Virtual Photo Walks: An Online Trip along the World's Most Scenic Spots

One day, John Butterill had what he calls "a light bulb moment." Out for a walk in his hometown with a camera, he had an idea that would eventually bring the world into the homes and hospital rooms of veterans, sick children, the elderly and others. It was on that day that Virtual Photo Walks was born. 

Virtual Photo Walks is a nonprofit organization that, according to its tagline, walks the walks for those who can’t. By mobilizing an army of virtual storytellers across the world, Butterill enables those who cannot visit, travel, hike or explore to do so through surrogate photographers and videographers. 

The process is straightforward: volunteer photographers, connecting through wireless, interact in real time with the person requesting the photo walk. The person who has requested the photo walk can direct the photographer to zoom in, slow down or turn around, all while soaking in the sights and sounds of breathtaking areas that are often thousands of miles away from their homes, hospital rooms, or deployment zones. The videos are then uploaded to YouTube for all to see. 

“What this does is provide real-time interactive engagement to people who might not be able to see their own front lawn but are seeing things across the world,” Butterill said.  “That is the thing that makes us different from nature or photography magazines. We are able to put the person in the moment and give them the freedom to explore the world.” 

As a professional photographer, Butterill understood immediately the power and convenience that this idea would bring. “Photographers are pretty privileged. We get to see so many cool things and get paid well for it,” Butterill said. “The people requesting the virtual photo walks don’t get out to see anything. To share that was our motivation.”

Butterill films private walks on request and shares public walks online that can be viewed by anyone looking for a break from their day. 

So far, he and his team of global photographers have filmed nearly two hundred walks, crossing off items on the bucket lists of those they help. From a nighttime tour of Rome, to a relaxing ride canoeing on Balsalm Lake in Ontario, Canada to a bird’s-eye view of Paris from the Eiffel Tower, the videos cover the full gamut. Butterill recalls the first virtual walk he did for a friend’s son who had Crohn’s Colitis. He took him on a virtual walk to Canada to feed the birds. 

“After the walk, he wrote an emotional post describing the photo walk and how beneficial it was for his son,” Butterill said. “I remember reading it and thinking ‘Oh my!’  Then I realized, if we can help one, we could help many.” 

“Through Virtual Photo Walks, a soldier could take a friend to get a virtual beer, or someone could go on a dog walk,” Butterill said. “There are always kids too sick to go to camp. Through this, we can take them to camp with their friends and have them explore the campground and hike or canoe. We are able to connect the kids left behind with the ones who are there.” 

“The possibilities are endless,” he said. “But financial resources are limited. Financial donations are always needed to keep the program going.” Butterill said that companies like Verizon Wireless donate wireless hotspots to keep photographers connected.  Other companies have donated cameras, tripods, and other accessories, and the photographers donate their time. 

But keeping the operation running also takes financial donations. Now that Virtual Photo Walks has been established as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable organization, Butterill is hoping that others will help him bring the world to those who can’t get out to explore.  For more information, or to make a donation, visit Virtual Photo Walks.