Mercy Corps' Photo Specialist shares workflow tips

June 8, 2011


NetXposure Q&A: Phil Ottum


We sit down with Phil Ottum, Photography Specialist at Mercy Corps about his process for building and managing the organization's central image library, planning for growth, and tips for streamlining workflow for his team of global programmers, photographers and field reps.

  What do you do at Mercy Corps?

I’m a photography specialist at Mercy Corps, a non-profit organization helping people turn crisis situations into opportunities. I have a degree in photography and have also taught.  I’m old school and started as a volunteer at Mercy Corps prior to signing on as an employee.  The reason I was brought on was because Jennifer Dillan, our Senior Manager of Creative Services, had always dreamed of having a person in my position managing a photo library.  When she got the funding, she hired me.

 Why was the full image library important?

Photos are the lifeblood of Mercy Corps.  We rely on them for everything we do in communications, marketing and fundraising. We have nearly 4,000 employees in 38 countries, working with people all over the world.  We use pictures to communicate the greatest needs and where we’re helping, using the pictures in printed materials, websites, proposals and more. For example, Mercy Corps issues daily fact sheets about hot spots like Libya and Japan. We send out updates and that means pairing images with updates.  Photos are the only way to show people what is actually happening.

It was important that we have a robust DAM solution like NetXposure, which is powerful enough to house our library, but also easy enough for our field offices to interact with the software directly so they can manage it themselves.

  What was your process for building and managing your library?

One of the most unique things about my job is that there are 66,000 images in the library, and I’ve touched every one.  I know the photographer of virtually every image.  Before NetX, we were using an image library that was donated to us.  It was okay for something that was free, but when we got funding we invested in NetX, because it was superior software [and could scale].

When we started out, I knew my needs weren’t just about planning for today, but also looking at the future needs.   I had to figure out how to catalog the images in anticipation of the growth of the organization and demand for photos.

Using NetX, I created a system that could be very specific.  There is built-in logic for Mercy Corps --- we’re in 42 countries and so you start by the regions, the year the photos were taken, etc.   I started out naming them based on simple taxonomy.  Then, using the built in XMP Sync feature, we automatically extract XMP data from images and map it to our own database fields for searching and categorization. This has minimized the effort required to ingest and catalog digital images, and made it easy to create sophisticated metadata.

It took me a while to figure out what made sense to have as a tag word in addition to the obvious stuff like “child,” “animal” or anything like that. But then we got more sophisticated.  Our Creative Manager likes the word “atmospheric.”  She’ll say to a designer “I just really want something atmospheric.”  For us, it’s an image that evokes a mood, an essence, a feeling or sense of place. It’s an image that makes you feel otherworldly. Now my designers can search and filter images that are “atmospheric.”

 What is your editorial process?

First, anything that is out of focus or I that find unusable or repetitious is automatically out.  But within the library I use two tag words that are helpful for search:  “superior” and the other is “brand.”  For example, of the 66,000 image repository, about 8,000 have the designation “superior” and among those there is a subgroup called “brand” to designate images that are representative of our Mercy Corps brand and mission.  Brand photos are what you see in our action center, in our brochures, in our pictures on display.  Photos I deem “our brand” would be not so much happy as resolute, not so much light in your eyes as determination in your eyes.  If it’s too smiley, it’s not our brand.  It’s a subtle difference.  I interpret the way I can.  But the reality is that superior is a good search term, so superior could be child portraits, or countries. That gives you a nice clean search, which is key.

All of these photos are being managed by NetX and they are constantly pulling images all the time.  Everything has to be done quickly here. We find out we have a communications brief going out the next day in response to an incident and you have to find the photo’s immediately.

 Describe the workflow for gathering images?

First, we have 2 primary contributor groups, hired photographers and internal staff. With hired photographers, we only conduct 4-6 trips per year so we don’t have to go out there all the time, but each trip will produce 500 – 700 images.  The photographers are required to capture the basic metadata.  I then get them and tag, check their metadata where necessary, rename any with our standard naming convention. With some exceptions all the images are named under the same convention in the DAMs when I set them up.  For example, “This photo is Gaza – 2005 – G.cook .001.”

In addition, we have staff members submit photographs and they’ll upload them. I look for staff members who show great promise in their photographic skills.  For example, a staff member once told me “check out Jenny’s skills.”  I did and she was terrific.  So, I immediately enlist the help of staff members showing great talent, and show them how to upload images into the DAM.

  What were some unexpected benefits?

We recently moved to a new building and it’s been in this venue that we’ve been able to demonstrate our amazing library.  The public viewing and positive reaction to the collection and the growth of the library with historical and new images has been magical for the photography program.  It used to be very difficult to help people understand how important the photographs were because most of them are the programmers and they want to get the programs done, but the reality is that these images inspire people to get things done.

In the early days people would say “can you get me a picture of x,y and z?” More and more I’m seeing images pop up on our publications that other people have found themselves.  I love that because that is the whole point – empowering people to find their own images.  The more people who want to do it themselves, the more gratifying.

 What is your favorite photo?

My favorite photo of is the one by Thatcher Cook of the woman in Uganda near reception. It is a beautifulMercy Corps brand photograph. It’s optimistic, forward-looking and the look says “if you give me the tools I can change my life.”  It’s about inner strength.

Another photo we used as a poster was of a child in India and the caption said “Victim or Future Leader?”  Mercy Corps is in the business of changing lives through economic development, creating opportunity, and helping people, develop livelihoods.  The average person thinks of Mercy Corps in the sense that we give food and relief during emergencies, which we do, but we’re in the business of changing lives through economic development and the development of people’s potential.  That’s the meat of the work.  It just so happens when there are emergencies we also step in and help there.

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