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BEST OF 2012, Charles O Cecil
Alexandria, VA
Project: Two weeks in remote northern India, photographing students and their teachers in two non-profit Islamic madrassas, for addition to photographer's stock collection about Islamic culture in the Third World.

© Charles O Cecil

© Charles O Cecil


During two weeks in northern India, Chuck Cecil had privileged access to two nonprofit Islamic madrassas, where he photographed imams and students of the Koran for his stock collection about Islamic culture in the Third World.

“My subjects knew I’ve worked in the Arab world for many years, speak Arabic and that I respect Islam,” Cecil says. “They welcomed me into their daily routine. At the end of my shoot, I provided photos to each madrassa for their own publicity and fund-raising activities. Neither school has funds to hire a professional photographer; they are fully dependent on contributions from their local communities.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Charles O. Cecil: I first began selling stock photos through an agency around 2000.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

CC: Since 2010.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

CC: Editorial, Third World cultures, especially Islamic culture. But I’ve begun to add Hindu and Buddhist subjects to my coverage as well.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

CC: Lightroom. I do about 90 percent of my image processing in Lightroom.

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

CC: My Canon 5D Mark II camera body, which most often carries a Canon 24-105mm lens.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers and their work?

CC: I don’t think I have any secrets others haven’t already discovered. But over a period of 36 years in the Foreign Service I’ve lived in ten countries — all Muslim — in the Arab World and in sub-Saharan Africa. So, I’m used to operating in foreign cultures, and that may have sharpened my powers of observation.

ASMP: In January 2012, you spent two weeks in Dehradun, India, photographing students and their teachers in two non-profit Islamic Madrassas as they learned to read and memorize the Koran. How and why did you choose this location and setting in which to photograph?

CC: In September 2011 I attended an ASMP program at American University at which Jamie Rose of Momenta Workshops spoke about her experience in working with non-profit organizations in the Middle East and Africa. When I learned that Momenta would be offering a workshop on dealing with non-profits in northern India, I decided it would be an excellent way to build my knowledge and credentials in this field.

ASMP: Although you speak some Arabic, you know no Hindi. Therefore, communication during your two weeks in the Madrassas was almost entirely by gesture. Given your background with the US Foreign Service, this is surely not the first time you’ve experienced this much of a language barrier. Have you developed a way to communicate complex ideas under such circumstances? If so, how? If not, please describe the depth of communication you are able achieve.

CC: During my Foreign Service career I was always able to do my work by speaking Arabic, French or Swahili, if not English. But it’s true that during my nine years in West Africa, working in former French colonies, I was often in villages where very few people spoke French and I did not know the local language. I don’t think many “complex” ideas get communicated under those circumstances, but what’s more important is to convey a genuine sense of interest and respect for the local people you’re visiting. I was always interested in how they cope with the daily challenges in their lives — what is their source of drinking water, what is their diet, what are the health problems their families face, how they cultivate their food — and I think if you are genuinely interested in these issues, other people can sense it.

It’s true that the imams, their students and I really did not share a common language, with the exception of the English teacher at the first of the two madrassas where I worked, but there were no opportunities for me to have conversations with her. Neither the imams nor the students spoke English. While the imams knew the Koran by heart, my conversational Arabic was better than theirs, so our ability to exchange information in Arabic was pretty limited.

ASMP: How did you gain the trust of the students and teachers in the madrassas? Were you able to decipher much about their perception of Americans and the United States? If so, what was it?

CC: The fact that I had lived many years in six different Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, and that I speak and read Arabic, seemed to give me a kind of “credential” in their eyes. They accepted it as proof of my knowledge of Islam and of my respect for their religion. Added to that was the simple fact that I had come to Dehradun. It’s not a tourist destination. There’s no Taj Mahal in Dehradun. I think they sensed that I had come because I wanted to learn about their part of India. But very important to my success was the fact that Momenta had a facilitator — a Hindu — in Dehradun who introduced me to the head imam on the first morning at each madrassa. During that introduction of 15 to 20 minutes, we covered a lot of basic ground, and I built on that during the rest of the week by being generally discreet, keeping a low profile, and being slow in my movements so as not to disrupt what was going on in the classroom or the mosque. I’m afraid I don’t know what they thought about the United States, but I hope I left them with the idea that there are Americans who know and respect their religion.

ASMP: At the end of the two weeks, you gave each madrassa a selection of photos to use for their own publicity and fundraising activities. Neither of the schools had funds to hire a professional photographer for such purposes; both were fully dependent on contributions from their local communities. Given your past service in foreign countries, have you often combined stock-oriented trips with pro-bono work?

CC: No, this is the first pro-bono work I’ve done for a foreign organization. In the States, for several different years I’ve contributed images to an annual calendar published and sold by former Peace Corps Volunteers living in Madison, Wisconsin, the proceeds of which they use to fund grassroots development projects in Third World countries. I like to see my images used to educate others about the rest of the world, especially the underdeveloped world, so I will be seeking other opportunities to do pro bono work in the future. The annual profit I earn from my photo work is rather small, so finding the right balance will be the trick. I don’t expect to get rich, but I also can’t be a non-profit myself for very long. Ideally, I’d like to shift the focus of my work toward a more photojournalistic approach and seek out opportunities to work for organizations engaged in development, public health or educational work abroad.

ASMP: What do most Americans misunderstand about Islamic countries and/or the Koran? How can we become better educated about these things?

CC: The way to get better educated is to meet Muslims and get to know them, either at home in our local communities or through travel abroad. The problem is that it’s the fundamentalists on the fringe that get most of the media attention, and this distorts the average American’s view of the Islamic world. There’s no doubt that fanatical fundamentalists can be dangerous, and that’s a problem the moderate Muslims are going to have to confront and deal with, primarily through education. Our challenge is to avoid thinking that the fanatical fringe is representative of the whole. It isn’t.

ASMP: You mention that the Indian Muslims you worked with during this trip were open and tolerant of you because of your genuine interest in their activities, and you’ve previously spent many years working throughout the Middle East. Can you tell us about any previous situations where the people you worked with were not so open and tolerant? In these kinds of situations, do you have specific strategies you rely on to diffuse tension so you can accomplish what needs to be done?

CC: A photographer I respect once said to me “The quickest way to get better pictures is to slow down.” That’s true when it comes to dealing with people of other cultures. Americans are often in a hurry; they want to get right to the point and then move on to the next objective. Overseas we need to move slowly and patiently, always allowing time to demonstrate an interest in the other person’s situation. It’s hard to fake it. It needs to be genuine. I’m quite prepared to sit down in a mosque, usually off to one side, and just wait for things to happen. If there’s an imam or a caretaker, I’ll ask permission first. This sometimes leads to a discussion about who I am, why I want to do this, and whether I’m a Muslim. (I’m not.) I usually explain that I want to make photos that will help me explain their culture to friends, family and readers in my country. I note that Muhammad said that Christians and Jews are also “people of the book”, meaning each faith has a written scripture and we share a belief in the same one God. This usually satisfies the person in charge. Once I’ve gotten that initial OK, I go about my work quietly and deliberately, always keeping a low profile so as not to disrupt whatever is going on, but feeling quite confident that my presence has been approved. I would act much the same way in a Hindu or Buddhist temple, though there are some Hindu temples where non-believers are simply not allowed in. It’s also true that I now encounter more conservative resistance to entering some mosques than I did in the ’70s and ’80s. Sometimes you just have to accept this and move on.

When I travel to a country, I always try to spend three weeks there, and I don’t over-schedule myself, so I can take advantage of new opportunities if they arise. As for working in the Arab World, speaking Arabic will always be a tremendous help because it shows the Arab that you have devoted time and effort to learning about his culture, which immediately establishes a bond of understanding. But many Arabs speak English, and not all Americans have time to learn Arabic. In that case, fall back on basic principles: show respect, don’t be pushy, and always recognize that you are the foreigner in somebody else’s country. In my Foreign Service career, when I found people who were not open and tolerant, it was almost always for political reasons, not for religious or cultural ones. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about this.

I also take care to recognize authority when someone tries to assert it. Sometimes exercising his authority is the most important thing in a low-level official’s life. In many Third World countries a personal connection is the best way to soften the exercise of authority. Seek favors rather than “rights.” Try to show an interest in the person and his weighty responsibilities. Often they will grant you a favor because you’ve been polite and recognized that they have the power to say no.

ASMP: In what capacities did you serve during your 36 years with the U.S. Foreign Service? Please briefly describe this career path and tell us about the arc of your experiences in representing the US government overseas.

CC: My last overseas assignment was as American ambassador to Niger, the world’s poorest Muslim country, where I served from 1996 to 99. I entered the Service in 1966. I served in five Arab countries — Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Tunisia — and four countries in sub-Saharan Africa: Tanzania (actually, on the island of Zanzibar), Mali, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), and Niger. I retired at the end of 2001 but I was called back in late 2006 to head up our embassy in Tripoli, Libya, when our chargĂ© d’affaires fell ill. (We had not yet sent an ambassador to Libya.) I wound up staying eight months in Libya. As it happened, all ten of those countries were Muslim, which primarily explains why I chose first to concentrate my photography on Islamic culture. My Foreign Service professional specialty was political reporting, meaning analyzing and reporting on political conditions in the country to which I was assigned. But Foreign Service Officers also spend a lot of time as advocates for our policies, trying to convince foreign governments to see things our way and to cooperate with us on various international issues. As I rose into management positions, I paid more attention to our economic assistance programs, our public information programs (including cultural exchange), and the operation of the Peace Corps. So I spent my life engaged in cross-cultural communication in pursuit of our national interests. There was also a period of four years in Washington when I worked on international environmental affairs. That was a tremendous education and sensitized me to environmental issues wherever I travel. I see my photography as a continuation of my cross-cultural communication.

ASMP: You’ve spent your adult life exploring and aiding foreign countries through a number of different avenues. What inspired you to first get involved with other cultures? Do you feel that you have made a difference?

CC: My stepfather was in the Air Force, and when I was a teenager he was assigned to Germany for three years. That planted the seed of interest in foreign cultures and languages. I learned German, rode my bike around western and northern Europe, staying in youth hostels. I enjoyed learning about other peoples’ ways of life and how they express themselves in their languages. I studied political science as an undergraduate (U.C. Berkeley) and international relations in graduate school. I spent a summer in Nigeria as an exchange student. It just all seemed to flow naturally. Did I make a difference? When I entered the Foreign Service, I wanted to solve the Arab-Israeli problem. I failed. But along the way I had opportunities to recommend people for month-long, professionally-focused visits to the United States, or for a year of university studies, sometimes two, and I’m sure those educational opportunities had a significant impact on their lives. Hopefully, my efforts also contributed from time to time to achieving other American objectives here and there. And my reporting and recommendations were fed into the hopper of information used by policymakers back in Washington.

ASMP: Was photography an avocation for you while working in the Foreign Service? If so, what aspects of this life were you most compelled to photograph and why?

CC: Photography was always my hobby; primarily so I could show family and friends back home something about the places we were living overseas. Photographing people was always the most interesting way for me to show physical characteristics, clothing and the pursuit of daily domestic chores. My wife comes from an Iowa farming family, and one of her brothers is a veterinarian. It was natural that I would photograph local agricultural activities and practices. U.S. economic assistance often focuses on agricultural development and public health needs, so that reinforced my interest in these areas. Art (the making of African masks, jewelry or textiles) and handicrafts (pottery, utensils, basketry) always caught my eye. I had many opportunities to see Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV) at work. Dollar per dollar, PCVs do more to earn friendship and respect for the United States than anything else we spend the government’s money on.

ASMP: In 2001, you left the Foreign Service to devote yourself to photography and writing full time. Was this change spurred in any way by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks? Where were you on that day? What was the local reaction?

CC: I had already made my decision to retire before the September 11 attacks. I was in my office at the State Department that day. When the first plane hit the twin tower, my wife called me and told me to find a TV set. Our office had one, but it wasn’t on. Then I saw the second plane hit the second tower. After a while, I walked back to my desk, which faced a window opening to the south. I saw black smoke rising in the distance and at first assumed there was either a fire or a plane crash at Washington National Airport, which sits a short distance south of the Pentagon. Within a few minutes of that, we were ordered to evacuate the building and go home. My retirement was effective ten weeks later. As information on the hijackers and their motivations emerged, this just reinforced my feeling that I needed to work in some way to improve mutual understanding between the U.S. and the Muslim world.

ASMP: What is your educational background in photography or otherwise? What training, if any, have you had in this medium? Please explain how you gained your skill set.

CC: In the early 90s, I began to think about photography as a possible second career. I happened to be in Washington then, and over a period of three years I took seven courses in photography at my local community college, going in the evenings after work. This taught me darkroom skills, lighting techniques, and improved my awareness of composition and story-telling techniques. I bought my first Adobe Photoshop software in 2004 and have gone back to my community college for several software courses since then. I dropped film cold turkey in October 2006 before leaving for Libya, since I knew I couldn’t get 35mm color film developed in Tripoli. I bought a Canon EOS-30D and never looked back. In the last several years I’ve attended workshops offered by Art Wolfe, Wolfgang Kaehler, Tim Grey and Freeman Patterson, and I’m a great fan of David duChemin, all of whose books I have. Scott Kelby’s Lightroom 2 book is always within reach at my desk.

I also started learning Spanish so I could travel more easily in the Spanish-speaking world. After I took every Spanish course twice that my community college had to offer, I applied for undergraduate admission at George Mason University so I could enroll in a third-year course. I’ve also spent three weeks each in Spanish language schools in Oaxaca, Mexico and Antigua, Guatemala, timing these study periods to coincide with photo opportunities — Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca, and Semana Santa in Antigua.

ASMP: Photography involves many different facets: art, science, psychology, marketing, organization, community, business, and so on. What is the most challenging aspect of being a photographer for you?

CC: The most challenging is trying to process my images within a reasonable time after returning from a trip. I still need to improve my skills so I can work faster. I always have a large backlog awaiting attention.

ASMP: What is it that attracts you most to the two mediums of photography and writing? Do you find that you need both disciplines together in order to most fully express your ideas, thoughts and observations?

CC: I’ve always enjoyed writing, and did a lot of it during my Foreign Service career. I like to write the kinds of things that help people prepare themselves for a trip, to be sensitized to what they’re going to see, or to relate the new, upcoming experience to something that’s already familiar to them. When my photos can illustrate such writing, that’s the perfect combination for me. A good example would be my article Zanzibar in Cloves and Stone in the March/April 2011 issue of the bimonthly Saudi Aramco World.

ASMP: How long have you been a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW)? Please tell us about this organization and describe how it supports your writing career. Do you find membership in this organization to be beneficial to your photographic work?

CC: I joined SATW in April 2011 at the urging of a photographer-writer friend. It also welcomes travel photographers, though in both cases — writers or photographers — you have to have a certain number of publication credits to be able to join. In addition to writers and photographers, SATW consists of editors and publishers and public relations professionals. Its periodic meetings in the US and abroad bring all these people together — producers and consumers — to facilitate networking. Presentations and speakers provide professional development opportunities, much like those at ASMP meetings. I’ve met many very fine and well-known photographers in the organization and in less than a year and a half have attended meetings in three places in the world I’d never been to before — Pittsburgh, New Zealand, and Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Local tourist promotion boards welcome SATW members because they know meetings will generate a lot of publicity in the press.

ASMP: You now often travel on self-generated, stock-oriented trips. Are these trips funded by past licensing income or commercial assignments? How do you decide where to go next? How much research do you conduct before arranging a trip to a new destination?

CC: Most of my trips are self-funded, on spec. The Zanzibar trip mentioned above is an example of a hybrid. I had an assignment to write an article and a guarantee that it would be illustrated with my photos, but I paid my own expenses so I would retain all rights to the images after the article’s publication.

I try to anticipate trends. I went to Myanmar (Burma) last December because I knew that the country was beginning to relax the rigid internal controls it has applied for many years. I hoped this would lead to an increase in tourism, which, in turn, would result in guidebooks and other writers needing stock photos for their publications. I went to Cuba in December 2010 for much the same reason. But I also follow my own interests as they develop. I had wanted to begin getting to know India for some time, so the Dehradun non-profit workshop was a valuable opportunity (I added a third week on my own, visiting sites in the so-called “Golden Triangle” linking Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur). I’ll be going back. The preparation for each trip is one of the things I most enjoy. I try to read several books on history and culture, even novels, before going, always jotting down shooting ideas as they arise. But I’ll also respond to targets of opportunity. The SATW meeting in New Zealand last October was too good to pass up.

ASMP: Please tell us more about your image licensing services. Are any of your images available for licensing through traditional stock distributors or do you only license images directly through PhotoShelter? In regard to your direct sales, how many hours of work is required of you (outside of time spent shooting)?

CC: Alamy is my primary outlet, with AGE FotoStock and AgStock Images my second and third outlets. PhotoShelter is a useful hosting service for me and convenient as a platform to place images before sending a link to prospective buyers or editors, but in two years I’ve never had a sale conducted through the site. Occasionally, I have a sale direct to a textbook publisher who has found me in some way. Anthropology textbooks, middle-school geography textbooks and books dealing with Arab World topics sometimes use my material. These direct sales are more lucrative, naturally, but they’re time-consuming and have led me to not begrudge the 40 or 50 percent that the stock agencies take for processing the sales. However, the willingness of the stock agencies to give extensive rights for very low fees is an annoying trend and makes me wonder how long I can sustain my current rate of travel. Over the past several years, I’ve also had full-page images published six times in Condé Nast Traveler’s Room with a View feature (U.S., U.K. and Russian editions) after submitting the images on spec. I also pitch story ideas direct to magazines, but the response rate is very low.

ASMP: Do you gain most of your exposure through online vehicles? If so, what do you do to increase your online presence? Through trial and error, have you learned what does not aid increasing your online presence?

CC: Most of my exposure comes from buyers finding my images in the stock agencies’ collections. I try to apply good search engine optimization principles to my PhotoShelter galleries. I use Constant Contact to send out a monthly message with five photo samples and links to other images on my Web site. I edit the messages so that they’re targeted to three different categories of recipients — previous customers, potential future customers, and a third to photographic friends and colleagues, just to keep them up to date with what I’m doing. I’m in LinkedIn. I’ve thought about establishing a blog but haven’t done so yet. I should spend more time on marketing efforts, but when I sit down at my desk my default position is always to turn to Lightroom and process more images.

ASMP: How much post-production work is done to your images? Do you work with any dedicated staff or do you outsource any part of your business?

CC: So far I do it all myself. There may be a problem there….

I use Lightroom (80 to 90 percent), Photoshop (10 percent), occasionally augmented with Photomatix Pro, HDR Efex Pro, Color Efex Pro or Viveza. I often bracket exposures where I think HDR processing can achieve an appealing result without straying too far from a realistic look.

ASMP: In addition to photographing in Arab countries, you also have in-depth coverage of Africa and increasing coverage of selected Latin American destinations. Is it your aim to be able to provide photographs from all countries of the world? Is there anywhere you haven’t photographed yet that’s at the top of your shortlist?

CC: I’ve also begun to add certain Asian destinations to my coverage. India and Myanmar have been mentioned; Nepal and Cambodia are others currently in my collection though not all with the agencies yet. I’m always attracted by the practice of religion in other cultures, so I’m interested in building up my coverage of Hindu and Buddhist cultures in the future. Ghana and Senegal are two African countries rising up on my list of future places to go, and Malaysia is on my mind. I had to cancel visits to Syria and Yemen when their political situations erupted. Hopefully in a couple of years their situations will stabilize and I can go. I’ll have to leave the rest of the world to others.

ASMP: As noted above, your primary interests are photography and writing. Have you explored in the past, or do you have an interest to incorporate in the future, motion, video or other hybrid forms of imaging in your creative output or business offerings? Please share your thoughts on the future of visual media in its widest sense as well as the relationships between various components.

CC: I see the trend and haven’t decided yet how to respond to it. It’s pretty clear that there will be a continually growing demand for video materials as the information flow moves online and print publications lose market share. E-books are already significant alternatives to textbooks. Why would a still picture satisfy you when you can click on a link and see a 60-second video? Looks like I may have to go back to school again…. But I like to travel light and move about easily.

ASMP: How much time do you currently spend traveling internationally and how often are you home in Alexandria, Virginia? When there, do you feel restless or rejuvenated after all of your travels abroad?

CC: In the last nine months I’ve been to New Zealand, Cambodia/Myanmar, India, and the Yucatan, each for three weeks at a time except for the Yucatan (eight days). I find every trip refreshing and exciting. I like to get ready for it, and I like to digest it all when it’s over. The post-trip processing helps anchor what I’ve learned and helps me identify things I might do better next time. Two or three trips a year — of three weeks in length and with two to three weeks to prepare before each — is a pace I like. I like to choose my targets carefully and cover things in depth when I get there. This allows me enough flexibility to accept an interesting assignment here and there if one turns up. I’ll always be on the lookout for opportunities to document economic development activities, agribusiness, public health programs, educational programs, religious ceremonies or celebrations, or other activities that are important to the cultures that perform them. We need to work to reduce poverty in the world, to eliminate disease, improve health and foster education.

I like to work for a more peaceful and tolerant world. I’m not a fanatic about it. I just believe that the more we know and understand each other, our cultures and our values, the more likely we will get along. I hope my photography can add to other peoples’ knowledge and awareness of the world, and stimulate their desire to explore other cultures themselves and expand their own intellectual horizons. I also want to show that we in the United States are incredibly well off compared to the majority of people in the world, and that perhaps we should be a bit more generous in sharing our good fortune with those in need. If my images can play a role in any of this, that will be a great satisfaction.