Paying it Forward
Professional photographer and social work researcher Salvador Armendariz, MSW ’11, is helping to fund education for youth in India
University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) alumnus Salvador Armendariz, MSW ’11, has a unique point of view. He sees the world through a social work lens, and also through a camera lens as he works as both a professional researcher and a professional photographer.
Armendariz is a research associate at GSSW’s Butler Institute for Families, where he has worked since 2011. There, he evaluates family-focused programs that help people overcome substance abuse and mental health challenges, improve child welfare practice and promote economic advancement for low-income communities. This work includes evaluation design, developing methods and measures, and collecting, analyzing, presenting and disseminating data. As a photographer, he captures pictures of GSSW people, programs and events (you can see his work throughout the GSSW website), explores the human and natural world, and shoots portraits.
Whether Armendariz is working as a researcher or a photographer, he says one thing is always in focus: social justice.
Armendariz documents protests and social movements to help spread the message about issues such as those faced by immigrants in the U.S. Browse his photography website and you will also find pictures of sweeping natural landscapes, buzzing city life and still life. But he also gets close to his subjects, capturing the unique beauty of the smallest creatures, and of people, too. He says his social work training has helped him connect with the people he photographs — to help his subjects overcome self-consciousness and feel at ease.
On assignments related to program work, such as with a child welfare agency, “Having social work knowledge helps me to know what kinds of things to look for and highlight, how to be sensitive to some of the issues or dynamics of the work, and to make sure I’m not exploiting people in how they’re represented in the imagery,” says Armendariz, who holds a BSW from Union College in Nebraska and an MA from the University of Denver Korbel School of International Studies.
A self-taught photographer, Armendariz got his start using a point-and-shoot camera on a trip to India, where he taught school in an orphanage. “I was just learning to compose a photo,” he recalls. “I was taking pictures of every little detail.”
When he returned to the U.S. and graduate school, he left the new hobby behind “because like any student, I was overwhelmed.” But it was being overwhelmed that led Armendariz back to photography as a form of self-care.
After graduating from GSSW, Armendariz wanted to do volunteer work but couldn’t find the time or energy. “Since photography doesn’t feel like work to me, it was a way to contribute without burning myself out,” says Armendariz, who donates his fees from family portraits to the school he once taught at in India. Some of his former students have gone on to attend college, funded by Armendariz’s Portraits for a Purpose project.
“Making it possible for those students to continue to pursue school if they wish, people did that for me,” says Armendariz, who has a passion for work in the international development and immigration arenas. “I was able to go to school in Nebraska because someone gave me money. I wanted to provide an opportunity for a kid like that.”