To grant a wish: how to compile a winning grant
For many photographers, winning a grant can be the lifeline a project needs in order to come to life, or be completed and flourish. But success at grant applications is no mean feat. Sophia Hawkes shares invaluable tips from those in the know.
To successfully bring a major body of work together takes a great idea and plenty of hard work. And money. But insufficient funding is one of the most common reasons that many projects never fully come to fruition. Grants are therefore invaluable in the evolution of photography. But have no doubt, competition for these grants is fierce, and you’ll need perseverance, confidence, and tenacity to succeed. So, what are the hallmarks of a successful grant application, and what are the common pitfalls and mistakes to avoid?
Finding the right grant
New York-based documentary photographer Sarah Blesener has been applying for grants for years to support her projects, and she has an impressive list of them to her name, along with some of photography’s most prestigious awards, including a 1st Prize in the 2019 World Press Photo award (Long Term Project category). In 2018, she was the recipient of the W. Eugene Smith Fellowship for her project, Beckon Us From Home. She also received the Professional Grant from the Alexia Foundation in 2017. “I think it’s generally very hard to get a grant without prior work to back up your statements. The work doesn’t necessarily have to be completely related, but it must have a thread of relevance to show the jurors your approach and visual language,” she says. Blesener’s starting point when she has an idea in mind is to find grants that are suited to the project she wants to pursue. She adds that it’s vital to present a project that you’re not only passionate about, but that is relevant to the audience.
Before deciding which grants to pursue, Blesener considers a few questions. “Does this work propel stereotypes we have seen before? How is this angle or perspective different from what has been done prior? Why is this important and relevant at this particular time? What is your personal connection?” Blesener’s advice to applicants is to “think of their work in both the micro and macro – zooming in on personal relationships and plans for the projects, and then zooming out to show the relevance of the theme on a global scale. What are the larger trends this speaks to?” These questions and way of contextualising will help to distil ideas, which is crucial for winning grants.
Based in Brooklyn, Alyssa Meadows predominantly shoots images intended to raise awareness about political issues, sexism, and environmental concerns. In 2018, she was one of the recipients of the Individual Photographer’s Fellowship grants from the Aaron Siskind Foundation. Meadows says that she searches for opportunities that are a natural fit for her work. “The work that you’re passionate about will stand out in the community it best shines for,” she says.
Likewise, UK photographer Laura Pannack says that what counts is that your work is genuine. Pannack received US$15,000 in the form of the Getty Images Prestige Grant in 2016 to realise her project, Youth Without Age. Two years later she also received an Individual Photographer’s Fellowship grants from the Aaron Siskind Foundation. “My ideas are never based around a grant. If a project is important enough to me, I will somehow find a way to pursue it through self-funding. It will just ultimately take longer, or need to be put on hold [if required]. Grants can be invaluable at any stage of a project. And often, they include tutorial support and feedback,” she says.
These sentiments are shared by Alexia Chair at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, Mike Davis, who runs the grants competitions at the Alexia Foundation. “The visuals shown should be timely, and recent – all done within the past 18 months. Judges want to bet on someone who is really working,” he says. Pannack believes that passion is central to her success with grants. “For both [grants], I simply displayed an absolute passion for pursuing my projects and provided evidence that I had already worked hard and self-funded them for years,” she says.
Investing the time
Grant applications can seem like black holes, draining your time without any tangible reward in sight. One of the world’s leading photojournalists, American Paula Bronstein, who’s now based in Bangkok, is the author of the internationally acclaimed book, Afghanistan: Between hope and fear. In 2017, Bronstein was a recipient of the US$10,000 Getty Images Editorial Photography Grants for her project, The Cost of War, which documents the victims of war. In her opinion, taking the time and effort to apply for grants is well worth the effort, but it’s worth taking into consideration that the application process can be particularly time-consuming. “Sometimes it’s not enough to fill in an application. You’re [also] supposed to have a media plan, which I think is asking too much,” she says. However, she adds that she does understand that organisations offering the larger grants want to know how the project will be published.
Because of the time involved for the process, for many years Bronstein worked with a grant’s writer, stating that, “Photographers aren’t necessarily going to push out these well-thought-out [written] stories”. Bronstein has her essay which she can change to fit varying requirements. “Once it’s written you can adapt it for different kinds of grants, and you can expand the timeline [of the project] if need be. In the case of my most recent application, I had to reduce the timeline since I didn’t want to go way over the budget offered.”
Pannack learnt the value of professional help the hard way. “I once applied for an Arts Council grant and it took me months. It was exhausting and I worked with my assistant to ensure we were meticulous. It was then rejected on the basis of my numbers not adding up. I was deflated that such a factual error was my downfall,” she says. “If I applied again, I would most likely work with someone who has applied for Arts Council funding before, and therefore experienced in adhering to the criteria and can thoroughly go through it,” she admits.
Being well organised and planning ahead is crucial. Meadows has a few tricks up her sleeve. Like Bronstein, one of those is to have a skeleton essay that she can adjust to suit the requirements of different grants. She also has her artist statement written in various word lengths as different applications requires different lengths. Additionally, she regularly updates her CV, and always review past applications. All this helps her gain a clearer understanding of what works, and what doesn’t. Keeping track of past applications also gives her an idea of whether or not an idea’s shelf-life has been reached. “There’s a big difference between submitting the same project over and over for years, versus submitting new work, or better work, each subsequent year,” she says.
Persevere and evolve
Persistence is the critical element when it comes to applying for grants. Meadows believes that without it she would never have received her grant from the Aaron Siskind Foundation. She says there are certain grants she applies for religiously, and going for the Aaron Siskind seven years in a row, before winning it, certainly fits with this description. Fuelled by passion, Meadows doesn’t give up on her projects, nor does she submit the same thing over and over. Instead, she gives her ideas room to grow. “The project I’ve been submitting predominantly – Every Woman I Know – has been my focus for two years now, and, as such, I’m beginning to morph and grow the project into something larger so that the work doesn’t stagnate,” she explains.
Submitting a couple of applications a year isn’t enough, and you’ll need to be prepared to face a lot of rejection before finally succeeding. “You need to believe in yourself and your work, and not allow the folks who will discredit your endeavours to overrule your own determination and strength of self,” says Meadows. But equally important is the ability to recognise when it’s time to wrap a project up and begin a new one.
When deciding what ideas should be set aside so others can grow, Meadows is guided by her gut instinct. She applies to as many grants as she can afford. “You need to embrace every opportunity to find that limited scope of people who will really resonate with the work you’re creating. Because, those selected few are the ones who will believe in, and advocate for you”.
The jury has spoken
W. M. Hunt, a long-time board member of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund, has considerable experience evaluating grant applications. He’s also a writer, teacher, art dealer, art collector, and curator, and is well respected and regarded in the photographic community. Hunt states that it’s important that an idea presented is focused, specific, and original. Applicants should also be aware that the judges look for “clarity, brevity, and personality” in submissions.
Davis, from the Alexia Foundation, explains the importance of originality: “Originality is important, but that has more to do with the approach to a given topic than the topic itself, given that most aspects of life on the planet have been addressed,” he says. “Ask yourself if your approach is fresh. Know every other project that has been done on the same topic. Think beyond what has been done. Connect with partners who might bring fresh perspectives,” Davis suggests. Bronstein’s experience has led her to the understanding that “a lot of the time I think they’re looking at how you’re going to photograph something in a different way”.
Jay Davies, a director of photography at Getty Images, differentiates between the organisation’s editorial and creative grants. He suggests that when applying for an editorial grant, it helps if the idea proposed hasn’t been seen before. “In the case of creative grants, we are looking for creative projects that convey an idea or a concept that often transcends the mundane. We want to see projects that touch on concepts that move people to think or show us a world that is rarely seen,” he says. “We specifically do not want applications to propose documentary projects, but a documentary style around a larger concept is welcomed. You should still tell us a story, but in a way that we haven’t seen or thought of before”.
Davies adds that a successful application reveals, in both images and text, an applicant’s deep familiarity with the subject matter. “A proposal that succinctly explains why a story is important, why it should be told now, and why you’re the photographer to tell it, are the most important elements of an application,” Davies says. Davis, Hunt, and Davies all point to the importance of including evidence that an applicant can indeed accomplish what he or she says they will do. Images needs to show that “the person submitting for the grant knows the subjects and demonstrates an ability to produce the work being proposed,” Hunt says.
One of Bronstein’s most recent grant applications centred around work she shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rape is a weapon of war. She worked on four stories, but was only able to stay for two weeks. Upon returning home, she applied for a grant with the intention of further pursuing the work. “I met two children under five who had been raped. So, my application was focused on them, but I could only submit five or six photos because we didn’t have the time to go deeper into the subject. In my application, I explain why I think it’s important to focus on the children and their recovery. I also honestly say that I can go back, despite it being a dangerous place. I know the expenses and the challenges; this creates a realistic application of the idea.”
According to Hunt, lack of clarity in grant applications is the most common downfall for many applicants. “Applicants should describe exactly what they intend to do with the grant, and outline how that satisfies the overall intent of the grant itself, as well as explaining how much of their project the grant will pay for,” he says. It’s important to always be focussed and clear while addressing all points in the application. As such, never underestimate just how critical the written element of an application is.
Photographers including strong images and making it past the first evaluation stage often fail further down the track because they don’t demonstrate an intimate enough knowledge of their subject matter. “In the later rounds of our grants judging, the most common reason applications are not successful is when [they] fail to convey a cohesive vision of the completed project,” Davies says. “We see a lot of proposals in which a reasonably talented photographer has found a reasonably interesting subject, but our judges want to reward photographers who have a strong, clear idea of the story they’re telling.”
Davis agrees, stating that the most common mistakes people make is not showing they are capable of completing the project. He also states that a common mistake is not showing why the subject is important now as compared to other years. Blesener understands timeliness and believes it’s a drawcard of her successful applications. “I applied at specific political moments when there was focus on the topics I had been pursuing. I think the national interest, and lack of visual coverage on the topics I proposed, helped my application to be successful,” she says. “Again, it was not due to the images or proposal alone – the timeliness and political/cultural relevance of the work had a lot to do with what made it successful.”
When evaluating the images in an application, Hunt always looks for vision, intelligence, and passion. He warns against including personal favourites or marginal work and encourages photographers to be critical with themselves. The order in which you present your images in an application also matters. “The first photograph should tell the whole story,” Hunt says. Davies elaborates. “Sequence images in a way that they create a narrative arc; ideally, the viewer can discern something fundamental about the story before even reading the captions.”
Davis offers further insight into what makes for successful images to include. “Photographs should be chosen not for the information they represent, but for the qualities that they convey,” he says. Images accompanying applications have to elicit emotive responses. “There needs to be high-moment value in the photographs, meaning that you should be able to say: ‘This coming together of elements only happened once, and here it is,’” Davis says.
Blesener is aware that in the past she’s has applications turned down due to insufficient supporting imagery. “If the idea is new, it’s still vital to have images that support your proposal,” she says. How do you achieve that? “For example, I applied for a grant to work in the United States on a project. I had not taken one image for this project prior. However, I submitted images from a project in Russia on a very similar story. I also included my experience in Russia in the proposal, showing my process and transition to working in the States. This way, the photos helped link the proposal together, and the judges were able to envision how the project may turn out.”
So, is there a secret formula when it comes to winning grants? Not exactly. But as long as you diligently address the grant requirements, passionately work on your idea, provide strong supporting images, and present a focused, confident, timely, and concise written component, your chances of winning a grant are significantly improved. You’ll also need to be able to convince the jury that you can in fact manifest your idea. But when all is said and done, make sure that you don’t underestimate the power of the written word to highlight the deep and intimate connection you have with your subject matter. With so many grants to choose from, now’s the perfect time to start your search.
Sarah Blesener www.sarah-blesener.com
Paula Bronstein www.paulaphoto.com
Alyssa Meadows www.ameadowsphoto.com
Laura Pannack laurapannack.com
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