On Grants, Failure, and Developing a Style

December 20th, 2008

Over the last few weeks I’ve been rejected for close to $100,000 in grants from the journalism and documentary photography world. The Alicia Patterson Fellowship, the Abe Fellowship from the Social Sciences Research Council, the Aftermath grant. I missed the Getty Images grant because I was too busy with getting ready to come to Cambodia. Photographers are notoriously deadline driven and I’m no different.

These are challenging grants to which some of the world’s best photojournalists apply. Those who’ve moved to developing countries to be closer to their work. Some who’ve done tours in wars or other conflict zones. Some who’ve studied with luminaries or met the appropriate people at the right workshops. And some who are just innately talented.

Rejection is something I’ve grown used to. In fact, there are two quotes I distinctly remember from my early days: “It’s 95 percent office work and five percent photography” and “you have to have the hide of a rhinoceros.”

And yet, in the face of another round of rejections, I think back to my meeting with David Laidler who is now with Aurora. He has always made time for me, which is something I deeply appreciate, but on this last visit he gave me something to chew on. I had mentioned Marcus Bleasedale, a photographer who has won funding from the Open Society Institute, like myself, but whose work has had much greater distribution, been in partnership with many different non governmental organizations, and whose coverage in the Congo is diverse and powerful.

Let’s just say that I aspire to be a communicator of such caliber that the people whose stories I document truly have an opportunity to be heard by a global audience. It’s not an uncommon desire for photojournalists; that was James Nachtwey’s wish for the TED Prize.

In speaking with Laidler, he looked at me and said this. “Tim, your knowledge is up here,” he held one hand up at eye level, “but your pictures are down here.”

I looked down. His other hand was by his knees (we were sitting…it’s not that bad).

“Marcus’s knowledge is up here,” Laidler shook the upper hand, “and his images are up here too.” He brought the lower hand up. I nodded.

Later, Laidler apologized for sounding harsh. Yes, it was, but it was honest and much less harsh than a five-minute portfolio review I once had from a major magazine’s photo editor. She closed my book, looked at me and said “thanks for coming by, so-and-so will show you out.” Laidler took the time to tell me what he saw in the work I produced and how it could be improved. I appreciated that, for how else can one improve?

Of course, the photos are only part of the equation with grants–or editorial publication for that matter. There are too many quality photo stories that aren’t seeing print because magazines sell better when they’re chock-full of celebrity gossip and feel-good stories. But here are some notes from the Aftermath grant announcement. By the way, Aftermath was started by Sara Terry who was once a Blue Earth Alliance sponsored photographer like myself. She has since started her own 501(c)3 of which she is now executive director. It’s a path too have followed, but a position that I refuse to assume–even though I’ve been the de facto ED of my non profit which needs a little love.

“Applicants had to have very strong photos to make it to Round Two of the judging. A good proposal, but weak photos, was not enough. In Round Two, we began to prioritize our judging based on both the photos AND the quality of the project statement. As we made our final selections for winners and finalists, we considered all kinds of things in addition to the photos and the project statement — had the story received much attention? how truly did the project proposal embody aftermath issues? how well thought out was the statement, and the applicant’s proposal for work to be done with the grant money?….One thing that did emerge for us during the judging was the issue of portraits — and what the judges felt was the overuse of portraiture as a way to try to tell a story. All three of us are fans of great portraiture — and in fact, grant winner Louie Palu’s work includes an exceptional series of portraits of soldiers — but many submissions reflected the current trend in documentary photography to use portraits as a way to tell a story. Often, the portraits seemed to us to be a substitute for genuinely working closely and deeply with subjects, or for making photographs that required greater visual skills and sophistication. These comments are not directed at each and every one of you who submitted a project containing portraits, rather it is an overview of what we felt.”

Well, getting rejected from three grants is just another hurdle to telling stories I think are important. Stories that are very real and not very far away from the world I live in. It’s purely a matter of opening one’s eyes and seeing.

I might not be a Nachtwey or a Bleasedale, an Anderson or a Gilbertson. Yet. Call it an exquisitely American sense of entitlement, but I believe if I work hard enough it will come. Though maybe it could be working smarter, more efficiently, with more focus, and to be open to new things. Style was one of those things. Develop a style. I think that will come only when I let go…a little more. I’m completely self-taught so call it stumbling along, but that’s the best I can come up with. Relax and feel it. I couldn’t dissect a photo to save my life, but I can tell you if it “feels” good. As for the portraits comment by Terry, that was interesting to me since I’ve struggled with my stories; many are of things that happened and leave no visible evidence. I would prefer not to shoot portraits; I feel they aren’t my strong point. And I do notice how so many photographers use them, or still lifes, in similar stories. It leaves me begging to see something more.

We’ll see. I’m here. I’ve done my research, I’ve made my connections, I know what’s happening. And now I’m waiting, patiently, to make the pictures I think are the ones to tell the story. I suppose another quote I should adopt is this one: “If you’re not failing you’re not trying hard enough” or something to that effect.

Here is the full Aftermath press release:


Dec 15, 2008 – The Aftermath Project is pleased to announce the winners of its 2009 grants:

$25,000 grant: Asim Rafiqui (Sweden/US), for his project, “The Idea of India: Religious and Cultural Pluralism as Resistance to Sectarian Conflict,” an exploration of the aftermath of religious conflict in India through documenting pluralist landscapes, shared sacred sites, shared cultural traditions and efforts at reconciliation within divided communities.

$15,000 grant: Louie Palu (Canada), for his project, “Home Front,” which explores and compares the experiences of American Vietnam War veterans, and returning soldiers from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Palu’s project focuses on the emotional and psychological issues faced by soldiers who return from war and the long-term effects they deal with as they try to reintegrate into their families and society.

Due to the exceptionally strong number of applications among the 142 submissions, six finalists have been named this year, instead of the usual number of three. In alphabetical order, they are:

Rodrigo Abd (Guatemala) – “Reclaiming the dead: mass graves in Guatemala, a story only partially told”

Andrea Bruce (US) – “Unseen Iraq”

David Monteleone (Italy) – “Russian Caucasus”

Saiful Huq Omi (Bangladesh) – “The Disowned and the Denied: the Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh”

Donald Weber (Canda) – “Firewalk: Life with Cluster Bombs in South Lebanon”

Ami Vitale (US) – “Kashmir: Lifting the Veil”

This year’s awards were judged by Darius Himes of Radius Books; photographer Maggie Steber and photographer/director of the Aftermath Project Sara Terry. (See below for judges’ comments about the grant winners and the competition).

Darius Himes on $25,000 grant winner Asim Rafiqui and his project “The Idea of India: Religious and Cultural Pluralism as Resistance to Sectarian Conflict”:

“When freedom of conscience, liberty of thought and right of speech are upheld within a society, when each person, according to their own manner of worship, is allowed to express their beliefs, development and growth are not only the norm, but inevitable. The subcontinent of India has, for countless generations, provided humanity with an example of a pluralistic and deeply religious society that has dis-allowed the diversity of religious sentiments from hindering its many differing peoples from developing deep bonds of affection, tolerance, and service to each other.

“This was the norm until the bankrupt nationalistic philosophies of the twentieth century were allowed to run amok amidst the generality of the worlds’ populations. Ultra-nationalism and its close ideological cousin, tribalism, are both nothing more than racialist tendencies masquerading as points of falsely-placed pride.

“When religious sentiments tied to patriotism are stirred-up and the fires of religious hatred and intolerance are fanned to flame, more often than not by the clergy, the baser tendencies in man flourish. This is especially deplorable when religion is involved, for the fundamental purpose, as attested by the scriptures of all the world’s great religious systems, is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, as well as foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men.

“Asim Rafiqui’s work as a photographer aims to recover this lost sense of religious pluralism and tolerance for a 21st century India. He states that he is “using photography not only as a means of evidence, but also as a vessel for the imagination.” His multi-faceted work addresses the rich legacy that is still present in much of India, through her shared sacred sites and integrated communities. Rafiqui’s photographs are elegantly layered compositions that convey the vibrancy and urgency of his project.

“With the imbalanced reporting of seemingly constant acts of inhumanity reported through our mainstream media, we have little chance to imagine, picture or develop a true sense of community, not just in India, but world-wide. The way must be discovered again. We must be helped to imagine such an alternative reality as opposed to what we too-often see before us. I anxiously await more from the camera of Asim Rafiqui.”

Maggie Steber on $15,000 grant winner Louie Palu and his project, “Home Front”:

“Louie’s work does the job of photography in the best tradition of honesty and story-telling. He trains his camera on the truth: men coming in from battle, shell-shocked, dismayed, broken-hearted, destroyed, and yet somehow holding on to the humanity that gets whittled down each day with military patrols.

“His portraits of American soldiers are as honest and raw as they come. This is the picture of war, albeit one-sided but still universal. Louie doesn’t stop there. He is intrepid in his looking behind the drawn curtains at the loneliness, the otherworldliness of after the battle, and of living with what one has done. Louie’s photos draw that curtain aside for us and there is no blinking, no shying away, from what these men have been through, what they have seen, what they have done and now, what they must live with.

“It is true, honest work at a time when we need it, like it or not. But it will also be work that helps us understand who we are, and who we have become. Bravo Louie, for your courage.”

Sara Terry on the 2009 Aftermath Project winners and finalists:

“This year’s group of 142 applicants marked the strongest competition yet for the Aftermath Project grants. It’s exciting to see how many photographers, from so many different parts of the world, are exploring issues that illumine the other half of the story of conflict. If we had only had the money, we could have given 10 grants this year – it was a very difficult decision to narrow it down to the two outstanding winners who won our 2009 grants. The fact that we chose six finalists, instead of three, is an indication of how impressed the judges were with the quality of work submitted.

“It’s a privilege to be part of this conversation, to engage with these photographers, and to watch a broader dialogue emerging, day by day, about the true cost of war and the real price of peace.”

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