PhotoPlus Panel: Finding Funding for Your Documentary Work

At the 2011 PhotoPlus Expo, Aidan Sullivan, vice president of photo assignments for Getty Images, moderated the seminar, Your Picture is Important: The “Concerned Photographer” Today and How Projects Get Funded. With a panel that included both grant recipients and foundation employees, the goal was to help attendees get a better understanding of the various avenues of support available for advocacy photojournalism.

Shrinking editorial budgets throughout the media world have made grant and fundraising more important than ever for photojournalists. As Sullivan pointed out at the beginning of the seminar, a simple Internet search will produce numerous grants available for photographers. However, the more elusive part of the process is figuring out how to actually get awarded those funds.

Amy Yenkin, a director for the Open Society Foundations, explained what her “advocacy oriented” foundation is looking for when it comes to funding projects: a long-term commitment and thorough knowledge of the issue, an engagement with the community being photographed, the respect of non-governmental or non-profit organizations working on the issue, an awareness of what other photographers are doing regarding the issue and past success on previous projects or partnerships.

While Yenkin noted that her foundation is open to projects that highlight both the problem and/or solution regarding an issue, Emma Raynes, Emergency Fund program director at the Magnum Foundation, said her organization prefers to focus on underreported issues “in anticipation of powerful stories” rather than in the aftermath of them.

Both speakers emphasized the importance of working with non-profit organizations, not just for funding, but also to build a partnership. The effect a non-profit can have on a photographer’s work was exemplified when photographer RaMell Ross spoke about his experiences shooting in the economically depressed “Black Belt” of the Southern United States. Ross works at the non-profit Youthbuild and began phootgraphing his students as well as abandoned schools in the area. His photography came to the attention of the non-profit For | By | For, which helped him set-up a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for an exhibit, the proceeds of which were donated to Youthbuild.

Kickstarter actually played an important role in many of the case studies presented at the seminar. Yenkin listed seven different sources of support, including a Kickstarter campaign, for Saiful Huq Omi’s project photographing Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Raynes also noted that the Magnum Foundation helps set up Kickstarter campaigns for Emergency Fund recipients, including one for this year’s W. Eugene Smith grant recipient, Krisanne Johnson.

Persistence and patience seems to be the key when it comes to applying for grants and raising funds. This was evident when photographer Darcy Padilla spoke about her experiences after she turned down a job at The New York Times and “made a choice to be a freelancer.” Padilla won her first grant in 1990 and describes living on very little income as she continued to apply for grants and awards while shooting projects she felt were important, including The Julie Project, which consists of photos taken of the same subject over an 18-year period. She applied for the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship three times before receiving it in 1995 and the W. Eugene Smith Grant close to ten times before she was awarded it in 2010.

Padilla noted that she rewrote her winning proposal for the W. Eugene Smith Grant in order to “give it intimacy and closeness.” Perhaps this is the biggest takeaway from the seminar: the issue has to be something you’re passionate about; something you’re dedicated to documenting regardless of whether you’re on assignment or not. This passion and commitment will not only influence the photographs, it will also show foundations and donators that it is a cause you truly wish to eradicate, which may just inspire them to support your journey.

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