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During my 1-year paid internship at Magnum Photos London in 2004-5, the then deputy director Hamish Crooks gave me and fellow interns some simple yet important advice on how to find newsworthy stories. “Pick up a newspaper and read.”
Hamish encouraged us to devour headlines to understand why people care enough about an issue to report on it. He also advised us to find topics we were passionate about on a personal level, rather than simply covering issues we were “expected” to cover. From that point on, I started to read news in a different way — always assessing its visual potential and gauging my own interest in the subject matter.
In the summer of 2007 I came across the subject of desertification in a news article. Images of villages and towns being swallowed by slowly moving sand dunes filled my mind. I imagined cracked earth in drought-stricken regions and intense sandstorms blocking out the sun. When you first consider covering an issue, it is inevitable that you conjure images that represent your preconceptions about it. Some turn out to be true, others don’t. One of the challenges of reporting on a subject is to confront your preconceptions and free yourself from them.
I began my work on desertification in western China by taking two weeks to gauge the potential for this story. At the beginning of 2008 I received the first David Alan Harvey Fund for Emerging Photographers, which helped me continue this work and also look at other environmental issues in Asia. As I continued the desertification story, I started to look for other sources of funding to help me continue the work and enable me to push even deeper into the subject matter. This is when I discovered the work of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and their travel grants to cover under-reported issues, which I felt desertification definitely was.
Application for the Pulitzer Center grant involved writing a detailed project proposal and outlining logistical and financial planning for the entirety of the proposed project. My project also had to fall in line with the Pulitzer Center’s focus on, “enterprising reporting projects throughout the world with an emphasis on issues that are under-reported, mis-reported, or not reported on at all.” Even though I had first read desertification in an international publication, and had seen work on the same subject by other photographers, I still believed it was a vastly under-reported issue and deserved more attention.
In February of 2009 I received an email from Nathlaie Applewhite, the Associate Director of the Pulitzer Center, informing me that my application for the grant had been successful. At that point I began my preparations and logistical planning for 6-weeks on the road. Needless to say, there was a lot to do!
Miki Johnson: How did ILCP decide it wanted to focus more on social media like Facebook and Twitter, as well as online community building?
Trevor Frost: As a young photographer and explorer, I’ve had to spend many hours networking to get to where I am now. So when I joined ILCP as the Director of Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions, I thought it would be great to make a online avenue for others like me to meet and work with the accomplished photographers, scientists, and explorers that make up our organization.
ILCP already does a good job at facilitating communication between members, especially our emerging league and experienced fellows. But ILCP members have little communication with others who aspire to be photographers or conservationists, yet are not quite skilled enough photographically to be a member of the ILCP. By providing a social media platform for this communication, we can link less experienced photographers, explorers, and scientists with members of our group who are very experienced. This will help support new talent, create a community beyond membership in the ILCP, broaden the reach of ILCP, and, we hope, lead to higher conservation achievements.
MJ: What online tools is ILCP utilizing to extend its communication?
TF: ILCP is focusing on Twitter and our new online magazine/blog to generate a community and to catalyze connections between conservationists, scientists, and photographers. With the online magazine/blog we hope to create a digital outlet that photographers will want to be published in, something they want to put on their resume. We also hope it becomes a platform for communication and critique, and offers a place to publish stories that have been rejected by traditional media.
On Twitter we are starting off by posting links to websites and news stories that feature ILCP or its photographers, affiliates, and partner organizations. Eventually we will expand this to include a wide range of interesting conservation topics. People only want to follow Twitterers with the most interesting updates.
One major goal of all of this is to drive increased traffic to our websites and multimedia pieces, which help disseminate conservation messages. The increased web traffic should also help us forge new relationships with corporate partners by offering an opportunity for brand exposure. At this point ILCP’s involvement in social media is in its infancy. Aside from our followers and fans increasing on Twitter and Facebook, we have not seen direct benefits yet. We do, however, expect to see benefits over the course of the next year.
MJ: Why did ILCP decide to focus its resources on social media and online tools?
TF: When people ask how they can help non-profits they almost always hear: Please donate. This is frustrating. People want to get their hands dirty. Many of the most successful conservation projects involve citizen science and participation. When people have a chance to work along side well-known scientists or photographers it, makes them VERY excited about the subject and, I believe, it motivates them to become more involved, including donating money.
ILCP membership is based heavily on one skill — the ability to produce stunning images. Thus the ILCP can seem elitist. We realize there are many photographers who take brilliant images and work very hard on conservation who are not quite to the standard of ILCP, but who could still benefit from working with ILCP in some way. Using social media, we can create an extended ILCP community without actually extending membership.
We hope that this will help our followers grow as photographers and conservationists, so at some point they can join ILCP as a member. This also fosters communication, moderated by ILCP, between emerging photographers and the extremely talented members of the ILCP. All of this empowers conservation. The bigger the army, the better!
MJ: Have ILCP members embraced this new social media initiative?
TF: I don’t have any concrete numbers or names but in the last two months I have noticed, especially on Twitter, more of our members tweeting. Even some of members with more years under their belts.
There are certainly a few of our members who are quite skilled with social media tools. Not surprisingly, most of them are our younger members or emerging members. A few names that come to mind are Chris Linder and Ian Shive. Both have helped ILCP produce the first Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition blog (Borderlands RAVE) in addition to a few other projects.
There are two upcoming Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions (RAVE): one to the Flathead basin in British Columbia in July 2009 and one to the Yucatan Peninsula in September 2009. Stay tuned for a RAVE website with field dispatches, the ability to track expedition members, and live photos and video.
Miki Johnson: You are obviously very passionate about nature and conservation issues. Where does that passion come from?
Daniel Beltra: Really since I was a kid I was passionate about nature and photography. I was interested at first in being an agency photojournalist, and I managed to get a staff position with EFE — the Spanish national agency. I was shooting all kinds of stories, but still with a taste for nature. I never finished college but I did a couple years of forestry engineering and four years of biology. Then I got tired of the normal day-to-day photographic work –- from the press conference to the basketball match to a demonstration. I wanted to do stories more in depth. I ended up quitting my job and I started working for Gamma, which allowed me to shoot stories that I selected and to give them more time.
At the same time I started shooting for Greenpeace, which opened this whole world to me as a photographer. That was really an incredible opportunity. All of a sudden I found myself traveling to Polynesia or the Antarctic or to Patagonia. So I was really on the frontier where many of these environmental issues were happening.
I got started with Greenpeace when I was a staff photographer in Spain. I talked to their local branch and they said, we do a lot with the media, so if something is going on in your area we’ll let you know. They called me one day and said they were doing a mammal survey on the Mediterranean. So I talked with my boss at EFE and he said, “Yeah right. What’s the news? And you want to take two weeks to do it?” I ended up convincing him to let me go on my own holiday time. I went with the agreement that if the story was good enough, the agency would distribute it. I was willing to go on my holiday because I was really passionate about it and I saw that it was a great opportunity.
I had a great time, they ended up distributing the story, and Greenpeace really liked it too. They came back to me and said, if you want to work with us, we’d be really happy to have you. But I was a staff photographer and I couldn’t. Then in 1992 I quit my job and started working with Greenpeace in Spain and also Greenpeace International, which is based in Holland. Since then I’ve been really involved with them. From 1992 until I moved to the United States in 2001 I was the Spain correspondent for Gamma. And often Gamma would say, “Are you working for Greenpeace or are you working for us?” Because I always wanted to go on the Greenpeace assignments. Of course Gamma had interesting assignments, but it’s very hard to compete with someone saying, “Do you want to go on a survey of the Arctic for three months on an icebreaker?” That was a no-brainer for me.
Greenpeace is my main client by far. They don’t employ any staff photographers; they work only with freelancers. I think they are clever the way they always want to have names in the industry that are recognized. So there’s a bit of a separation between the activism and the professional journalist that comes in. And in my case I try to keep that line separated, but deep in my soul I am very loyal to Greenpeace. But they don’t tell me what to shoot or anything. Of course they tell me they want a story about the Amazon, but once I’m there they don’t say show this, don’t show that.
Things are really changing with non-profits. I get the feeling that some non-profits can afford to pay regular market fees now. Maybe not 100%, but 75%. I think Greenpeace is very clever…they decided what are the best means to reach the public and inform the most people. And good photography or good video is a great tool. So to put someone that can do a great job in a situation that is very interesting and then they expose that in the media, it tends to work very well.
I feel that my work has more impact now than when I was a photojournalist. Not because I am better, but because of the situations I’m working in. I’m not only documenting what’s happening, but there’s a really strong will to change the situation. Greenpeace has pioneered that.
Celia Gelfman, a technician on the research team, threw down the gauntlet one day while I was photographing in the lab: Capture the beauty of bioluminescence. I followed Celia to the walk-in refrigerator where the tiny crustaceans called zooplankton are stored. Celia presented me with a big jug of water. I could see a few translucent critters about the size of a pencil tip swimming around. Then Celia poured some of the water over a sieve, and wow! For a few seconds after the pour, neon-blue Metridia lit up and raced around the mesh. The challenge was on to find a way to photograph these glowing animals.
The goal of this scientific expedition to the Bering Sea is to understand how a warming climate is affecting the food web. Research teams on the ship are studying phytoplankton (microscopic marine plants), copepods like Metridia, and krill (larger zooplankton that resemble shrimp). These “charismatic microfauna” are found throughout the world’s oceans, and they are food for other zooplankton, fish, birds, and even whales. Among the many zooplankton species that scientists have collected on this expedition, one has a very special trait. Metridia, when disturbed, give off a neon blue light like an underwater firefly. This is called bioluminescence.
I enlisted writer Helen Fields to hold the sieve over the sink and we started experimenting. First, we turned off the overhead lights and blocked the fluorescent light leaking out from under a counter. In order to record only the light from the copepods, I needed the room to be dark. Next I set up my Nikon D700 and a 105mm macro lens on a tripod and aimed it at the surface of the sieve (using a flashlight to manually focus on the sieve). I was assuming that, just like lightning, the neon trails of moving Metridia would burn bright lines into a dark background during a long time exposure. The first exposure confirmed that they would indeed show up. It took a few more tries to find the perfect shutter speed (four seconds) and the best way to hold the sieve (duct tape, of course!) Lastly, the Metridia had to make an interesting composition. It took about an hour to make this image.
Tonight (May 11th), we arrive in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where this journey began nearly six weeks ago. I’d like to extend a big thank you to our sponsors, the National Science Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, for supporting the most important and fulfilling work I have ever done. I would also like to thank the RESOLVE blog for helping me get the word out about climate change science in the Bering Sea. What’s next? This July I’ll be trading sea ice for mosquitoes when I travel to eastern Siberia to document researchers studying arctic rivers and lakes. Visit the Polaris Project to follow our adventures.
Miki Johnson: Did Aina meet with any resistance at first?
Reza Deghati: To give you an image, in 2002 we announced we were going to have a photography courses. There was no telephone, no electricity, no satellite, no running water. I said, it doesn’t matter, we can do it. Two days after we announced the courses, we had 500 people who signed up. We gave them a paper to write their resume on, told them what that was, and how to write it. We spent a few weeks reading the resumes, sorting out 55 students for interviews and we posted that list. The next Wednesday we had 700 people show up. Everybody said, “I didn’t see my name, I thought maybe there was a mistake.” The people in Afghanistan are like a dry sponge. They need every single drop. You cannot imagine how fast-learning they are.
In which city in the U.S. can you bring in seven girls who have never touched anything like a camera, train them, and in nine months they can make a documentary that is nominated for an Emmy award? These are the people who can change their own country much more than we can. And the enthusiasm of those people…You have to be there to see the eyes of the women who listen to the radio. Or when we distribute the magazine, see the whole village come to thank us.
During the first ever Afghan presidential election, everyone was saying, it’s going to be very tough. People won’t show up. And to the astonishment of the whole world community, it was the smoothest election. When all the world’s communities were astonished, Afghanistan’s foreign minister in a press conference said, “One of the reason our country understands democracy, is thanks to AINA.” These are the impact the organization is having now. But for me, the real outcome is 20 to 30 years from now.
MJ: What has been the biggest challenge Aina has faced?
RD: The real challenge and real problem is how to get funding for this project. Because when you are a pioneer, and you have a new idea, many people don’t understand the idea, or they think it’s not matching their organization’s mandate.
So I thought, “Well Reza, look in the mirror, you are a photographer, see what you can bring in.” I made a big auction in 2002 of 50 of my prints and two cameras I used to have with me in conflict zones, a Leica and a Canon. I was trying to send a message to all my colleagues saying that we need to be more involved. We are in contact with this population and we know how they are suffering and we have to give back to them. So from that moment some of our projects started attracting donations. But there were times when some projects, or the whole organization, were not getting funding. So then I started putting in all my income. When that wasn’t enough, I put in 100% of my savings, and did more auctions — three auctions up until now.
The reason I was doing this was that I believed this would be one of the big things the world needs in the 21st century. I believe training these local journalists will help create the big change. The main challenge was helping people understand that giving educational tools to children is more important than just building schools. But every time I found myself explaining this to someone and another NGO was talking about building a school, at the end they were writing checks to the people building schools, not building minds.
We have done 12 issues of our children’s magazine. Every time we have money, we print 40,000 copies and distribute them free everywhere. This costs 50,000 Euros, about $60,000. Think of 60,000 dollars in front of one day of U.S. military operational cost — and then think about what the result of these 40,000 magazines could bring.
Another challenge for me is explaining the importance of what we are doing to people in other countries. They say, “Our children have bookshelves that are full of books and magazines. They don’t mean anything.” So when I tell people about these children’s magazines we print, it’s hard to imagine what their importance is. But we’re talking about our magazine being the first ever printed color material ever seen in the whole village. Once we brought a single copy of the magazine to a whole village. When I went back after three weeks, 150 people had gone through that magazine. Fifty children had learned by heart some of the stories. That’s one of my challenges, how to explain to people how important these projects are. Or how many children’s lives do we save with one radio by helping women understand what the causes of child mortality are.
So how do we deal with funding? The National Geographic mission program is one way. But who is the second? National Geographic is not for profit. It’s not a foundation with deep pockets. This year they have to cut millions of dollars out of their budget. And we want to expand to other countries, also. The whole project is like a toolbox. When we go to a country and see a government that doesn’t like one of our projects, we can have a tool that is matching every country in the world, because of our concept of a toolbox. We can go to Cuba, Syria, Burma and be accepted by the government. That’s the whole concept. And by working and living in those countries, I’ve come to realize how you can get through those problems.
MJ: What can photographers and photo industry professionals do to help?
RD: We have launched Aina photo agency. If all the magazines in the world would look first at Aina Photo’s website when they are looking for pictures from Afghanistan, or if we can find a way to promote Aina Photo’s website, it will help its operation. So I’m talking to photo buyers first. If we sold one picture per day, at say $200, it would help the whole agency to run. If we can bring magazines in the world to understand that if you buy pictures from them, you are helping, because we are training more photographers now. You just helped train more photographers. And editors don’t take money out of their pockets, they get good pictures. If you give one assignment to an Aina photographer, instead of sending one person from Paris, you save hotel, interpreter, guide, and security fee. You save a lot of money. You gain by saying : I got better pictures, the pictures I wanted. But also in other parts you have a better conscience.
For photographers to help, when I launch this whole international organization, I will need membership. I’m going to ask all my colleagues if they want to help this project by becoming a member. This is a new form of social networking internationally. Many photographers are passing through Afghanistan, so I invite them to come to Kabul and give a lecture. In return they’ll get a lot of help. One of the projects I’m thinking of launching will be an international worldwide auctioning of prints by famous photographers who want to help this project. Like I did.
Miki Johnson: Tell me about this award and how it will work.
Daniel Beltrá: For me, the most exciting part of this award is the book. We are working with Stuart Smith, who is one of the best book designers in the world. Amongst others, he does books for Eliot Erwitt and James Nachtwey. The idea is to create a very limited edition book of only 500 copies. Prince Charles is going to offer it to prominent people, and heads of state around the world. There’s a conference in November and he’s going to be giving this book to many presidents as a personal present from him. All this is to gear up the world and get them to commit to stop tropical deforestation as a way to tackle global warming.
Of course every photographer that makes a book hopes that it will have some impact, but I’ve never seen one used at this level before. They have very clear ideas of how they want the book made: They only want it to be 70 or 80 pages; they want big pictures; and they want to reach an equilibrium between the biodiversity, the indigenous populations, the impending destruction and sustainable solutions. This is a worldwide problem so they don’t want to point any fingers or blame anyone — it’s everybody’s responsibility. Tropical deforestation creates 20% of the CO2 released, which is more than the entire transport sector in the world. If you stopped all the trains and the planes and the cars and boats in the world, you still would manage to drop the CO2 level more if you just stopped tropical deforestation, so it’s a no-brainer really. So what Prince Charles and his Rainforests Project want to do is create a huge fund where the world would put money for these countries so they don’t cut further and further.
I haven’t done a book before, so I’m excited but it’s such short notice it feels like a sprint for six months. Luckily there are a lot of very capable and talented people around me and that’s going to help a lot. Sony for example is putting so much effort in because they are launching a new line to the professional market. And they have great technology. We’re going to be doing exhibitions and they have these big weatherproof screens that can be set up outdoors to show the images.
MJ: It sounds like you are on a pretty tight schedule. Is it hard working with NGOs sometimes that don’t have realistic expectations for how long photo projects take?
DB: I basically have three to four weeks per country to go to three places: the Brazilian Amazon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia, which is probably going to be Borneo and Sumatra. The shooting list they gave me originally was too wide, so we’re going to use some of my past photography, and that will help a lot. The portfolio I presented for this award was 30 of my best photographs. Those were images I made during nine years working in the Amazon. I’m not going to get the same thing in a few weeks. My personal idea was to have good photography drive the project and not a really specific shooting list, because there’s not really enough time for that. The Amazon is the size of the continental U.S. or Europe. You could spend weeks just trying to reach a particular spot. The distances are enormous and many of the places need to be reached by plane, so it’s a challenge. But I’m confident we’re going to produce a good piece.
MJ: It must have been interesting to find yourself sitting with the Prince of Wales, showing him your photographs.
DB: The commitment Prince Charles has made to this issue is really global. When we met in London and I was showing him my photos, he really knew a lot about the issues. He was saying, oh this is palm oil in Indonesia, I’ve been working with this and I went there last year. He’s very knowledgeable and he’s very passionate about the environment. There are so many people who are so high in the world, who could sit back and have a relaxed life, so it’s very humbling to see how committed he is.
It doesn’t make much sense. My career has been a complete snowball. I started in photography in 1988. And until 2005 I didn’t participate in a single competition. But in 2005, Tom Stoddart saw the story I did on the drought in the Amazon and he said, “You need to send this to the World Press.” And I was saying, “I don’t know.” And he said, “Daniel, please trust me, send this to the World Press.” And then a week before the deadline Tom called and said, “Did you send that to the World Press?” And I said no. He said, “Daniel, send it!” So I did — and I won an award.
That really opened the world for me. I went to Amsterdam and I met all these other photographers and I thought, wow, I don’t feel any more like this crazy guy who works 90% of his time on environmental issues, because at that time conservation wasn’t such a hot topic. In 2007 I got another World Press award then last year I got the inaugural Global Vision Award from Picture of the Year International (POYi) and I’ve gotten 10 big awards in 4 years. Then, a couple years ago, I was invited to join the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). It was such an honor to be part of a group of dedicated photographers I had admired for so long. So it’s been a total rollercoaster for me.
So suddenly, you become a name in photography when a few years ago you were nobody. It doesn’t mean that much ultimately, and I don’t want it to go to my head. I want to have time to go and shoot. There are so many important stories that need to be told. But this publicity is also a great way to expose what’s happening to more people. So I am more and more open to doing exhibitions and giving talks, but it’s difficult to handle sometimes. And at the end of the day, I need to figure out how to make a better business decisions so I can hire help and have more time.
I remember until just a few years ago, when I would turn in a story to Greenpeace, who I work with a lot, I would just try to rest a little. Now it’s like I’m more busy when I come home than when I’m shooting. It’s almost a relaxation to go in the field. It’s like, no more email, no more phone, and whatever happens, I’ll deal with it when I’m back. Nobody is obliging me to do this, I am extremely lucky and can’t complain. But I want to make sure I’m maximizing the impact of my work and I also want to have a life.
In addition to documenting the tools and techniques scientists are using to understand the Bering Sea ecosystem, my other mission here on the icebreaker Healy is to showcase the beauty of this otherworldly environment. A key part of that environment is sea ice. Sea ice is formed from the freezing of seawater, as opposed to icebergs and ice shelves, which are formed on land as compacted snow and ice and slide into the ocean. Sea ice ranges in thickness from paper-thin to up to ten feet. Most of the ice we have encountered has been between 1-2 feet thick. Seals and walrus use sea ice to nurse their newborn pups. Ice cores reveal brownish-green ice algae growing on the underside of the ice, which nourishes tiny animals, which in turn feed the rest of the web of life. Without sea ice, the Bering Sea would be a very different place.
You might imagine that ice pretty much looks the same-it’s all frozen water, right? Turns out that when water with salt in it freezes, it actually goes through a number of different phases, each one of them quite beautiful. While it’s hard to say which type of ice is my favorite (I’m an ice junkie; I love them all), I am particularly drawn to the broken up bits that mark the ice edge, where waves from the open ocean cause the floes to bump into each other and crack up into tiny jagged pieces, giving the ocean surface the look of a big jigsaw puzzle. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is a stormy place. Cloudy days and gray skies have been the norm. So I am often looking for scene-setting icescape shots at the edges of the day just after sunset and before sunrise when the sky glows blue.
One of the tools in a photographer’s bag of tricks is the ability to stop action or blur it based on their choice of shutter speed. One evening as I watched the broken up chunks of ice slide past the side of the ship, I got the idea to shoot ice in an impressionistic way that conveyed that motion. I set up my tripod and connected a cable release. My first attempts, using just a several second shutter speed, rendered the ice as long wavy lines streaking across the frame. It was interesting, but almost too surreal. I needed to see some definition in the ice while retaining that sense of motion. A little pop of light from a Nikon SB-900 speedlight zoomed to 200mm gave me what I was looking for. I set it to a slow, rear curtain sync mode and blasted away at the moving ice again and again, hoping that just the right shapes would come into view at the right time. After a few dozen tries this composition floated into my frame.
Carmen Suen: Tell me about how the “I Dream To…” program works.
Amy Tierney: It is a semester long program where me and my co-instructor, photographer Emily Hart Roth, go to the participating schools every week for a one-and-a-half-hour class to teach the girls the skills that they need to be a photojournalist, including how to use a camera, how to use Lightroom to produce edits, how to conduct an interview, and so on. Each of them has to choose a woman who they want to do an interview with, usually someone in the career field of the student’s dream, or someone who inspires them.
Towards the end of the semester, they interview their subject, take pictures during the interview, and write up an article as their final projects. We then post these articles on the “I Dream To…” blog, so others can see their work. We also take the girls to a photography studio so they can see what a true working studio and a photographer’s daily work life is like.
But the highlight of the program is the exhibition. Not only do the girls get the chance to show family and friends their own work, but they can also be introduced to different people in the community. It’s a great way for them to practice their social skills.
CS: What is your role in this program?
AT: I am actually a founder and mentor of the “I Dream To…” program, which started in 2007. At the time, I was already involved with StepUp Women’s Network’s L.A. Chapter. One of the mission of StepUp is to inspire and empower high school girls in underserved communities to achieve their dreams. I believe art can help us understand the world around us. And so I decided to bring art to these high school girls. Because of my own background, photography seemed to be the obvious choice.
Through photography, photojournalism in particular, you get the opportunity to interact with a multitude of people. I think people skills is one of the most essential skills for one to succeed in life.
CS: Do you feel like the program is achieving its goals?
AT: I would say it’s very well received. Jamie Kogan, Step Up Women’s Network’s program manager really keeps us going. This year is the third year, and the program has expanded from L.A. to Chicago and New York. We got so many hugs and thank-yous at the end of each semester. Some of the girls who have participated in the program have taken a serious interest in photojournalism and have decided to pursue it as a career. That’s a very big encouragement for us.
We also have to thank our sponsors for helping us financially. Our organization is non-profit and depends largely on financial assistance from our donors. We hope that they will continue to help make this program happen.
Launched in 2005 under the Documentary Photography Project, the $5,000-$30,000 grant pushes photographers to explore innovative ways to present and disseminate photography, asking them to partner with organizations that can help their work have a meaningful impact on social justice and human rights issues.
The submission deadline for the 2009 grant is June 19, 2009. We know photographers are busy and tend to submit last minute, but since the grant requires applicants to have established a relationship with an NGO, advocacy organization, or other entity, we’re encouraging you to get started on this one right away. To help you understand what the Open Society Institute (OSI) is looking for, we talked to Yukiko Yamagata, Program Officer and Exhibition Manager for the Documentary Photography Project. Guidelines from OSI here.
Carmen Suen: What is the most important thing for photographers to note when applying for this grant?
Yukiko Yamagata: It’s important that photographers identify what impact they hope to have on a given issue, and to explore the best ways they can reach the goals they establish. It’s also helpful for them to do a lot of research on what efforts already exist in social justice and human rights efforts, so they are not reinventing the wheel. That way they can build on what’s already been done, identify obstacles other people have faced, and understand how the use of photography can help to overcome these obstacles.
We encourage photographers to look outside the field of photography and to become familiar with what’s happening in other fields that employ visual means for advocacy, civic engagement, community organizing, or public education. For example, reading case studies and critical analysis of public and community-based art could really inform photographers about methodologies and best practices for partnering with organizations, working with a community, and engaging the community in the actual development and implementation of the project. The Community Arts Network, Animating Democracy, and the Walker Art Center Education and Community Programs Department are just a few examples of organizations that provide helpful resources for developing art-specific engagement projects.
CS: What are some of the things to consider when looking for a partner for this grant?
YY: Find a partner organization that has a successful track record, and is already engaged in that issue or the distribution mechanism you’re proposing. You also want to engage with partners that bring in new areas of expertise rather than duplicating your own skill set.
In certain cases, you may want to have more than one partner organization. For example, if you’re thinking about creating educational curricula for high schools in the U.S., you could have a partner who is advocating on the issue and understands the community you’re trying to reach, and another whose expertise is in developing and distributing educational curricula.
CS: Are there any common mistakes that applicants should avoid?
YY: We often get projects that talk about “educating the public” or “raising awareness” in a very general way. It’s important to go beyond that and think about what audience is best positioned to create change on the issue you’re addressing. Is it policy makers? Or is it community advocates? Or perhaps the community itself? Once you figured out who your audience is, the next step is to find out what venues or outlets would reach that audience most effectively.
Another important element is the mechanism used to engage your target audience. Often what happens is you have this beautiful photography exhibition that is incredibly powerful and moving, but by the time the audience members go home, you’ve lost them. You need to show us some of the ways that you will incorporate programming and follow-up activity to mobilize the people who see your photographs and inspire them to take action.
In terms of the actual writing of the proposal, we encourage applicants to present their project in a very clear and concise way and to avoid jargon. Definitely be clear about the goals of the project, the partner(s), the target audience, and why you chose a particular venue.
CS: Are there a few recipients who were especially able to use the grant to create positive change in communities they documented?
YY: We funded a project by Lori Waselchuk last year that just launched last week where she is working to encourage the integration of hospice programs into prison health care. She is collaborating with the Louisiana-Mississippi Hospice & Palliative Care Organization to mount a photography exhibit at Angola Prison and she plans to tour it to correctional facilities in Mississippi and Louisiana.
This project is great because, number one, the partner organization is just as committed as she is to the project and it’s really taking the lead to place the exhibit to other correctional facilities. The venue that she has chosen targets people who are in the position to make decisions about prison health care, and she presents the materials directly to them. By placing the exhibit at the prison, she is able to bring the public to the place where these decisions are being felt.
We also funded a project by Nina Berman in which she documented American soldiers wounded in Iraq. She toured the exhibition to 10 high schools throughout the U.S. that were targeted by military recruiters. By bringing the exhibit to these schools and organizing lectures with a soldier from her photographs, she is able to bring attention, in a very personal way, to the impact the war has on soldiers’ lives. She was very strategic in her thinking in terms of the venue and the audience, and how the photographs would help high school students not only learn about this issue, but also provide an alternative narrative to what the recruiters had been telling them about the benefits of enlisting.
As a photojournalist I have observed an important thing, that most coverage of world events — especially in places like Afghanistan –- is done by white men between 30 and 40 year old. All those male journalists do interviews with Afghan men but have no access to the lives of the other 50% of the Afghan population. What about Afghan women’s stories? Who can tell them? Even if you have one or two women journalists there, the minute they have their own male interpreter and bodyguards, they cannot go inside the houses. They may be able to go inside some open-minded families’ houses, but they are are only talking to a tiny percentage of Afghan women. So who is the best to cover Afghan women? The Afghan women themselves.
This was how we started the Aina video project for Afghan women, asking them to make documentaries. The first ever documentary like this was called Afghanistan Unveiled. We trained seven Afghan women to hold a camera for the first time, and nine months later their film was shown on PBS, the National Geographic channel, more than 20 international channels, at festivals…everywhere. In 2005 it was nominated for an Emmy award as one of four best foreign documentaries. It was because the story was totally different from what we’d heard before. The women knew where to go and who to talk to and how to express themselves. We also had one of Aina’s former student, Farzana Wahidy, who got the National Geographic All Roads honor. She was the first Afghan female photojournalist to receive this award.
In these ways we continued to develop the idea that Aina was founded on. Then one day the UN came to us saying, Reza, what would be the best tool to send out messages to the maximum number of people in the villages and cities? Obviously, as a visual person, I came up with this idea, which was used before in many countries a long time ago, of the mobile cinema project. We have mobile units going from village to village, school to school, with big screens and nice projectors. And Aina students make films that are informative and educational. It connected the population immediately and the whole cycle became local.
We also created a children’s magazine designed to provide both children and their families with important information. It’s not an entertainment magazine; it’s about understanding each other and the whole world, which is especially important in this part of the world. so little-by-little this children’s magazine and women’s radio have become our main projects.
I think that the 21st century needs a new humanitarian organization, and for me this is Aina. I call it a “third-generation” humanitarian organization. It’s not giving people bread; it’s helping them to make their own bread. The big difference between all the existing NGOs and what we are doing is that we want to train local people, help them to become independent completely, to take their countries in their own hands — and then we leave.
So today, after almost nine years in existence, here are some very brief figures: Aina has trained 1,000 Afghans, three to four hundred of whom are women. The first Afghan independent media, called Kabul Weekly, is still going on, and it’s highly respected. We launched an Afghan women’s radio station; we launched a kids’ magazine; we have this production unit making films. And we created the first Afghan photo agency, AINA Photo Agency. It’s an independent photo agency, whose shareholders are the photographers that we trained. They are the owners of their own agency. Kabul Weekly is 100-percent independent media that seldom needs outside help.
By creating a national messaging system, we’ve created all the tools now to replace these psychologists we would need to help people in war-torn countries heal. But the biggest result will be long term. When you start educating women and girls, you are educating the next generation of mothers to educate their children. And we not only trained 1,000 people who then found fantastic jobs, we also created jobs.That’s why Aina, as the first of this kind of organization in the world, has such a positive outcome. That’s why in 2009, with the help of the National Geographic Mission Program and for which they named me a fellow of the National Geographic society, I’m going to launch an international organization to bring the most important aspects of Aina to other countries.