Grants and Awards 101
What follows is a two-part essay on grants and awards, the first dealing with how to find them and some general principles about applying, and the second with tips on preparing your submission, along with a look at three exemplary grant proposals. If copied and pasted into a Word file on your computer, the Table of Contents ought to format automatically so as to give correct page references, but if not you can easily fix this yourself.
Table of Contents
Begin with a Broadly Defined Search 2
A Working Strategy 3
Where to Find the Grants 6
Writing the Grant 7
Some Basic Writing Tips 8
The Artist Statement 10
Three Exemplary Proposals 11
The Narrative Autobiography 16
Letters of Reference 17
Editing the Portfolio 17
In a recent documentary about photojournalists, the philosophically inclined Luc de la Haye was asked what he would do if the media didn’t support his work. To which Luc emphatically replied that it didn’t matter, and that his colleague Gilles Peress had shown him that alternative sources of funding existed which could be exploited to pay for continued work and, importantly, preserve one’s independence. Although it is easier for a photographer of Gilles Peress’s stature to secure such funding, his strategy is open to all of us, and in fact is one very significant means of building one’s reputation. Beyond that, there is no doubt that the money is a huge impetus to new work, and the release it brings from the daily grind has power enough to inspire rolls and rolls (or files and files) of imaginative imagery. At the very least, a sizable grant can buy you independence, and that sometimes leads to imaginative freedom. Grants are usually reserved for long term projects, photographic essays with the power to endure. Let me just mention a few: Robert Frank’s Americans, Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh project, Garry Winogrand’s street work – all funded by Guggenheim grants and all remembered today for the extraordinary documents that they are. Get the picture? We are not talking about light Feature work here.
In addition to the usual photojournalist awards out there (the World Press, POY), in which a panel of judges survey the work done by photojournalists over the course of the year and decide solely on the basis of the imagery and the conventions of the media, there are different types of awards and grants that allow you, the photographer, to exercise a little more control over the material and present an IDEA to the panel, thus allowing you to create an entire package which is wholly your own. Many but not all of these awards are constrained by a particular theme: the Oskar Barnack Prize asks you to submit an essay that expresses “man’s relation to his environment”; while the Alexia Foundation wants a proposal that concerns “world peace”; the Eugene Smith prize is awarded to work that is “humanistically driven” (which, let’s face it, is pretty broad); and The Open Society looks for work that deals with the democratic values of an open society. Now you may be working on an essay and decide, rather too hastily, that your work doesn’t fit the requested theme – but are you so sure? It all depends on how you write it up.
Begin with a Broadly Defined Search
In order to search for grants, one should start out rather broadly and look not just for photo grants but also any that might somehow be related to your themes, your geographic area, or even your ethnic or sexual identity. Some links will be given below, but here I wish to adumbrate some general principles.
I once found a grant from the Swedish government for Americans of Swedish descent – with my name, I was obviously a legitimate applicant! It had nothing to do with my topic or my discipline, but I found it because I did a broad search for grants at the beginning instead of limiting myself to the obvious themes. If you think about your project or subject matter in the broadest manner, you may discover a variety of means of “marketing” it. One thing I learned from watching the career of Sebastião Salgado is that a personal project will possibly contain many different types of photography and theme, each of which can be disseminated in different ways. Some of it will be publishable in news magazines; some of it will be sellable as art in a gallery; some of it might be used by an NGO to further its cause. As far as grants go, you might discover that while one part of your project has a conventionally defined photojournalistic theme, and thus might garner attention from the World Press, another part might be more anthropological in nature, or historical, or cultural, and thus might attract funding from an academic institution, and arts organization, or a think tank. My own project divides up in this manner: while one element deals with the humanitarian crisis of the sugar cane workers, and thus comprises a legitimate journalistic theme, other elements deal with themes that do not interest the media, but still qualify for funding from other sources.
Thus you ought to think about the awarding bodies in the broadest manner as well, which needn’t be photographic institutions: they can be academic groups, arts foundations, grassroots political groups, or even corporate bodies. There are active corporate photographic enterprises, such as the prize offered by Citibank, but there is nothing to stop you from taking the initiative, targeting the right company, and then, the right person in that company, and writing up a proposal that might interest them. The proposal should be specific, and should show some knowledge of the company and the benefits of the project to the company. Some corporate entities will donate materials to you: Kodak supposedly donates film and chemistry, though I have heard that many proposals end up disappearing in a black hole. Epson will donate equipment to the right sort of endeavor, so they might help you with printers and scanners and other items, should you come up with a convincing argument for their use. Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t really do much community outreach: they will tell you to call their “community involvement” line, where you will be informed by a recorded message that Apple doesn’t get involved in the community, other than to offer a mere ten percent discount to members of various educational institutions.
Another source is the good old non-governmental organization, which can range from some small local group to something as big as UNICEF, CARE, WPF or UNHCR. For many of us the acronym NGO conjures up Medecins sans Frontières and not much else, but the list of NGOs is long and varied, and it may be that while everyone is knocking on the borderless doctors’ door, you might more profitably spend your time courting a smaller organization directly related to your particular themes and which, though limited in their resources, might eventually lead you to bigger things. Moreover, an NGO can do more than open up a field of activity for you or provide some financing: they can write you the all important letter of reference when it comes to applying for grants, many of which require such letters to guarantee your reliability and work ethic, and this can be the hardest part of putting together a grant proposal, particularly if, like me, you don’t network much. One word of warning, however: there is a tendency now to think that once you align yourself with an NGO, you are set, and nothing could be further from the truth. My own experience has taught me that NGOs can sometimes be useful logistically, but financially they are less so.
A Working Strategy
So what is the practical strategy then? First of all, applying to foundations is hard work, and for some photographers, whose verbal skills are not up to their visual skills, this work is worse than having to spool and process a hundred rolls of film in the lab. They dread the necessity of having to express their ideas in words, which refuse to cooperate with their lofty dreams of great journalism. I will admit, this is a serious obstacle. Many foundations, such as Alexia or Eugene Smith, make it clear that the written proposal is the most important element of the application. Ernesto Bazan once divulged in an interview that he applied something like four times to the Eugene Smith grant, rewriting the proposal in order to get it just right. But there are advantages to this kind of rigor. Just let me emphasize in passing that patience and persistence usually pay off, and it is not a bad thing to be forced to keep working on a project until it is perfect, instead of hastily releasing your offspring on the world and finding that it doesn’t fly. Everything has its season, and so does your photographic project. The ripeness is all.
To be effective, you should have an annual calendar in which you keep track of the deadlines for upcoming awards and grants, and strive to meet those deadlines with the same punctiliousness with which you meet your editor’s deadlines. The process of applying for grants should be an integral part of your modus operandi. You can start by making a list of the usual grants and awards. Begin with the obvious ones:
January 16: World Press Photo
January 30: John Faber Award/Robt Capa/Olivier Rebbot (Overseas Press Club)
January 31: Oskar Barnack Award/Leica Medal of Excellence
January 31: Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award (http://www.rfkmemorial.org/journ_award/index.htm)
January 31: Dorothea Lange/Paul Taylor Prize (http://cds.aas.duke.edu/l-t/index.html)
February 1: Alexia Foundation (http://www.alexiafoundation.org)
March 15: Visa Pour L’Image (exhibits deadline)
June 15: Grand Prix CARE International du Reportage Humanitaire
June 15: Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography
June 21: London Photographic Awards
July 15: Eugene Smith
July 31: Kodak Hasselblad Open International Photo Challenge
October 1: Alicia Patterson Foundation
October 1: New York Foundation of the Arts
October 1: Guggenheim (US competition)
October 3: Golden Light Awards (http://www.theworkshops.com/geninfo/goldenlight_rules.asp)
October 31: Aaron Siskind Foundation
December 1: Guggenheim (Caribbean/Latin American competition)
December 31: Puffin Foundation
There are several others of this caliber, and many more of a lesser caliber or ostensibly unrelated theme, all of which should be targeted, depending on the nature of your work. You should have a rough idea of what each organization requires so you can tailor the list to your specific characteristics. You cannot possibly apply to everything on your list, even if strictly abbreviated, and do justice to each application, but you should have a full list handy somewhere on your computer, or use the Lightstalkers calendar of events, to keep track.
There are photo festivals and “schools” in Arles, Perpignan, Gijón, Madrid, Groningen, Houston, Liberty NY, Santa Fe, Havana, Moscow, Tuscany, Buenos Aires and a host of other places, with more being created all the time. Additionally, there are many grants that do not have fixed deadlines: Light Work in Syracuse, which gives you a month long residency and access to their super labs, asks that you just write to them at any time; The Buhl Foundation, which offers a photography grant on a specific theme every two years; The Open Society’s Moving Walls, whose date is also perpetually moving (I believe a new exhibit is put up every eight months, so application dates shift accordingly); and Fifty Crows (originally Mother Jones),which is undergoing various changes still and appears to be rather irregular in its current grantmaking efforts.
You look at this list, and you shake your head: how the hell am I supposed to shoot for something as exalted as a Guggenheim, or a Gene Smith? I will tell you how: by sitting down and writing. How many of you heard of Ernesto Bazan, Kai Weidenhoefer, Maya Goded or Trente Park before each of them won the Eugene Smith prize? Sometimes the winner has built up a solid record of achievement the prior year and is ripe for recognition, but not always. However, it is true that usually the winners of big grants are people whose projects are already close to finished and have already garnered some attention for the work. So what are we to conclude from this odd fact?
There is a peculiar secret to the way that grants and awards function. It is a bit of a catch 22: in order to win a grant, one must already have a grant. Sounds crazy, but only superficially so. What this really means is that you have to look around for “smaller” grants and awards in order to help you establish a track record, and then the big ones will start to come within your grasp. Why is this? Partly because the people judging your work like to see a stamp of approval from other such organizations, which serves to confirm their instincts about you. Partly because they are about to entrust you with a considerable sum of money, with very few if any strings attached. They would like to know that this money, which they themselves have had to search for in order to keep the fund going, actually does some good. If you were awarded a grant in the past and complied with all the requirements, then the subsequent granting organization can rest easy that the money is going to a responsible person. Now, I say you should aim for small grants first, but in a sense there is no such thing: given the increasing competition for the few grants out there, and the pressing need for more sources of funding, a relatively unknown grant today is sure to be a big deal tomorrow. The Open Society recently inaugurated their new Documentary Photography Distribution grant, and I would bet that not too many applied for it the first time around, but you can be sure that they will be flooded eventually. And just because you should aim for small or less well known grants initially, this does not mean that you shouldn’t also apply for bigger ones while you are at it. However, once you have entered the circle of grant winners, you will be anticipated by other grant foundations, they will look for your work, possibly even invite you to compete.
Getting back to the list. Next to each entry, I usually include the basic information regarding what each organization requires, and I keep a checklist of what I have sent out and the response I received. If I get rejected, I prepare to reapply. I never take it personally and I don’t let it slow me down. One of the advantages of working out a calendar of deadlines is that it forces you to keep your eyes on the workflow instead of on the inevitable rejections that will come your way. A submission gets returned; another goes out right afterward. No time for mulling over the disappointments. For foundations that require them, I have a set of 8 by 10 prints in plastic archival sleeves and captions typed up on acid free paper which I slip into the back of the sleeve. For those organizations that accept digital, I keep a set of JPGs sized according to their requirements and adjusted for optimal viewing on a computer screen. Some organizations still require slides, such as the Aaron Siskind, but most of these have switched to digital, including henceforth both NYFA and the Dorothea Lange prize. Of course, digital submissions make our life much easier, and it is considerably cheaper than preparing a bunch of slides; but slides do help to make your work look rather impressive when projected on a screen.
You should have a template essay and narrative autobiography stored on your computer. That is, you should have a basic one to two page statement that describes your project, which can be altered to serve various purposes, and another document in which you describe your career in story form, basically your resumé converted into an essay. While it is hard for most people to write about themselves in the third person (witness the various awkward “bios” you find on websites, some of which shift in midstream from 3rd to 1st person), it actually gives you an advantage over a simple resumé because it offers you a chance to build a certain narrative suspense and thus make your career interesting to read. It also allows you to introduce ideas about photography that don’t fit into your proposal essay but might well offer the judges another reason for supporting you.
Let me make very clear here that I am not advocating that you simply write up a basic essay and send this identical essay out to every Tom, Dick and Harry P. Foundation. Tom, Dick and Harry are all rather particular individuals and like their submissions tailored to their needs, so you would be a fool to try to palm off a cut rate idea on them. They wont stand for it, and nor should you, if you are truly serious about your work. The more specific the proposal, the better your chances; the time you spend on your proposal is self-evident. The template essay is there to help you save time, but it is not a substitute for a well thought out and complete proposal. Computers and digital files make everything easier for you, but don’t let that ease of service tempt you into taking shortcuts.
Where to Find the Grants
So where do you go to find these grants? Right here at Lightstalkers is a good place to start. Members are constantly posting info about new grants or upcoming deadlines, and we maintain a calendar which you can consult to find out about available grants at a given date. The entries in the calendar are listed also in the Resources section, along with names of LS members who have won the grant in the past and might be willing to give you advice. The database is constantly growing as more members continue to post information, and there are more and more competitions now in countries outside the US and Europe. Here are a few links that contain further information about grants and awards:
A huge list is available now on Gomma, along with a lot of other useful links: http://www.gommamag.com/v2/index.html
Admittedly these are largely grants and awards conceived to serve the photographic and arts communities, so you will not find unusual sources of funding, such as the Swedish Government grant I mentioned above, among the ones listed there. However, there is a valuable resource available at the Foundation Library, with branches in New York, Atlanta, Cleveland, Washington D.C. and San Francisco, where you can go and, with the help of knowledgeable librarians, search for grants using broader categories such as, say, “poverty in India” or “AIDS in the Caribbean” and so on. You can look for grants by medium (photography, writing), by geographic region, by gender and by ethnicity, by theme, and so on. If you are not in New York or in any of the other cities where the Center maintains a physical presence, you can visit the Foundation Center at its web page:
The center sponsors free one hour orientation classes at its branches too. If you subscribe to their services for $9.95/month you can have access to their online database of over 6000 grantmaking bodies, but this information is available for free to those who visit any of the libraries. Online you will also find numerous lists of directories in which you can find various grantmakers divided by category: Arts and the Humanities, Int’l Travel and Study, Media and Communications, Medicine/Health, Minorities/Special Populations, Research, Women, and Writing.
Part Two: Writing the Grant
The key to writing a grant proposal is to recognize that writing is an opportunity for you to express your ideas, sharpen them, and provide another arena for your creativity. Writing up an essay about your work, or about your career, helps you figure out where you have been and where you are going. After all the travelling and the shooting and the hectic buying and selling, this is the place where you have time to reflect, to mull things over, to diddle and dither. If you approach this task in the spirit of play, you will find that it may lead you to a greater understanding of what it is you do.
You have to accomplish two things with the proposal essay: describe your project in a cogent and interesting manner as well as conform your ideas to the stated theme of the competition, if there is one. Each foundation has its way of doing things, and each looks for certain types of projects to fund. So if I were presenting my sugar cane project to the Guggenheim people, say, I would write it up in a more academic fashion, and I would probably amplify the template essay by adding in material of a more scholarly or historical and cultural nature. I would also ensure that the essay was particularly well written, because other scholars are going to be reading it. Plus I would be sure to find people who could write letters of support that were more or less in the proper vein: academics who have written on the history of sugar production, or maybe the director of an NGO who is deeply involved in the problems of the rural poor, or perhaps someone who has written a good book on the subject. But if I were applying, say, to the Alexia Foundation, whose governing theme is world peace, then the essay would have to be altered accordingly to fit. It is not such a stretch as you might imagine: it so happens that the cane fields are one very important battlefield in the “cold” war between Haiti and the Dominican Republic (which not so long ago was quite hot), and wars, after all, are often directly linked to the production of commodities. Moreover, conflict between the two countries has forced the superpowers to intervene several times in the last century. That is the history of the Caribbean in a nutshell.
I did indeed write up such a proposal for the Alexia people, though the panel didn’t buy it. They picked another project, which that year, admittedly, was a more pressing issue in regard to world peace. The point here to remember is that merit is not always linked to the overall quality of your work, there are other considerations, and if you submit work about poor black workers in a poor black country at the margins of the media, then you can’t expect to win a competition in which someone else submits work, say, on Islamic terrorism just after 9/11. But if you are the sort who can extemporize and find a way to adapt to agendas set by others, then I would bet that you can survive and perhaps even prosper in this crazy business. No matter how humble the dog, if it can learn new tricks, it will have its day.
On the other hand, sometimes having an unpopular or unusual topic can be an advantage. Coming up with something from left field helps to distinguish your work from the rest of the applicants. Many, many factors enter in to the decision process, which is usually a committee decision and thus the result of compromise among the judges. So once you send off your application, you have to be philosophical about it, and remember that you have no further control over the matter, decisions will be made for all kinds of reasons—some logical, some irrational—and there is nothing more to be done about it. There are also trends in photographic thinking and style, and if you are something of a maverick, it may be harder for your work to receive its due, simply because the judges are not on your wavelength. In that sense, rejection could be a badge of pride. Acceptance or rejection of your work is no real judgment of its quality, though ironically once you add a few of these lines to your resumé, editors will of course interpret them as an imprimatur of sorts, and you will earn a little more respect. Remember too that judges change from one year to the next, so if you don’t get accepted this year, it could be that next year’s group will favor your work.
Some Basic Writing Tips
While I don’t believe in rules, for the sake of brevity and to spark some ideas, let me recommend the following strategies:
1) Be Interesting. Don’t Bore People. Don’t write the same old argument that everyone else writes. We have all heard about the urgency of addressing the problems of the poor, of victims of war, of the suffering of mankind. If we have heard these sentiments 999 times, do you really think that repeating it for the thousandth will open anyone’s ears? Avoid large generalizations altogether. If you are describing the situation in war-torn Sierra Leone, don’t generalize about Africa, about war, or about “man’s inhumanity to man.” Describe the particular situation in its own particular terms, using words that come out of that context.
2) Be Inventive. Don’t Tell ‘em What They Already Know, which means steer away from clichés like the one I have just used in this sentence. Clichés are old metaphors, so old and overused that people are no longer aware that they are using a metaphor. When you write something like “steer away,” you need to think again: tossing out this old phrase can give you the opportunity to think of a new metaphor that might make more sense, or at least be more entertaining.
3) Be Concrete. Don’t use Big Words when a little one will do, and don´t use abstract words, don’t say things like “I want my photos to impact the audience”—impact was not even a verb until people in the business world started using it as such, and it is pretty feeble: impact as a verb really has none. Instead, use a word that precisely renders your idea. I once wrote, “I want you to stub your toe on my photographs.” The idea is to stimulate the senses, paint a strong picture, make people think.
4) Be Musical. Don’t Write with Two Left Feet. Be aware of the rhythms of your sentences, and the sounds of the words, which can create a powerful impression on the reader. Short staccato sentences are like jabs to the senses, while long convoluted syntax, like that of Proust, can weave a spell. There are many patterns you can use, and they all have Greek names, because the original Sophists classified them and taught them to would be orators and politicians (which is why people like Demosthenes and Pericles gave pretty good speeches, while in our day we are stuck with the likes of Bush). You can use parallelism, for example, to ensure a tight order, as in this sentence from Robert Frank: “the practice will be in the photographer’s hand, the vision in his mind.” This makes the comparison between practice and vision all the more concise and emphatic. Another neat little trick, the name of which escapes me, makes a verb do double duty, simultaneously functioning in a literal sense and metaphoric sense: “He cut his throat, and all his losses.” It is an extremely tight little structure and very effective when you want to make a final point.
5) Be Definite. Don’t Write without Consulting a Dictionary and defining your words! Most errors in diction occur because people think they know the meanings of the words they use, but they have never bothered to check them in a dictionary. They toss words around with poetic abandon, but instead of sounding like Shakespeare, they sound more like Dogsbody, full of malapropisms (look it up!). A dictionary for the writer is as important as, say, Photoshop for the photographer.
6) Be Yourself. Don’t Pound Square Pegs into Round Holes, or second guess the panel to give them what you think they want. Let your words express yourself just as your images do. In other words, speak naturally in your own voice. Don’t adopt a highfalutin tone just because you think you have to dress yourself up. A monkey in a tux is still a monkey.
Be creative in your writing and editing: putting together a proposal is like working on a puzzle or a collage or pastiche. You can scream oaths at the whole ridiculous system of patronage, or you can be a bit more positive and think of the proposal as a slightly different stage on which you can strut your stuff, play a bit with ideas, amuse and entertain and cajole and amaze and charm. After all you have a captive audience, but you want to make sure that you enthrall them rather than bore them to death. These people have to slog through hundreds of applications, most of which are clumsily assembled, poorly written, incoherent and clichéd. All they have to do—all they should have to do—is read the first paragraph, and they will know on which pile to throw the application. You may not make it to the end, but your stylish writing, accompanied by good photos of course, will certainly help to convince them of your merit.
The Artist Statement
When I begin to write up a proposal, I generally allow my mind to wander for an indeterminate period over the main themes without forcing anything to a conclusion. Instead of staring at a blank computer screen and trying to force an idea, try free associating by using the terms that the particular situation presents you. The act of composition for me appears to be a threefold process: first the conscious mind gathers together these suggestive elements, then the subconscious mind mulls them over secretly for a while, and then finally there is a burst of energy, the subconscious seizes control of the conscious mind and spits out an essay. It is a bit like what Socrates described as his “daemon”—and while you may scorn such fancies, remember that Socrates is considered one of the first rationalists, and he took this idea seriously. After you disgorge your idea, you will have to clean it up and make it presentable, but the first and hardest step, beginning to write, will have been taken.
Your first paragraph is like the announcement of a major theme in a piece of music. It could be the most important part of the application, because here is where you make the initial impression. You can start off with a subtle intimation of your topic, and then build to a crescendo, or you can smack them right in the face with a bald statement of the issue. Either way, that first paragraph has to present your main theme clearly, concisely, with brio. The Alexia Foundation asks that your proposal begin with a two-sentence summary of the main idea, and this makes a great amount of sense. If you can force yourself to define your idea thus briefly, chances are that the rest of the proposal will fall nicely into place and you will benefit from having a very clear idea of the meaning and value of your work. Even if the recipient foundation does not require such a summary, it is always a good idea to begin by writing one up, just to clarify your intentions.
Hitting them hard with the opening sentence is sometimes a very good idea, because it wakes them up immediately and makes them pay attention. But you have to be able to follow up. Stylistically speaking, a short sentence, one single clause (subject, verb and object) with no modifying or dependent clauses often helps to create suspense and tension, so that the reader is forced to sit up and take notice. Another trick is to state the reverse of what everyone assumes to be true. People assume war is hell, for example, but war is also a pleasure, or we wouldn’t pursue it with such lust; however, people don’t like to admit this to themselves, so an essay that opens up with a terse statement of this proposition is sure to grab the reader’s attention, though it may offend them too: “War is hell; but war is a helluva way to beat boredom.” This sentence is brief, paradoxical, and uses alliteration, parallelism, and metaphor in a manner that plays on the idea of aggression and turns a cliché (“war is hell”) into something new.
Three Exemplary Proposals
But we can take a look at an actual grant proposal to see how some of these abstract ideas work in a practical sense. Here is a passage from Garry Winogrand’s 1963 application for a Guggenheim, which he used to cross the United States:
"I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books, I look at some magazines [our press]. They all deal in illusions and fantasies. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn’t matter, we have not loved life. I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue this photographic investigation and deeper. This is my project."
This is a man speaking to men and women naturally, unaffectedly, in his own voice. It is direct, economical, heartfelt. The words are short and simple. But the theme is profound: “our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. . . . we have not loved life.” Look at the brilliant opening statement: “who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter.” It flies in the face of one’s expectations. The Guggenheim is concerned to promote “humanist” endeavors, and here an applicant is telling them straight out that the normally construed humanism is worthless. That was sure to grab their attention. Notice how he uses the repetition of short clauses to hold your attention and emphasize his meaning. And he keeps it up. In a single phrase he distinguishes his endeavor from the mass media: “they all deal in illusions and fantasies” (sound familiar? How many of you have complained about the shift in the media to lifestyle reporting?) Winogrand’s writing is at once so blunt and so subtle that he doesn’t even bother to state his actual theme: after this biting indictment all he says is that “I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue this photographic investigation.” Now that is good writing, even though it is not consistently grammatical (the “and deeper” is a solecism, but it works). Why? It draws you in, it sucker punches you, and then it leaves you with stars in your eyes while you ponder the actual meaning of what he has just said. You may not be quite clear, but you are hooked and you want more. It is a bit like his photographs.
I think it is a myth that visually oriented people are not also verbal: there are many cases of photographers and painters who were masterful writers. Of course, part of it depends on whether you had a literary education or a taste for reading, but some of it stems I think from self-knowledge, knowing who you are as an artist/reporter, and knowing what you want to express. If you have a strong idea of what you are about, this will come across in prose as well as in imagery, and if you don’t yet, the writing up of your ideas may help you to find yourself. Many photographers have written memorable essays. Eugene Smith’s first Guggenheim application for his Pittsburgh project is a remarkable example of high Modernist prose, almost Joycean in its style. Its exuberance is typical of its author’s outsize personality. I was unable to procure a copy of this essay for purposes of analysis here, but we can look at another famous Guggenheim application, a somewhat drier piece, this one by Robert Frank.
Frank’s essay is short, three paragraphs, no more. It appears that the Guggenheim people also asked for a preliminary summary of the project, as do the Alexia people, and Frank gives it: “To photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively. The making of a broad, voluminous picture record of things American, past and present. This project is essentially the visual study of a civilization and will include caption notes; but it is only partly documentary in nature: one of its aims is more artistic than the word documentary implies.” If you know Frank’s work, then you understand how important that final qualification was. Frank was never one to be bound by categorical restrictions—and when it comes to these long-term projects, the best of them always break the mold. That may be the entire purpose of engaging in such work.
The rest of the essay is brief and well worth reproducing here in its entirety:
"I am applying for a Fellowship with a very simple intention: I wish to continue, develop and widen the kind of work I already do, and have been doing for some ten years, and apply it to the American nation in general. I am submitting work that will be seen to be documentation—most broadly speaking. Work of this kind is, I believe, to be found carrying its own visual impact without much work explanation. The project I have in mind is one that will shape itself as it proceeds, and is essentially elastic. The material is there: the practice will be in the photographer’s hand, the vision in his mind. One says this with some embarrassment but one cannot do less than claim vision if one is to ask for consideration.
“The photographing of America” is a large order—read at all literally, the phrase would be an absurdity. What I have in mind, then, is observation and record of what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere. Incidentally, it is fair to assume that when an observant American travels abroad his eye will see freshly; and that the reverse may be true when a European eye looks at the United States. I speak of the things that are there, anywhere and everywhere—easily found, not easily selected and interpreted. A small catalog comes to the mind’s eye: a town at night, a parking lot, a supermarket, a highway, the man who owns three cars and the man who owns none, the farmer and his children, a new house and a warped clapboard house, the dictation of taste, the dream of grandeur, advertising, neon lights, the faces of the leaders and the faces of the followers, gas tanks and postoffices and backyards . . .
The uses of my project would be sociological, historical and aesthetic. My total production will be voluminous, as is usually the case when the photographer works with miniature film. I intend to classify and annotate my work on the spot, as I proceed. Ultimately the file I shall make should be deposited in a collection such as the one in the Library of Congress. A more immediate use I have in mind is both book and magazine publication. Two European editors who know my work have agreed that they will publish an American project of mine: 1) M. Delpire of “NEUF”, Paris, for book form. 2) Mr. Kubler of “DU” for an entire issue of his magazine."
The essay is deceptively simple and humble, but the scope, intention, and purpose of the work are nothing if not ambitious. This is a man who understands very clearly what he is about. Let me deal with a minor point first: Frank pulls out the big guns from the very beginning, in order to let the Guggenheim people know that he is no novice. He observes that his project is an extension of work he has been doing for ten years, thus signalling that the work is mature and deliberate and ready for recognition. The Guggenheim foundation states quite clearly that their grants are given to people with a record of accomplishment who have entered the middle phase of their career. Frank ends the essay by pointing out that a couple important publishers have already accepted the work for publication, though it is not yet ready, and thus he manages to smuggle in an impressive stamp of approval. So both the beginning and end of the essay serve to establish his bona fides (which presumably would be borne out by the letters of reference written on his behalf by various people of recognized stature).
What strikes me about the rest of his opening paragraph is that he basically defies the kind of advice I was giving above and proceeds to discuss his project’s theme in a very oblique manner. He doesn’t yet give away what he thinks of the American theme; instead, he resists any attempt to pigeonhole what he does—which is essential if one is to proceed in his manner and shoot with a “miniature” camera. Openness of mind and eye, elasticity of form and feeling. He doesn’t say yet what he will shoot, only how he will shoot and what it is—vision—that gives him the prerogative to ask for a grant without really saying what the grant is for. That last line is a masterpiece of rhetorical hubris: he is both humble and supremely sure of his mind and what he is doing. But he is right, he is only stating what is implied in the whole process of applying for a Guggenheim, because if one doesn’t lay claim to having vision, to being an original, then one logically cannot apply for the grant, which is given to those with vision.
The next paragraph continues somewhat in the same vein, because while he gives specific details of some of the things he will shoot, he doesn’t explicitly state his themes, they are to be found in between the lines; however, he does stick more to the strategies I outlined previously, at least with regard for musicality, concreteness, and so on.
First he tackles the charge that his project is rather absurdly ambitious: he points out that if read literally (i.e., by dolts) then of course it would seem impractical, but without actually explaining just how this very open-ended theme is at all practical he circumvents the issue by implying that any objection could only be made by the dull minded. He claims to be documenting the “kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere,” but still doesn’t bother to define what he means. Frank resolutely focuses on questions of method and purpose rather than on content, because he doesn’t want to get pinned down. Instead he tackles the issue of perspective, anticipating the criticism that a foreigner might not be able to define that civilization by virtue of being an outsider. He dismisses this charge deftly by hinting at the tradition of mutual observation of the New World and the Old World: de Tocqueville in America, Henry James in Europe. Then he comes to the beautiful statement of his theme in a wonderful rambling statement that is simply and perfectly apt. He begins by defining the essence of his aesthetic, which may well be what defines the practice of all such small format photographers: “I speak of the things that are there, anywhere and everywhere—easily found, not easily selected and interpreted.” The art is in the seeing, what is there to be seen everywhere by everyone, but grasped in its significance only by those who have the vision or talent or imagination to select and interpret. And what is it he expects to see?
"a town at night, a parking lot, a supermarket, a highway, the man who owns three cars and the man who owns none, the farmer and his children, a new house and a warped clapboard house, the dictation of taste, the dream of grandeur, advertising, neon lights, the faces of the leaders and the faces of the followers, gas tanks and postoffices and backyards . . . "
Remember what I said about avoiding generalizations, about being concrete and specific? It doesn’t get any better than this. Instead of describing the meaning of an American town in general terms, he gives us a picture of that town—a parking lot, a supermarket, a highway (if you think about it, that sums up a lot of what an American town is about: empty spaces for cars, a highway for mobility, a supermarket for a consumer economy). Instead of talking about poverty or class conflict, he simply and more pointedly contrasts the man with three cars and the man with none, the new house and the old clapboard house. The list goes on, with no apparent order, which is what constitutes its charm and seduction. He ends the sentence not with a period but with ellipsis, so as to indicate the open-ended nature of his quest. The list is an interesting jumble that reveals a subtle intelligence: we are not just dealing with objects and surfaces; we are dealing with what they say about our civilization—the taste they dictate, the grandeur they try to muster, the political form written on the faces of the people. Despite the ostensible randomness of the list, Frank is very very clear about his objectives. That he should single out “taste” is particularly revealing, it seems to me, because Taste, that most peremptory of social signifiers and elusive of concepts, is a seemingly unphotographable quality but a real gold mine of information about a culture. He gains access to these fundamental ideas by remaining resolutely concrete in his seeing: the random forms of our civilization will reveal the meaning of that civilization if properly selected and interpreted.
One last point: Frank lists the uses of his project, and notice the order: sociological (a study of our society), historical (people can look back, as we do now, and see what America was all about in the 50s), and aesthetic—he saves the most important for last. He is not just referring to the fact that his style is revolutionary, transformative, and would change the way people shoot thereafter; rather, he is referring to the power of the aesthetic realm, of art, to condition how we think and feel and act, the vital power of art, of all storytelling forms, to sculpt our very being. This kind of faith in art is rarely voiced these days, since Postmodernism has created a deep suspicion about the manipulative power of representation, its contrivance, from which there seems no escaping, and the putative failure of the grand narratives that have informed Western civilization from its inception; but for Frank the revelatory power of art was without question the most important of human capacities.
Our final example comes from the Alexia Foundation, which publishes on its site the winning proposals of the successful applicants. This will give us the opportunity to look over a grant source specifically intended for photojournalists and thus requiring less talk about Art and more about an Issue. Anyone can look over the various proposals made available from the past four years or so, but I am going to single one out, from Marcus Bleasdale, which strikes me as one of the better written, imaginative and concise proposals. Look how he opens up, with this quote from Conrad:
"The vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience"
Not only does he thus announce his theme in one sentence and get the essay started in a dramatic fashion, but quoting Conrad helps to lend his essay not just a bit of literary prestige but also historical weight by contextualizing his theme in African colonialism. In other words, there is a substantial precedent for his work, and the fact that he is aware of it leads the reader to expect an intelligent appraisal of the situation. Using literary epigraphs at the beginning of essays is a time-honored tradition, and there is nothing to stop all of you from taking advantage of it.
In accordance with the Alexia Foundation’s request that applicants provide a brief summary of their proposal, Marcus follows up the Conrad quotation with a succinct statement of the purpose and scope of his project, using what is grammatically defined as a fragment to start the thing off:
"Effects of oil exploration in a world where it is increasingly the catalyst of conflict, exploitation and global pollution. Tribes in Africa are being flushed out of their natural environments and communities in Siberia are being uprooted and moved en masse."
So we have on the one hand the old game of colonialist exploitation of resources (oil in this case) and its destabilizing effects with particular reference to the cultural destruction seen in two places. Right away the panel has a very clear idea of the major theme and the scope of the work, which may seem rather ambitious, but such a terse statement leads one to confide in its author, and indeed the rest of the essay bears out that confidence. Essentially the panelists would be disposed to think well of this proposal because of its auspicious beginning. This is someone with a very clear idea.
I am going to skip the second, transitional paragraph and move to the third and final statement of the opening:
"Decreasing deposits in the developed world are causing further exploration into less developed countries, which have been too remote or too dangerous to access. This pushing of boundaries is leading to some of the world’s oldest communities being decimated and pushed toward virtual extinction."
What was hinted at in the first paragraph is now taken up again and sharply defined: cultures hitherto protected by their remoteness are now being uprooted and extinguished due to the insatiable drive for more oil. And there you have it. Marcus doesn’t need to drive his point home any more clearly: if the Alexia Foundation is concerned to back proposals that deal with world peace, then this one neatly fits the bill without being too obvious, and that is part of its beauty—the extinction of cultures as a result of commercial exploitation and development is a threat to peace, and as the scope of this thing is global, then it is safe to say that the theme is big enough, while remaining resolutely fixed on specific examples of this destruction, and thus capable of being done. Which is the other requirement the Alexia people impose: one must demonstrate in the proposal that the story can be satisfactorily finished. While “world peace” may be a vague and overlarge category, your proposal must be specific, local, concrete, and manageable.
Marcus takes up the rest of the essay with an explanation of the specific issues in Central Africa and Russia, so that he can describe more fully some of the damage being done, and indicate that he has the topic well in hand, is knowledgeable, and is capable of tackling the project with very clear goals in mind. Then he concludes nicely:
"These are just a few examples of the effects of oil exploration. Exploitation in the name of energy is more widespread now than at any time in our history. Oil companies are the new colonialists, pushing the boundaries and changing cultures in developing nations in order to feed the economic boom in developed countries.
I have recently completed a long term project on natural resource exploitation in Congo DRC and I would relish the opportunity to further this documentary both culturally and geographically. I would like to document the effects of the planets scramble for energy in these two vastly different cultures and document how that scramble affects local stability and prospects for peace. They are also two visually different environments and in today’s changing world I would like to highlight the differences and the similarities between these cultures, poles apart, yet drawn together by the global need for fuel."
Since he has given “just a few examples,” there is the promise of more, and you want them to want more. The first paragraph adumbrates the significance of his story and makes clear the antagonistic players in this “conflict” between the developed and developing or underdeveloped nations. What is brilliant about the proposal, in my view, is that it conceives of the main theme, world peace, not in terms of the usual definitions of conflict (war, racism, Palestine, Iraq, or other such topics favored by the media) but in terms of economic expansionism and exploitation. It is an original idea. That no doubt made his proposal stand out from the others. The sharp and sure summary of the issue certainly bred confidence for his ability to carry it out, and the final paragraph clinches the deal: he has already completed one long-term project in this area, so he has the experience and he is capable of bringing it all back home.
Of course, the superb pictures must have done a lot to win the favor of the judges too, but the Alexia people state quite clearly:
"The award will go to a photojournalist who can further cultural understanding and world peace by conceiving and writing a concise, focused, and meaningful story proposal. There is no mathematical formula for determining the winners, but the story proposal is the most important part of the application. They are read and ranked by the judges before any portfolios are reviewed."
First comes the proposal, then the portfolios. You wont make it to the final round unless the proposal impresses the judges. A word to the wise.
The Narrative Autobiography
If your foundation requests a Narrative Bio instead of a formal resumé, thank your lucky stars, because even though a resumé is easier to write up, it is essentially a mute thing, and unless you have lots of publications, awards, exhibitions and so on, it cannot do much to promote your application. But a narrative about your career can speak volumes on your behalf if properly written. The narrative bio allows you to start where you wish, so that, for example, if your university training has any bearing on your career, you can begin with that, and certainly mention any distinctions you might have won at school. You can also use the essay to discuss why you entered into photography, which in turn allows you to talk about your aesthetic principles, much like Frank above. Finally it allows you to discuss any projects or essays you may have completed, regardless of whether you published them or not, and you can talk about your goals, the significance of your work, and whatever else distinguishes your efforts. You can use the form of the narrative to describe your career just like a story and build toward a climactic ending. In short, the narrative essay gives you a chance to elaborate on your career, your views about photography and your theme, and generally make yourself look like a pretty exciting candidate.
Letters of Reference
Some foundations require that you list references or have your supporters write up reference letters to be delivered separately from your submission. This, for me at any rate, has always been the element that sticks in my craw, as I hate asking people to write up letters on my behalf, and I don’t know that many people in the photo community. And it is no simple matter. The fact is that your application sometimes hangs on the strength of the letters written on your behalf, and the tendency for applicants is to search out people of note in order to give their application an edge. This is not necessarily a good idea, unless you actually have such people available and willing. The key is that the supporter should be able to speak with authority and knowledge about your work, about your ability to handle the work responsibly, and about your past experience. They needn’t be photo people (editors, photographers, agency personnel); they can also be scholars who are familiar with the area in which you work, NGO people who work with you or in your area, writers, people with whom you have previously worked in some capacity, former grantmakers, or even perhaps former professors. A range of different types of supporters is best. Of course, it helps to have a big name on the list, but a strong letter by an unknown with adequate credentials is better than a tepid letter by a famous person. One thing I can say for sure: if you are going to ask people for letters of support, be sure to do so well in advance of the due dates, so that they have time to write a well considered and thoughtful response. You don’t want them rushing on your behalf and thus writing less enthusiastically out of irritation with your inconsiderate ways.
Editing the Portfolio
The final element, and perhaps the hardest for some, is the selection of imagery for the portfolio. I cannot count the number of photographers who have told me that they do not know how to edit their own material (and the number of editors who agree with them!). But this has always seemed to me a curious admission, since much of the art of photography, as Frank made clear, lies in the selection and interpretation of the voluminous imagery we shoot. If you cannot edit your own work, you basically are admitting that you are unsure of what you are doing as a photographer, because your vision, the story you want to tell, is not clear to you. Of course, editing is difficult; but it is a fundamental part of shooting, of storytelling, and you cannot responsibly disavow your obligation to perform this final stage of the act of creating imagery. It is, in a sense, the second decisive moment in the process. If you need help, however, then look for it among people you trust, people with experience and conscience: other photographers whose work is sympathetic, editors with a good track record, teachers, even friends. Keep an open mind when considering their comments and bear in mind their particular prejudices or taste. You don’t have to accept everything they tell you, but you are also going to have to get used to the idea that among your collection of hard-won photos there are some absolute stinkers. Let’s face it, the ratio of good imagery to bad for any street or news shooter is going to be pretty low: you just have to get used to being ruthless.
My initial advice is to edit the series, which can number anywhere from ten to twenty photos (in a few cases more), with regard to the principles that govern magazine editing, keeping in mind that if your project is somewhat unusual in form or content, or you are applying for a grant that is not photojournalistic, or you just refuse to kowtow to the reigning ideas governing photojournalistic storytelling, then you will have to adapt the selection accordingly. When you edit for the magazines, the general rule is to present a strong image for openers, something that grabs the attention and manages to sum up or introduce the themes of the story. Newspaper photographers used to be advised to capture the overall scene first and then go in for the closeups. These rules may or may not suit you, but at least they provide a working method, or a means of beginning the selection process. Myself, I have always edited with an eye on the overall development of the inherent motifs in the series, playing them off against one another like variations on a musical theme—smoke and fire in a sugar mill leads to the smoke of a cigarette in the mouth of a drunken vodú drummer—while I tend to open up with an image that concentrates my themes into one package. However, it all depends on the story I have to tell, and that is possibly the best way to think about the whole process of editing, as a means of telling a story, with all the narrative strategies one would find in a fable, a poem, a short story, a comic book, or what have you.
While you may want to choose some subtle images whose meanings are not immediately apparent, in general you should select imagery that is very strong—which is not the same thing as obvious—and you should not pick repetitive material that hinders the development of a narrative line. You don’t have the space. If a foundation requests 20 images, give them 20, not 18 or 22. If you don’t have 20 to give them, then that could be a sign that you are not ready to apply and need to fill in some holes in the narrative. If they ask for 8 or 10, then each successive image has to be as strong as the last, you don’t have the luxury of relaxing your editorial control. Some people like to second-guess the panelists, and thus submit portfolios intended to pander to the tastes of the panel members, if their names and tastes be known, but this strikes me as a failure of imagination. You shouldn’t be afraid to put that more risky material out there.
Finally, you will likely be required to provide captions, and this is an important part of the process. Do not shortchange this element: use the opportunity, again, to develop your themes and give a full idea of your story. Don’t just tell them what they already can see easily enough in the image; indicate why each image is important, or give some idea of the larger picture of which any particular image is a part. This is yet another opportunity to impress the judges with your thinking.
I will end this here with a brief reminder that the whole thing is, admittedly, a bit of a crap shoot – or perhaps baseball provides a better analogy:
â€œThe great Henry Aaron hit a home run 755 times in his career, but failed to do so almost 12,000 times.â€ (John Szarkowski on Garry Winogrand)
You may despair, but I think the lesson to be learned here is that if you keep stepping up to the bat, you will eventually connect with the ball. Shooting is no different, and you wouldnâ€™t stop shooting simply because the odds are against getting a great shot every time, would you?
2006-03-29 07:36:47 UTC
Jun 24 2006