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Miki Johnson: Tell me about the project you submitted for the 2008 Emerging Photographer Grant.
Sean Gallagher: The project I submitted for the Emerging Photographer’s Grant, The Silent Wave: Desertification in Western China, developed as a result of an article I read online in the summer of 2007, highlighting increased desertification in the north and west of China. My educational background is in the biological sciences, and I’ve always been particularly interested in environmental issues. This article caught my interest and I started to think about ways to do a photo-essay on the subject.
Around this time, I was regularly reading David Alan Harvey’s ‘Road Trips’ blog where he announced in July 2007 that there would be a chance for one photographer to have him review their portfolio and be showcased on his new blog. There was no money involved at that point. I decided to seize the opportunity and headed to China’s western deserts for a couple of weeks to shoot the story I had been thinking about.
On my return, I put an edit of 20 images together and submitted them to David. A little later, David announced that he had secured funding to award a $5,000 grant to the chosen photographer and he increased the possible number of submitted images from 20 to 40. Although I was tempted to add more, I stuck with my original tight edit and resisted fleshing it out with possibly weaker images.
MJ: Why was the grant important to your work? Did you use the money to finish the desertification project or to work on other projects?
SG: The grant has been incredibly important to me, especially at this point in my career. There are so many great photographers, both established and emerging, all competing for work. The grant allowed me to free myself from that competition for a while and just focus on shooting. At the time I was awarded the grant, recent unrest in Tibet meant that many of the areas I had previously photographed were temporarily off-limits to non-Chinese. I therefore decided to concentrate on other environmental issue such as dropping water levels in the Yangtze River, the condition of animals in China’s zoos, and air pollution in Beijing. I have also since had the chance to return to the desertification work. I see this as quite a long-term project and hope to make repeat trips to various locations across China.
MJ: Did you get additional work from the exposure granted by the award?
SG: The increased exposure my work has received has definitely been one of the main benefits of receiving the Emerging Photographer’s Grant. David’s reputation precedes him, so being linked in this way has provided me with many opportunities. I also made the effort to travel in 2008 to Festival of the Photograph in the U.S. and Visa Pour l’Image in France, both for the first time. The Emerging Photographer’s Grant was officially announced at Festival of the Photograph, so being there in person was a great experience and an opportunity to meet many people who had just become aware of my work. I have also recently secured further funding from the Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting to continue my work on desertification. My application for this was based partly on my recent personal work, much of which was funded by David’s Emerging Photographers Grant.
MJ: Did you know David before the grant and did he talk about why he had selected your work?
SG: I had met David previously while taking one of his workshops in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2004. I traveled from Japan, where I was working as an English teacher at the time. On presenting my portfolio to him, I distinctly remember him being very critical of it and barely liking any pictures. It ended up being the most valuable workshop I have taken. Getting an honest, critical opinion really spurred me on, as well as David’s encouragement to approach photography in our own way. After that I was then independently selected for the one-year paid internship program at Magnum, in their London office — another invaluable experience.
For the 2009 Emerging Photographers Grant, a panel of judges, sans David, will choose the recipient. For the 2008 grant, however, it was David who made the decision as the whole concept of the grant was in its infancy. In January 2008, David announced I was the recipient of the grant and commented on his blog, “i saw this essay as stylistically powerful and journalistically relevant…” However, as can be seen from David’s new online magazine Burn, he has an eclectic taste in photography; for the grant, I think any style has an opportunity.