This is New York: Erica McDonald, Photographer and Community Builder

February 15, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
Epoch Times Photo
Erica McDonald (Courtesy of Nancy Siesel)

NEW YORK—In the digital age, a lot of people are entering the world of photography, and the Internet is oversaturated with images and information.

Erica McDonald is like a sieve, sifting through it all and distilling what is helpful to the community of photojournalists and documentary photographers. She is at the same time creating a community through her online endeavor DEVELOP Photo.

Photographers spend a lot of their energy looking for funding, publishers, galleries, and valuable learning tools, explains McDonald.

“I want to help people find each other so they can connect with each other, be inspired by one another,” said McDonald.

She sorts through endless resources from a multitude of sources to pick out the gems. She has curated exhibitions, but attempting to curate something as massive as photojournalism itself is a horse of a different color.

“It’s not curating in a typical sense, choosing what I like,” says McDonald, “Instead, I choose what I hope reflects the needs of our community.” McDonald wants to give people the tools to help facilitate everything from making to distributing photographic work.

“Each photographer only has so much energy, and there is a limit to the number of important stories we can tell,” said McDonald. Instead of merely concentrating on stories she could tell in her lifetime, McDonald is using her energy to help all photographers tell their stories. “It’s my contribution beyond the photography I’m able to do as one person.”

When she got into photography professionally about five years ago, she found an online forum helpful. People gave her feedback, and she later did her best to help others.

“A problem with a live forum is that important information can be lost,” says McDonald, who realized people were answering the same questions over and over. She decided to make it stick on a website where the content is more controlled and boiled down to the most helpful morsels.

She hopes to have the main DEVELOP website running in a few months, but has been working in the meantime on one of its facets, DEVELOP Tube, which launched in May, 2011. She has spent countless hours screening YouTube and Vimeo, asking herself, “Is this somehow helpful or good?” taking the best clips related to photojournalism and fine art to form DEVELOP Tube.

She has also used her platform’s growing audience to promote humanitarian and environmental causes. She picks out projects from Kickstarter, a site that helps startups get funding through crowd-sourcing, and gives them some play on her front page.

For example, she featured Peter DiCampo’s Kickstarter project “Life Without Lights.” DiCampo used his camera to tell the story of Africans afflicted by energy poverty, which he presented at a U.N. summit on sustainable energy. McDonald sees a lot of photographers doing great things with their trade and wants to help while inspiring others to do the same.

In addition to working as a photographer on assignment, McDonald does consulting and teaches workshops while working toward a model where DEVELOP will partner with sponsors and accept donations. Once the fiscal support takes hold, she says she will give a percentage to animal welfare organizations.

She is doing her best to pay it forward—the photographers who have inspired her in the past had a similar passion for promoting the industry as a whole and community building.

She started out under the tutelage of esteemed photo dealer, Joe Folberg, at Vision Gallery in San Francisco. The gallery’s purpose was to promote the art he liked, with profit as a secondary consideration. And for a summer, she managed the small gallery at The Maine Photographic Workshops, (now The Maine Media Workshops) when she was “just a kid,” where great image makers from around the world often congregated.

“We would sit at these big, long tables and have the opportunity to get to know one another on a human level, beyond the business of the photography world,” recalled McDonald. “I think that did a lot to warm me to the idea of community in photography.”