A Great Image is not a Root Solution

March 10, 2018

Working in Athletic Creative Services during undergrad, I lived in an ecosystem of media relations, marketing, photography, design, print services, and athletics. I spent many hours working on media guides and season campaigns for various university athletic teams: brainstorming ideas, assisting at photo shoots, designing whatever was needed, and proofing and printing deliverables.

I often juggled a couple of work items, something new in the pipeline, and my studies. It was a beautiful blend of variety within a comfortable domain.

I felt like I was bringing ideas to life and my work was appreciated. I received several Citations of Excellence in Publications from CoSIDA, and I truly enjoyed working with my colleagues! Given the time I spent in that ecosystem, it makes sense why I saw the world through a compressed visual lens.

An introduction to something different

Around that time a friend invited me to join a forPEACE Service Learning Expedition to Cambodia. During the expedition I was introduced to Tabitha Cambodia, a Cambodian benevolent trust, which is similar to a U.S. nonprofit. Tabitha Cambodia works with the poorest of the poor to improve their health, living conditions, and lifestyle, as well as restore dignity to communities demoralized by the Khmer Rouge during the 70’s.

Their first initiative in 1994 was a savings program that families could enroll in to learn how to save and make decisions that would improve their family’s circumstances. For example navigating the decision to immediately buy an egg vs. saving to buy a chick that will lay eggs after 6 months. Emphasis was put on individuals choosing their purchases and path rather than taking an authoritative top-down approach.

Since 1994, Tabitha Cambodia’s scope has grown to address wider community needs. Current initiatives include building houses, wells, schools, and most recently the Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital for rural women who don’t have access to medical care.

Tabitha Cambodia’s financial stability is partially derived from cottage industry sales—silk being one of their largest cottage industries. While in Cambodia at Tabitha’s store in Phnom Penh, I was shown this silk catalog which sparked an idea.

Photo of the Tabitha Cambodia silk catalog cover and one of the spreads showing silk bags. 2010 Tabitha Cambodia Catalog

Applying what I knew

I wanted to contribute to this cause in a meaningful way. After seeing the catalog, I knew that I could help modernize it by adjusting the layout and adding larger product photos as well as including bag sizes and info about pockets. I was confident that improving the look, feel, and details would boost sales.

Once I proposed the idea and got buy-in, I quickly jumped to what I knew—arranging a photo shoot in Phnom Penh, recruiting others on the expedition to be models, measuring purses, shooting and editing photos, and coming up with a sequence and layout that showcased the items, plus a bonus rough plan to put the products online.

2010 Tabitha Cambodia Catalog Redesigned Tabitha Cambodia Catalog PDF

Looking back, I do think that the photos and catalog helped in some markets, but my approach was short-sighted in a couple of ways.

Even if a printed and web catalog increased demand, a reliable, efficient supply chain needed to be in place—which is tricky in a volunteer dependent charity trying to keep costs and taxes down and ensure fair local employee wages.
 Catalogs need to be updated, and not everyone has access to a computer or licensed software.


A professional lens can create a law-of-the-instrument bias. When possible, pause to consider the bigger ecosystem and reach out to locals and professionals from other disciplines for perspectives. When volunteering or working on short-term projects, keep in mind how something can succeed and continue after the allocated hours end.

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