December 14th, 2012

Open Society Announces 2012 Audience Engagement Grant Winners

The Open Society Foundations (OSF) has announced the winners of its 2012 Audience Engagement Grants. The annual grants, which vary in dollar amounts, support documentary projects that propose to go beyond using photography to raise awareness of issues, and “take a more direct role in making change happen.” Each photographer partners with an organization to present the work to new audiences and engagement them in effecting political or social change. For the first time in the history of the grant, all the projects are located in the United States.

The 2012 winners are:

Emily Schiffer, in partnership with the Center for Urban Transformation and Magnum Foundation:
“See Potential” (Chicago, Illinois)
“See Potential,” profiled in PDN’s Community issue (see “Helping Communities Speak for Themselves: See Potential”) uses banners created using documentary photographs captured in South Side neighborhoods to promote four urban revitalization projects in the Englewood and Bronzeville neighborhoods. Neighbors are asked to show their support for the projects via text message.

Robin Bowman, in partnership with The American Teenager Project: “The American Teenager Project” (Richmond, California)
Robin Bowman will work with local arts organizations, high schools, and advocacy groups in Richmond, California—such as Community Leaders Organizing Undocumented Dreamers (CLOUD) to create an exhibition, curriculum and storytelling workshops, and a program to train youth and teachers to be ambassadors for the program who will stimulate youth engagement on civil and human rights issues.

Joseph Rodriguez, in partnership with New America Media: “Re-entry Stories” (Richmond and San Jose, California)
Joseph Rodriguez will train journalism students and youth reporters fro Santa Clara University and the University of California, Berkeley, as well as reporters from New America Media’s youth media hubs to sensitively and accurately document the stories of people re-entering society after incarceration and create multimedia presentations. Their work will be featured alongside Rodriguez’s “Re-entry in Los Angeles” and shown at forums to strengthen advocacy for criminal justice reforms in California.

Jon Lowenstein, in partnership with Trans-Border Institute: “Escondido en Escondido” (Escondido, California)
Jon Lowenstein will provide faith leaders and religious youth groups in Escondido, California, with tools and training to document and address immigration issues and promote community integration. The resulting images will be combined with Lowenstein’s “Shadow Lives USA” and distributed in Escondido as a newsprint handout; additional content will be available to readers using an augmented reality browser, Junaio.

The winning proposals were selected this year by Claudine Brown (former Director of the Arts and Culture Program, Nathan Cummings Foundation and currently Assistant Secretary for Education and Access, Smithsonian Institution); Stephen Ferry (photographer and past Audience Engagement Grant recipient); and Wendy Levy (co-founder, Sparkwise and Senior Strategist, Tomorrow Partners). Fred Ritchin (Professor, Photography & Imaging, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University).

Related Articles:

Anatomy of a Successful Grant Application: Jon Lowenstein’s Guggenheim Fellowship Addressing America’s Invisible Problem (founded by Steve Liss and Jon Lowenstein)

Helping Communities Speak for Themselves: See Potential

August 21st, 2012

New Study Suggests Good Reason for NGOs to Hire Photographers

Steve Liss,  "" exhibit

© Steve Liss/

How generously people give to charities is influenced by where they live and how often they see people in need, a new study finds. And that has implications for photographers, and for non-profits who need compelling storytelling to help them raise money.

People earning between $50,000 and $99,999 a year give a higher percentage of their discretionary income to charities than people making over $200,000 do, a new study from the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports. The study notes that while rich people give more to charities in dollar amounts, they give a lower percentage of their disposable income than people who earn less.

That’s due to isolation, the study finds. People who live in wealthy enclaves (zip codes where more than 40 percent of households earn $200,000 a year or more) rarely encounter people who benefit from charitable programs; they also give a smaller portion of their income to charity. The study, which includes an interactive map showing how charitable giving breaks down by state and zip code, also shows that the rate of giving goes up among wealthy people who live in more economically diverse communities. (Because it based its report on tax returns that list tax-deductible donations, the study doesn’t distinguish between donations made to religious organizations, educational institutions, social programs or other non-profits.)  People who see neighbors relying on the local food pantry to make it through the month give more generously than those who never see the impact charitable organizations can have.

“Simply seeing someone in need at the grocery store—or looking down the street at a neighbor’s modest house—can serve as basic psychological reminders of the needs of other people,” says Paul Piff, a postdoctoral scholar in psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. Piff says the differences in attitude toward charitable giving dissolve when people are simply made aware of poverty. For example, he showed participants in his study a video about childhood poverty.

That means that charities have to do a better job of showing and telling the stories of their clients. Photographers seeking work from NGOs and foundations can use their ability to tell stories of communities–through stills, audio interviews or video—as a sales pitch. The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s study can also provide useful insights when photographers are negotiating fees for this kind of work:  In-depth stories from and about the community a charity serves can help the organization’s fund raising, potentially inspiring bigger donations from the people who have the greatest resources to share.

As Piff says, “Absent that, wealth will have these egregious effects insulating you more and more.”

The fact is, it’s up to charities themselves to share these stories. Because the media rarely covers poverty.

In an article in the October issue of PDN, photographer Steve Liss explains that he and Jon Lowenstein started, a non-profit alliance of photojournalists determined “to use visual media raise awareness about poverty in the United States” after their stories about unemployment, homelessness, immigration, criminal justice and other issues affecting the poor were rejected by magazines. As Steve Liss succinctly tells PDN, “Poverty is poison.” has sought to fill that void by bringing its traveling exhibition to a variety of venues. These now include high schools: Thanks to a grant the organization received earlier this year, they are running workshops for student leaders and enlisting young people in discussions around poverty.

“We can make a difference,” says Liss. “I believe in my soul in the power of photography but we haven’t been showing it to the right people in the right venues.”

(For more on this study, see National Public Radio: Study Reveals the Geography of Charitable Giving)

     * Photo, above: Students at a high school in Rockville, Maryland view photos by Steve Liss and Eli Reed in an exhibit that student leaders mounted during a weeklong Student Leadership Program. © Steve Liss/