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While my projects with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) take up most of my time, I now spend roughly a quarter of my year running my own freelance photography business. The reputation I have established through my WHOI work has led to some tough but rewarding assignments, like documenting shellfish farmers on Cape Cod, construction workers at the new Yankee Stadium, and medical students at a summer internship. Although the people and the settings could not be more different, the general theme is the same: people working outdoors.
A second tangible extension of my photography for WHOI is my involvement with the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). My efforts in communicating conservation science topics like climate change led me to cross paths with ILCP Director Cristina Mittermeier several years ago. She encouraged me to apply, and I joined the ILCP as an Emerging Member in 2007. Working with world-class photographers who have been covering environmental topics for decades has been a life-altering event. I participated in a RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) in May 2008 to document the impact of oil and gas development in Wyoming and will be participating in another RAVE focused on the environmental consequences of the US-Mexico border wall in January-February 2009. Working alongside photographers that share my passion for the environment is inspiring. Many of the ILCP Fellows, like Frans Lanting, Gary Braasch, and James Balog have been role models to me as I have developed my own photographic vision. Working alongside them on RAVEs and other ILCP projects is an incredible opportunity.
One of the biggest hurdles you face as a photographer when writing an education and outreach grant is: How do you get your message out there? Who is the audience and how do you reach them? You may have the best idea in the world for communicating science, but if your audience is your 58 Facebook friends, chances are you’re going to end up with a “Proposal Declined.”
To increase the audience for our “Live from the Poles” proposal, we teamed up with eight science and natural history museums across the country: the Museum of Science, Boston; Liberty Science Center, Jersey City; Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh; the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC; the Houston Museum of Natural Science; The Field Museum, Chicago; Birch Aquarium at Scripps, La Jolla, Calif.; and the Pacific Science Center, Seattle.
This collaboration has been one of the highlights of the “Live from the Poles project. It’s very symbiotic—the museums deliver kids and adults that are eager to learn about science and we provide the content: cutting-edge polar science, explained in an easy-to-digest format (daily photo essays from the field and live question-and-answer talks via satellite phone). It’s very satisfying to me, as a native Midwesterner, to teach kids in Chicago about polar oceanography through a public program at the Field Museum.
In addition to the live talks while we are in the field, museums use my still images for exhibits and slideshow presentations. Working closely with the Field Museum, I created a photography exhibition titled “Exploring the Arctic Seafloor” that is currently touring natural history and science museums across the country (at The Field Museum in Chicago from Feb. 22 to July 6).
There’s no question that effective partnerships make you more attractive to proposal reviewers, especially if each partner brings a strong component to the proposed work. Analyze your proposal for weaknesses and then find a partner that specializes in those weak areas. It takes a lot of phone calls, e-mails, and meetings to keep the team organized, but the rewards are substantial.
Although there are a number of federal agencies that fund science, including NASA, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the bulk of my grant-writing experience has been with the National Science Foundation (NSF). Each funding institution is different, so I will focus on the NSF process.
I know of only one National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that supports artistic endeavors: the Antarctic Artists and Writers grant. That is an unusual grant since it provides logistics support and access to the Antarctic continent only; no other funds are supplied.
If you want to photograph science and be paid for your work through an NSF grant, you need to either partner with a researcher submitting a scientific proposal or get your own science education grant.
1. Collaborating with a researcher
All proposals to NSF are evaluated based primarily on two criteria: “Intellectual Merit” and “Broader Impacts.” Intellectual merit is straightforward: are the proposed scientific advances worthy of funding? NSF more loosely defines broader impacts as “how well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning?” More »
When I started at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) nearly ten years ago, I was an avid photographer but had no idea that I would someday be paid to photograph researchers on the Greenland Ice Sheet and Antarctica. My first oceanography cruise for Woods Hole, in the summer of 2001, was a month aboard the 177-foot long research vessel Oceanus studying the turbulent waters west of Iceland. My job was to stand a science watch. That entails helping wrangle unwieldy instruments over the side of the ship and making sure that all of the equipment is recording data properly.
When I wasn’t on watch, I indulged my passion for photography. But it wasn’t the photographs of pilot whales and icebergs that caught the chief scientist’s eye — it was the photographs of people working aboard the ship. As a member of the science party, it was easy for me to capture candid moments of people working on deck, analyzing water samples, and playing cards. At the time I had no idea of the value of what I was doing. But when I returned home from the expedition, the photographs were used in calendars, annual reports, and presentations.
The following year, that same scientist hired me to document his 3-year project working in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. In addition to documenting the work with my camera, I also wrote daily first-person essays describing the experience and facilitated direct communication between the scientists and school kids. It was a tremendously rewarding experience, and for the first time I discovered the power of photography as an educational tool. It was also the start of a new niche for me at Woods Hole—that of a field photographer and outreach specialist. Now, although I still help with analyzing data and publishing papers, science photography and other education projects make up the bulk of my work.