme aimed at rural teenagers in poverty stricken north-west Guatemala.

"It was a magical day. A real buzz," recalls Kent. "At the end of the day, we all watched the images projected on a large wall outside my studio. It was wonderful to know that they would be helping to educate children and to realise the power of imagery to change the world." The pictures have now earned more than $100,000 in royalties for the Foundation – not bad considering their first month yielded just $200.

With the next Solstice fast approaching, Kent is gearing up for another long night. This time he is assisted by a number of Foundation 'chapter heads' including Chris Ryan from OJO Images (London), John Lund in San Francisco, Jonathan and Amy Ross in Seattle, and Jamie Grill in New York. "Over 100 photographers will be involved in this year’s shoot, and the images created will be seen in slide shows all over the world," Kent promises.

© Robert Kent

Robert Kent (back, centre) with some of the CEF team and workers from the school the Foundation helps to fund in Tuixoquel, Guatemala.

Understandably, Kent is pleased with progress so far. This year, CEF have helped set up an arts project, including a basic photography course, for disadvantaged school children in Cape Town and a new agro-forestry project in Guatemala that teaches locals how to grow new crops. The first seeds went into the ground in last month.

Ultimately, however, Kent hopes that CEF grows from a worthy non-profit organisation to a multi-million dollar global foundation. “We have the potential to open hundreds of schools and currently have people working on the ground all around the world," he says referring to partners such as Alianza, a Guatemala-based NGO, and Education Without Borders, who work with disadvantaged children in South Africa. "I'm obsessed by this," he says, "and luckily I have some very loyal clients in the commercial world who allow me to spend so much time on it.”

His collaboration with Getty Images also looks like a match made in heaven. “I have never heard of a company putting so many of its resources into one of its artists. I feel like I've jumped into the boardroom with people at the highest level.”

© Robert Kent

Children from the school in Tuixoquel, Guatemala where CEF funded the building of classrooms.

From talking to him briefly, you get the impression that he has uncovered a simple yet powerful concept that, if adopted by more creatives, could change the world immeasurably. It's an idea that he is keen to share. "We could be witnessing an exciting cultural shift and a change in the way we view intellectual property rights," he enthuses further. "This could also be adopted by musicians or actors; imagine a songwriter dedicating their song's rights to charity or the entire cast of ‘Ocean's 13’ handing over their fee? I believe this might be the beginning of a new era for creative people. This is the reason why I am a photographer."

See the ‘Showcase’ with this article for more examples of the CEF stock photography for sale through the Getty Images website.