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Let’s say you’ve created an amazing documentary photo project about an important issue. You have the photos, maybe some audio and video — then what happens? You could do a book or an exhibition that a few thousand people will see, but will those be the people most likely to create the kind of change you envisioned when you first picked up your camera? If you are the recipient of the Open Society Institute’s Distribution Grant, you can answer that question with a confident “Yes.”

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.

Paul Krolowitz, 53, says goodbye to his friend Richard "Grasshopper" Liggett, 55, who is fighting advanced liver and lung cancers. Krolowitz and Liggett worked for many years together in the Angola State Penitentiary carpentry workshop. Liggett spent the last months of his under the care of the Angola Hospice program. Krolowitz came to see Liggett just hours before he was released from prison on a work release program.

Paul Krolowitz, 53, says goodbye to his friend Richard "Grasshopper" Liggett, 55, who is fighting advanced liver and lung cancers. Krolowitz and Liggett worked for many years together in the Angola State Penitentiary carpentry workshop. Liggett spent the last months of his life under the care of the Angola Hospice program.© Lori Waselchuk/Courtesy OSI

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.

Often 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.

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.

In the short time since photographers Cara Phillips and Amy Elkins launched Women In Photography in June 2008, the online exhibition space for female photographers has received a deluge of recognition and submissions that at times have overwhelmed the founders — who manage the website in their spare time, for free. They announced their first grant, for $3,000, several weeks ago. With the May 1 deadline approaching, we wanted to talk with Amy and Cara about how the grant fits into their larger goals, and what applicants need to know about the submission process.
"Eden" by Women In Photography exhibitor Kelli Connell ©Kelli Connell

"Eden" by Women In Photography exhibitor Kelli Connell ©Kelli Connell

Miki Johnson: Tell me briefly about the goals of WIPNYC and why it was important to be able to offer this grant.

WIP: Women in Photography is an online exhibition project designed to highlight the work of emerging, mid-career, and established artists. Our goal is to be a resource for curators, editors, and publishers, and also to create a visual dialog between women artists working in the photographic medium.

We have both been overwhelmed by the positive response to the site. Both of us have spent a great deal of time thinking about what we want the site to contribute to the photographic community. The next logical step in our programming was a grant. Because like the site, it allows us to both support and call attention to the work of women artists.

MJ: What is the main goal of this grant?

WIP: The main goal of the grant is to provide funding to one female photographer in support of a project. I think funding is a problem for artists working in all mediums, unless you have independent means or are extremely successful in the commercial art world. Photographers must pay for film, processing, equipment, travel, in addition to the high cost of creating work for exhibition or self-publishing. We both have struggled to fund our own work and find great importance in these types of opportunities. With so few grants available, it just seemed great to be able to give back.

MJ: How will you determine the recipient? Do you have any tips for photographers planning to submit?

WIP: We will select the recipient based on the quality of work, and the need of the applicant along with the strength of their project proposal. The most important thing is to submit five of your strongest images from a cohesive body of work as well as make sure to write clear, concise, and persuasive project goals. The grant is open to women at any stage in their career, except students. It is open to the artists previously shown on as well.

MJ: And the grant recipient will also be exhibited at

WIP: The grant recipient will have a solo show on the site in June. In addition, we will have an award reception, including a slideshow presentation of the grant recipients’ work at the National Arts Club in New York City.

Because the solo shows we feature are online, we can reach a broader audience. Our visitors do not need to be in a specific city because they are accessing the work worldwide. The site traffic has grown dramatically with each show, which is one of the benefits of exhibiting work online. Several of our artists have seen a noticeable increase of traffic on their own sites. Being featured on the site has led to many things, including magazine assignments and inquiries from publishers and galley representation.

Last year, Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey started the Emerging Photographers Grant as a way to encourage one talented young photographer to continue their work. With the April 1 deadline quickly approaching for this year’s grant (which has doubled to $10,000), we decided to talk with last year’s grant recipient, Beijing-based documentary photographer Sean Gallagher, about his winning project, tips on submissions, and how the grant has impacted his work.

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.


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