Extraordinary Photographers: CoH’s Most Powerful Volunteers

It’s impossible to deny the power of photography for an NGO like Classroom of Hope. Our photos and videos highlight our kids, our schools, and our story. They pull at your heartstrings, make you smile, and make you think. The stories they tell describe who we are and epitomise why we do what we do. They are central in our fundraising efforts, our impact reports, and our ability to build new partnerships.

What you may not know is that all of Classroom of Hope’s photos and videos are taken by volunteers! As an NGO, we are incredibly lucky to have professionals who have been willing to donate their time and prodigious skills to our cause. It’s time to give a shout-out to a few of these amazing photographers and videographers!

To give each the attention they deserve, we’ve broken this into two posts. We want to start with the three legends who have been with us since the beginning. These talented cameramen helped to launch CoH and make it possible for us to grow into what we are today! 

Meet Our Valiant Videographer

Rakhal Heijtel

Rakhal Heijtel’s work for Classroom of Hope is perhaps one of the best known creative pieces we have! Rakhal and his business partner Ruurd Vulink are the artists behind the video that tells Classroom of Hope’s origin story: “Anything Can Start From a Thought.” 

“Anything Can Start From a Thought” by Matemade

Rakhal and Duncan first met back in 2010. Rakhal was backpacking through Australia and Indonesia when he met Duncan at Balangan Beach, Bali.

“Although we had an age gap, there was a super strong connection between us. We both stayed at the Ketut Guesthouse for nearly two months and surfed, talked, played chess all day long.”

During his travels, Rakhal had begun to consider a career in filming. That dream became a reality when he returned to Amsterdam. Upon his return, he met Ruurd Vulink, a “true film artist with an incredible talent for creative concepts and post-production.” Just a couple of years later, Rakhal and Ruurd had founded their own creative company, Matemade.

That was around the same time that Classroom of Hope had grown from a thought into reality. Duncan and Rakhal had stayed connected even during their years apart. When Duncan told Rakhal about CoH and wanted to tell our story to donors, Rakhal offered his help. In 2013, he joined Duncan, Nicola, and Racky on a trip to Cambodia.

What made you willing to volunteer as a videographer for Classroom of Hope?

“To be part of a group of very motivated people that truly wanted to make a difference made me feel very enthusiastic. I had made many storytelling ads for commercial brands, but this was a different league. I had never truly experienced the power of ads before the Classroom of Hope project. To me, there is no better feeling than nailing a shot or a story knowing that it can impact others and actually help a community.”

Rakhal’s work during that trip (and Ruurd’s editing back in Amsterdam) came together in CoH’s first campaign video. This powerful telling of our story helped launch us into a whole new level of visibility and impact. 

Since then, Matemade has taken off as a high-end creative film company. Even so, they’ve never stopped focusing on meaningful relationships and their tight-knit community.

Rakhal’s Brand as a Videographer

“Matemade is independent, proudly and deliberately small. Truthfully, the only things we want to be big are your ideas, which we are never willing to compromise upon. That may mean destroying another camera drone on behalf of that perfect shot, or eating bananas exclusively for three days somewhere on an island still undiscovered by Google. Because ultimately, it’s not about how many desks we have here, it’s what goes in front of the camera.”

See More of Rakhal’s work below!

Matemade Website

Matemade Videos 

Matemade Instagram

Matemade Facebook

Meet our Phenomenal Photographers

Simon Elwell

Simon Elwell was the first photographer to come into the field with Classroom of Hope. Our founder, Duncan, grew up with Simon’s wife Anya in South Africa. Serendipitously, Simon and Anya relocated to Thailand around the same time that Duncan founded CoH in Cambodia. While in Bangkok, Simon began exploring his love for photography and asked if Classroom of Hope could use a field photographer. In 2013, he joined Duncan and Nicola on a trip to Battambang, Cambodia to inaugurate three new schools. 

Photo by Simon Elwell

“This was a massive turning point for me. My eyes were opened to the education crisis – and to the amazing kids who seemed to want nothing more in life than to go to school and learn. Through my lens, I could see the hopes and dreams on their faces as they sat in new classrooms and fresh uniforms. I realised that I could use my passion for photography to ‘give a little back.’ The images I captured were being used to drive fundraising and support donor reports.”

Photo by Simon Elwell

Since then, Simon has been on four more trips with Classroom of Hope. He has been back to Battambang twice more, to Rwanda once, and most recently, to Myanmar. 

What made you willing to volunteer as a photographer for Classroom of Hope?

“The first trip was all about new opportunities for photography and the chance for an adventure. After watching Duncan, Nicola and the rest of the team operating in the field, things changed. When I came home and shared the images with my 2 yr old daughter and answered her questions about why the kids all had muddy feet, or why their classrooms had no windows… Corny as it seems, I ‘saw the light’. I realised that as long as I could afford to help, I would always make myself available to support this amazing effort whenever possible.”

Photo by Simon Elwell

Simon’s Brand as a Field Photographer

Simon’s photography represents people’s genuine nature. His main focus professionally is on portrait photography. However, he also has a talent for travel photography and spends a lot of time traveling to interesting places! 

See more of Simon’s Work Below! 

Simon’s Website

Simon’s Instagram

Simon’s Facebook

Geoff Bartlett

IT Director… Amazewall Fundraiser… and Field Photographer! Is there anything Geoff Bartlett can’t do? We found this multi-talented supporter (and lifelong friend) when Geoff and Duncan met in the corporate world back in 2013.

Geoff remembers Duncan as “this oddball business analyst. He stood out… generally making it a better place to be.” Geoff was working as an IT director at the time but was looking for something different.

“I was reaching the end of my endurance with my work and my tolerance for the distance between the companies I worked for and what I saw as my values. I wanted to do something that I could be proud of, but didn’t know what it was.”

When Duncan mentioned Classroom of Hope, it got Geoff’s attention. Geoff jumped at the chance to get involved and became CoH’s back-end IT person. That’s when he told Duncan about his interest in photography. 

“In December 2014, Duncan was booked to go to Rwanda to meet a local NGO and tour sites for potential school building projects. I don’t remember quite how I got myself on board, but he needed photographers and I had a camera. I was on my first trip with CoH! This was a life-changing moment. After spending a hectic week in Rwanda with Duncan, Nic, and Simon (Elwell), I extended my stay for an extra week to photograph projects for the Rwandan NGO we were working with. I knew I had found my calling, what I wanted to do.”

Photo by Geoff Bartlett

Soon after, Geoff left his IT career and returned to Rwanda with his wife. He spent 6 months there, fulfilling his dream of becoming a documentary photographer. During this time, he visited and photographed Classroom of Hope’s Nyamatete and Gitumba projects. Since then, Geoff has also joined CoH as a field photographer for school openings on three separate trips to Cambodia. 

Photo by Geoff Bartlett

What made you willing to volunteer as a photographer for Classroom of Hope?

“In the years since starting with Classroom of Hope, I have worked with NGOs to tell the stories of the people they serve. So often I have met people who, with just a little help, have leapt ahead. It’s inspiring to see again and again how people overcome adversity. If I have one hope in telling stories through photography, it is to show that we are all in this together. If my luck holds, I might one day see that hope realised.”

Photo by Geoff Bartlett

Geoff’s Brand as a Field Photographer

Geoff is a humanitarian and a true photojournalist. He is a story-teller, approaching his work with sensitivity and passion.

See more of Geoff’s Work Below! 

Geoff’s Website

Geoff’s Instagram

It’s hard to know where Classroom of Hope would be today without the generosity of these three extraordinary artists. Simon, Geoff, and Rakhal took a chance on Duncan and Nicola’s dream. By doing so, they allowed us to tell our story and grow from just “a thought” into what we are today. They are truly the backbone of this organisation, and we couldn’t be more grateful.

Check back soon to meet Shayna, Manu, and Mark – three incredible photographers and videographers who joined us more recently and helped to take Classroom of Hope to the next level!

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