Using Storytelling as a Catalyst for Change: An Interview with Sean Sheridan | npENGAGE

Story-Led Change: A Photojournalist’s Thoughts on the Power of Storytelling

By on May 7, 2015


Sean Sheridan

I was lucky enough to sit down with Sean Sheridan, photojournalist, author and speaker who has spent nearly two decades elevating people and brands through storytelling, to learn more about his focus on storytelling through imagery and how his work amplifies the cause-minded organizations he partners with. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Q: Tell us a little about the work you do. How did you become connected with the organizations that you work with today?

The short answer is I’m a photojournalist.

I go to places where there’s hardship and conflict and find stories of hope, change, and transformation.

All of this happens through the NGOs that I partner with. I got my start in the corporate world doing communications and storytelling, but I began to grow antsy with that work. It’s always been part of my nature to need to be where the action is, so I set out to start a business that would allow me to do that. I wanted to explore challenging places and become part of the response to critical issues. An early trip to Kenya with World Vision to photograph their hunger relief efforts really cemented my conviction in this work. The impact of that trip led me to pursue other opportunities with relief and development organizations, which is a path I’ve stayed on for the entirety of my career.

Incorporating Images for Impactful Storytelling

Q: How do you define story? How do you use your images to share stories?

To me, story is a first-person account—a true, real testimony that I have the privilege of sharing. It’s a window into where a person is in their life. It’s a very pure form of influence, sharing someone’s story. There’s a great trust and privilege in that, and I take that seriously. Images are a powerful way of sharing a story, but writing captions for the images is critical too. You have to recreate the story so people can see it, hear it—I wish people could even smell it!

When the story comes alive in as many ways as possible, people will always have a response.

Q: How do the organizations you work with use your photos? What are some of the most creative uses you’ve seen?

It’s always incredibly satisfying to see my photos being used by these organizations. Not everybody can be on the front lines, so there’s a strong need to use story to inform and engage others emotionally to rally support. I usually turn my work over to the NGOs for them to use however they need, so I’ve seen a huge variety of applications: Facebook posts, tweets with captions, mailings, annual reports, even gallery exhibits. I support any use of imagery that gets the images out there for people to react to. A single compelling image can spur people to create solutions that I, who captured the original image, could never have dreamed of. That’s why I’m so pleased that these groups are sharing images and stories as widely as possible—we can never know from the outset what impactful results will come from that sharing.

Using Story as a Catalyst for Change

Q: Share an example of a time that the reaction to one of the stories you shared was particularly powerful. What was it about the story that elicited that response?

I wasn’t in the room for this one, but I heard about it second-hand. There was a girl in Guatemala that we worked with who went by the pseudonym Griselda. She had an incredible story of surviving sexual violence. We were able to work with International Justice Mission to photograph her and share her story of rising above her difficult circumstances. The response to the images and her story was so powerful that they brought Griselda to the U.S. to speak at a gathering. I heard that there was an overwhelming emotional response to her story—how could there not be? That’s an example of how an image can be a catalyst for tremendous change.

It’s not just about the work, it’s about the story behind it, and recreating that story for others to respond to.

If you are able to feel the story enough to capture raw, unguarded human emotion in an image and recreate that response, people will connect with it.

Maintaining the Dignity of Vulnerable Subjects

Q: The position of storyteller is a powerful one. How do you maintain the dignity of your vulnerable subjects and ensure you’re sharing their stories in an empowering way?

I have a few steps that I always take to protect the experiences of the people I photograph. First, I rarely take the camera out until I’ve spent a good deal of quality time getting to know the people. Many of these cultures I enter into place a lot of value on sitting & sharing time with each other, on not being in a hurry. Second, I always ask permission before photographing someone. Working with NGOs is important in this regard, because the organizations already have relationships established with the people, which helps to build trust.

In these ways, the process really isn’t about the camera. It’s about sensing life in the midst of something broken. There’s a terrible beauty in times of difficulty, and there’s a great spirit there. It’s so important to respect the boundaries and protect the dignity of people in these challenging circumstances.

I promised myself early in my career that I wouldn’t manipulate these stories of extreme poverty or go for the “easy targets” of abject images. The human element that I think people respond to in my work comes from finding hope in the midst of turmoil, and it’s the empowering, dignified stories that create that connection for people on the other side of the world.

Navigating the Media Landscape

Q: The media landscape grows noisier by the day. Do you have advice for nonprofits that feel overwhelmed at the prospect of creating moving content that stands out from the fray?

So many organizations are working on limited budgets and are reluctant to spend money on story acquisition because they fear their donor base may not see the investment as important. But I can’t emphasize this enough: don’t underestimate the power of even a single image. We can never know how that image might resonate with supporters and continue to drive the mission forward until we put it out there. I’ve also seen amazing things happen when imagery is used to inspire staff. I recently visited Water Missions International’s headquarters in Charleston, South Carolina. They created a gallery of images of their work in the field. These compelling images give their staff a daily shot of adrenaline and encouragement, reminding them why their work is so important.

Looking Towards the Future

Q: Where do you see the future of storytelling heading as we move toward heavier reliance on digital media and communication?

Over my career, it’s been incredible to watch the audiences for stories just explode. Before an image might be published in an annual report for a limited number of readers, but now that same image can be tweeted on a limitless platform for anybody to see. For me, it’s been fun to see the audience become exponentially bigger over time. Knowing that these stories are going out there in such a big way and seeing connections being built with people who might not have known about the cause otherwise is really satisfying.

Q: Do you have any advice you’d like to share with nonprofit professionals?

Keep going. Don’t give up. I know firsthand that it’s easy to get lost in the magnitude of these intractable issues that we work around each day. But in the end, I would rather be on the side of good than cynicism, even though these issues won’t be solved in my lifetime. I see development and aid work across a wide spectrum in my work, and I can tell you with 100% confidence that there is tremendous change happening. It is worth it.

Sean Sheridan is a photojournalist, author and speaker who has spent nearly two decades elevating people and brands through storytelling. From revealing the dignity and power of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people to demystifying the most influential leaders and celebrities of our time, Sheridan is known for capturing the untold stories of transformation that inspire and unite mankind. His photojournalism has taken him to more than 60 countries, and his live shows and written works have captivated audiences within mainstream media, sports, politics, Fortune 500 companies and countless cause-minded organizations.

Photo Credit: Sean Sheridan for Compassion International


With the goal of educating, inspiring, and advancing the causes of socially-minded people, Erin works as Content Manager for the Blackbaud Institute. Her passion for empowering the nonprofit sector grew into a personal mission when she served as an AmeriCorps VISTA at an antipoverty nonprofit in Austin, Texas. From her early roles in higher education advancement to her current position building research publications at the Blackbaud Institute, Erin embraces opportunities to fuel changemakers through communications and education.

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