Awards season is upon us, and deadlines for several of photography’s prestigious grants and prizes are approaching. PDN has turned to award winners and grant and contest judges to gather advice on how to put together a winning submission. In these excerpts from the PDN archive, you’ll find tips on writing an artist’s statement, editing and organizing your submissions, and how to pitch grant makers appropriate to your work. PDN subscribers can access the full stories via the links below.
Making a submission stand out amidst hundreds of others in an open call or awards judging is difficult. Jurors almost never look at physical prints, so artists have to rely on digital images and an artist’s statement to represent their work. PDN interviewed curators at nonprofit photography organizations to find out how artists can make a bigger impact when entering juried shows.
First, read the instructions. Ashlyn Davis, the director of Houston Center for Photography, says, “A lot of times people are just blasting [submissions]—it’s like getting a resume that’s not tailored to you.”
Laura Pressley, CENTER’s director, says that too often, artists submit work that is “going through the same tropes” and “telling the same stories” because they don’t know about similar work that preceded theirs. Jurors for CENTER’s portfolio reviews respond to projects that tell “a story in a new, imaginative way.” Sarah Stolfa of Philadelphia Photo Center says jurors “will notice” a thoughtful, well-edited sequence: “It feels together, right? That helps communicate the intentionality of the artist.” Davis adds, “Being conscious of the experience of the viewer is important.”
PDN asked a curator and four photographers who also teach to offer their thoughts on what makes an artist’s statement readable and informative. “The emphasis should be on the basics of communicating something about the work,” says photographer Ron Jude. Jude believes artists are afraid that by writing too literally, they risk “pinning down the meaning of the work.” Endia Beal says that in her artist’s statement, she identifies her influences and her reasons for making her photographs. “I want to get you into what I’m trying to make and what I’m trying to say as an artist,” she explains. She sometimes asks students to tell her about their work in a conversation, before reading their statement. “They tell me this beautiful story about why they’re making the work and I’m like, ‘OK, this is not located anywhere in your artist statement.’” Jude asks students to write him a letter about their work, starting with “Dear Ron,” to make their writing less formal.
Above all, use your own language and avoid the jargon of artspeak. Says Clare Benson, “You shouldn’t rely on these really big and trendy words to make your work more interesting or make it sound like you have bigger ideas than you do.”
Each year, Light Work in Syracuse, New York, invites 12 to 15 artists to participate in its residency, which comes with a $5,000 stipend, housing and access to the Light Work facilities and faculty. The deadline to apply for a 2020 residency is July 1, 2019. Jennifer Garza-Cuen, who has won seven artist residencies, won a residency at Light Work by submitting images from her “Imag[in]ing America” project. She says editing a portfolio to submit can take months “because you have to separate yourself from the making of the images in order to see what’s there.” By stepping away from the work for a time, “then I can see whether what I was after is actually conveyed. But there’s only so much distancing we can do on our own. Bringing in other people that you trust to respond is also really helpful. Also, if you can bring in people who are not from the photo world, that’s helpful too,” she says.
Garza-Cuen learned to write an artist’s statement from articles and books about “finding words to accompany your work,” she says. “Give it the same energy you would give [to making] an image, because it’s going to represent you to the people who don’t necessarily understand the work.”
She told PDN, “My biggest advice is, once you have the materials [portfolio, bio, statement, etc.] ready, you need to be applying a lot. Sometimes people apply for one thing, don’t get it, and they’re discouraged. If you get discouraged after a couple rejections, it’s going to be very hard to build a life as an artist.”
The award-winning picture editor and Alexia Tsairis Chair for Documentary Photography at Syracuse University observes, “If you’re doing an edit for a book, or for World Press, an Alexia Grant, or whatever, it’s going to be a different edit. That’s because there are different numbers of images expected, or you need to deal with one aspect more than another for a given usage—you can be more lyrical with one, and more informational with another.” About contest submissions, Davis says, “I think the biggest mistake photographers make is that they tend to choose images based on the captions—the informational aspect. And judges respond purely to what they feel. The critical thing is choosing the first image that sets the stage for all others.” In picking that crucial first image, he says, “You have to feel something from it. It has to engage you and make you want more. But it can’t be too esoteric. If it asks too many questions, or you’re left wondering: ‘What the hell is this about?’ people will [tune out].” Choosing the first image, he says, is part of a five-step process. He recommends placing images together to look for “a third effect”: “the interaction between two images that makes you feel something that is more than either of them would have conveyed alone.”
Chelsea Matiash, a photo editor for The New York Times (formerly at The Intercept), judged applications for Getty’s Editorial Grant. Her advice applies to any grant application. For example, her Tip #1 is “Submit a complete proposal.” She explains, “People who submit a body of work that supports the proposed idea, with a concise plan of how they’ll make the photographs and when—those applications float to the top. Specify what contacts you already have, how you will get to the story and navigate it, and how you will get access to subjects. Particularly if you haven’t started the project, jurors need to hear in your proposal how you’re going to execute it.” Tip #5 is to include images that relate to your proposal—even if you’re applying for grants such as the Getty Editorial Grant, which is available for projects not yet started. The images you show have to reflect the style and tone of the work you propose to shoot. Tip #6: “To not have a publication plan makes your proposal a lot weaker,” Matiash says. “We want to know that we are funding work that’s going to get out into the world.”
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting awards more than 100 travel grants per year, and has rolling deadlines. The online application calls for a 250-word project proposal, a budget estimate and a CV. Applicants must include “a credible plan” for broad dissemination of the work once it is completed.
“I would say to someone [making] their first pitch to the Pulitzer Center: Aim small and build up that relationship,” says Beijing-based photographer Sean Gallagher, whose work focuses on environmental issues in Asia. His first grant, in 2009, was a modest sum of money for a project about desertification in China. He has since submitted winning applications for five other grants. “Once you’ve completed the first project, they’re keen to establish long-term connections with journalists.”
Pulitzer Center senior editor Tom Hundley, who reviews the grant applications, says in a video on the Center’s website that one big mistake applicants make is not researching what stories have already been funded. The other is confusing “crisis” and “conflict.” “What we’re looking for are broad, systemic crises that are underreported,” he says.
Tokyo-based photographer James Whitlow Delano, who has won half a dozen Pulitzer Center grants since 2011, says that a proposed project has a better chance of success if it connects American audiences to a pressing global issue. “Whenever I find a local issue, it’s important to bring people in New York into it, and show how we [Americans] are affecting people on the other side of the planet.” Gallagher used that strategy when he sought funding for a series of stories in China about the issue of fragile forests. “Deforestation and habitat loss are issues happening all over Asia, and all over the world,” Gallagher says. “I made sure that even though I had these very local stories, I was connecting them [in the grant proposal] to these much broader regional and global issues.”
Photographer/filmmaker Sara Terry is the founder of The Aftermath Project and a professional grant writer. In a 2015 interview, she said writing a successful grant application begins with researching the grant, including its mission statement, past winners and application questions. “Are they giving you cues that there’s a specific hook to this grant? That’s where you start.”
Terry recommends writing your statement, and getting feedback on it, before choosing photos to submit. “Then you need to understand what makes your project different, and what makes it worthy,” she says, Your application should show why your project fits the specific mission or interests of the grant-making organization, without simply parroting the organization’s own mission statement. She recommends not starting the statement with a lot of statistics or history. Helpful advice someone gave Terry was to imagine attending an event, then calling her grandmother to describe it. “What’s the first thing you would tell her about what you just saw? You’re not writing for Congressmen or bankers. You want to be able to communicate in a clear and dynamic way to someone you care about.” Terry discusses researching grants, what photographers can learn from previous grant winners, and how to write in a way that gets the attention of busy jurors.
Looking for a model of an effective grant proposal ? To accompany our interview about how she won the 2017 Canon Female Photojournalist Award, photographer Catalina Martin-Chico shared her winning proposal: An explanation of the baby boom that took place in Colombia after the end of its 50-year civil war and the disarmament of the FARC guerillas. A jury for the award found her story idea new, interesting and focused. “I thought: I’m going to suggest [a story about] the transition to peace, but with this special angle,” Martin-Chico told PDN. “It’s like entering a big palace from a little window. It’s the little story that will tell the big story.”
IMWF Women Journalist’s Grant: A Winning Application
>Photographer Julia Rendleman won a $7650 grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation to support her project about the effects of the opioid crisis and anti-drug policies on women. PDN interviewed Rendleman, who applies to eight to 12 grants per year, about her approach to writing proposals and refining her ideas for stories. IWMF senior program officer Ann Marie Valentine noted that Rendleman submitted a strong project proposal that showed she had the trust of her subjects, an understanding of the project’s challenges, and a project that differed from other projects about the opioid epidemic.
Clients, reviewers, competition jurors, and anyone else sizing up your portfolio will judge your work not just on its merits, but on the quality and care of the presentation. In the case of the Eugene Smith Foundation Grant, the quality of prints submitted by finalists is one of the criteria of the judging. This year, jurors praised not only 2014 Smith Grant recipient Joseph Sywenkyj’s project, but also the quality of his printing and presentation. In an e-mail exchange, Sywenkyj talked about the time and care he put into editing and printing a competition portfolio that was exquisite—and affordable.