New York photographer Robert Klein says he has always been passionate about using his photography to help people and worthy causes. Working at the New York Times for 12 years as a photographer and photo editor further motivated him.
Says Klein, “My experience at the Times exposed me to so much of the best and the greatest in every aspect of life in America and the world. It was a wonderful window that expanded my outlook on so many things that I cannot calculate its significance. Creatively, I got to work with the top photographers of the day, including Peter Lundquist, Richard Avedon, even Annie Liebovitz. I was privileged to help with technique and mechanics with Annie. I also worked with the great fashion guru/street photographer Bill Cunningham.”
In the 1990s, when Klein left the Times to freelance, his pro bono work kicked into high gear. His projects ranged from helping charities and organizations to assisting new theatrical and film productions. He also did pro bono work for writers, actors, singers and filmmakers.
“I was exposed to great causes when covering them for the Times. So I wanted, in any way I could, to support such inspiring groups,” Klein explains. “Supporting them with my images was a logical and sometimes wonderfully gratifying first attempt to help. I’ve saved the letter I received from Eunice Kennedy Shriver after my photo of the first Special Olympics was prominently displayed in the Times. That photo brought great attention to the event.”
Among the other organizations for which he has raised money for or heightened awareness of is the River Fund in Queens and the Bronx, New York City.
Says Klein, “For eight years, I have helped feed needy people in New York City through the River Fund, an independent aid organization.
“I found the group while photographing volunteers from a professional organization I shoot photos for. I was so touched by the River Fund’s work that I have donated all of my photos of their efforts. Also, I stood on food lines serving their clients whenever possible, especially on Thanksgiving.”
New Theatrical & Film Productions
Moving from reportage to fashion and theatrical photography, Klein met many talented actors, musicians and models who had not yet attained the recognition he felt they deserved.
“I was moved to help these people get ahead,” he says. “As a father of a daughter, I became aware of how young women were often ‘preyed upon’ by photographers, producers, casting directors. I wanted to help prevent this from happening to the talented young women I met and worked for.”
Rob Klein also has been involved in the fight against AIDS since the late 1980s, when friends and neighbors died young from the disease. For almost 20 years, he has done all the principal photography for the annual awards dinner and other events for TAG (Treatment Action Group).
He additionally has provided photography for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. This organization does fundraisers with Broadway shows through campaigns each winter and spring. In 2015, he shot the principal photography for Cabaret. The sale of their calendar featuring Emma Stone and Alan Cumming raised more than $250,000.
“The Cabaret calendar was all volunteer—me and the performers,” recalls Klein. “Emma Stone left her boyfriend at the time, Andrew Garfield (Spider-Man), in London to rush here early to be part of the fundraising effort.”
Klein has met a diverse group of people through work and friends. One standout is Robin K Miller, a former prison-guard-turned-crusader against abusive prison conditions. For 20 years, Miller worked at Rikers Island, witnessing the abuse.
“I met Robin through publishing acquaintances and activist volunteers when she was struggling to publish a book on her experiences,” he says.
“I was so inspired I shot her book cover photo and photographed her promotional events. They included a book launch hosted by Norman Siegel, former director of the New York ACLU, at Judson Memorial Church this past April.”
In addition, Klein met actress/performer Erika Smith at the beginning of her varied career. “I began doing photography for her, but it evolved into a creative collaboration. I helped her produce two web series she wrote by getting videographers, locations, talent. Also, I photographed her creations and introduced her to the art of ‘impersonation.’ A pro bono, two-day shoot I did with Erika as Marilyn Monroe motivated three agencies to sign her. This created a new career for her in celebrity impersonation, which is going strong five years in.”
Moreover, when Klein met screenwriter/actress/model Holly Zuelle three years ago in New York, he photographed her for acting websites. “She is a brilliant screenwriter and storyteller. And she is uniquely beautiful and kind, despite the physical abuse she endured, particularly in Hollywood. Wanting to help her reinforce her creative talent, I worked with her on video trailers, writing scripts and providing still photography of her and her productions. I hear she is about to close a movie deal.”
Behind the Scenes
Klein’s approach to his pro bono work is to offer whatever help he can, using whatever resources he has. “I truly believe in the power of photography to communicate. It’s very fulfilling when my images show the good works people and groups are doing.”
Of the artists he’s been helping for more than 25 years, he says, “It’s a ‘creative high’ when I can further the career of a young talent. I was thrilled when the daughter of one of my oldest friends, an actress named Tess Gillis, was cast in a feature role in The Wolf of Wall Street because of my photos and efforts to help in the casting.”
As for his gear, for most shoots Klein brings two Nikon cameras, a flash and three lenses. The lenses include a moderate telephoto; he loves the AF-S DX Nikkor 18–140mm f/3.5–5.6G ED VR.
Social media play a significant role in sharing his pro bono images. He posts many of his projects on Instagram and Facebook in photo layouts to show the event, cause or production in progress. He also sends photos and commentary about newsworthy campaigns and performances to press contacts.
Concludes Klein, “I feel pro bono work has expanded my career and connected me with new clients and opportunities. More important, I feel more fulfilled by being able to help these good causes and wonderfully talented people, in whatever ways I have.”
For any photographer considering pro bono work, Rob Klein suggests: “Stay aware of your surroundings. Go to events, talks, exhibits about subjects you care about. Mingle. Then, when you’re able, offer assistance with your camera or other services. There are always needs and open doors for volunteers. So much need.”