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Week Fourteen – Grant Funding

Grant & Commissioned Projects


At the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where I teach both photojournalism and a course in interactive media, students are very concerned about the seemingly shrinking market for high quality photojournalism. In reality, this a great time for editorial photography and photojournalism. Sure, the traditional funding stream for thoughtful, in-depth projects is shrinking but new markets are opening up.  Aid organizations, non-profits and even corporations all now have websites and recognize the value of good photography as a powerful tool to engage viewers.


In my own work I have moved from assignment photography from at traditional outlets to grant work, primarily around the issue of education. I was part of $51 million Gates Foundation grant through the New York City Schools from 2008-2010. I have done other projects that I proposed with several small, charter schools and I am currently working on an Open Society grant about photography of incarcerated women.


There are photographer so passionate about their craft and and specific subjects that they pursue it without clear plans for publication or financial support. I firmly believe that with a bit of work a photographer can find at least some financial support for projects on a wide variety of topics.


Finding grant supports begins with having a clear idea of what your photography is about. Figuring out that clear idea — and being able to communicate it to potential funders — begins with a mission statement.

If you haven’t come up with your own mission statement yet, take some time and find a quiet place for a brainstorming session with yourself. Jot down the common adjectives that describe what you like to shoot and why. This will begin to give you the skeleton of a mission statement.


Below are some examples of mission statements taken from the Magnum website. You can see some of the Magnum shooters have boiled down their vision into a few words.


“If there’s one theme that connects all my work, I think it’s that of landlessness; how land makes people into who they are and what happens to them when they lose it and thus lose their identities.”

— Larry Towell:


“My work is based in trust. I don’t work well just snapping pictures, although some people would say the opposite. I really feel like intimacy and trust are the guide to my work.”

Jim Goldberg

“The maximum, that is what has always interested me.”

Josef Koudelka


“I want to question the images that are in our memory. There is always a double level in my work; what you see is true and at the same time not true.”

— Carl DeKeyzer


“I’m more interested in a photography that is ‘unfinished’ – a photography that is suggestive and can trigger a conversation or dialogue. There are pictures that are closed, finished, to which there is no way in.”

— Paolo Pellegrin

“I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical.”

— Trent Park

“For me, photography has become a way of attempting to make sense of the very strange world that I see around me. I don’t ever expect to achieve that understanding, but the fact that I am trying comforts me.”

Michael Subotzky


Most grant making organizations have application forms with very specific instructions. It is imperative that you follow these instructions exactly and submit the grant by the written deadline. Many of the grant making organizations get lots of applications. At the Soros foundations they might get 150 applications which the documentary staff edits down to about 25-30 before it goes to the selection committee. Because of the time invested in doing these comprehensive applications, know that your particular project is one that has a chance in the first place. Read the requirement. Phone the organization, sometimes you get through and can get some very useful information. Sometimes as with the Soros foundation for example, strong work doesn’t make the cut because they recently supported a similar project.


It’s also important to know something about the organization. The Alexia Foundation for example doesn’t put as much weight on the photos as they do on the idea.


“The Alexia Competition was not created with the purpose of rewarding the best picture takers – this is not a portfolio competition. The awards will go to students who can further cultural understanding by conceiving concise, focused, and meaningful story proposals. There is no mathematical formula for determining the winners, but the story proposal is the most important part of the application. All proposals are read and ranked by the judges before any portfolios are reviewed. You are encouraged to have your application reviewed and proofread for accuracy, clarity and conciseness. You may confer with your teachers on topic selection and proposal writing.”


No matter if you are filling out a scripted application or writing a proposal on your own, the writing needs to be clear about the concept and what you plan to do. Photographer are often not good writers have someone edit it for you. I married an editor.  You need to be strong in your conviction and clear about the project. The proposal is an opportunity for you to express your ideas.  Below are a few denominators to successful proposal writing:


  • Be inspired and inspiring — You need to demonstrate your enthusiasm for the project in way that is infectious.

  • Demonstrate why this is an important issue — You should be able to showcase why this is a project worth doing. What issue is addressed? What is at risk?

  • Why you? — Of all the photographers interested in this topic (and some may have applied for the same grant) why should they choose you?

  • What exactly are you Proposing to do? — How many images? Is this a portrait series? Is there a multimedia component?

  • How will you get it done? — Give them a schedule and demonstrate your access and contacts

  • How will your project have a positive impact on the issue? — You need to show how your project will encourage change. Related to this, how do you think your images would be used?


Here are some excerpts from successful photo proposals for the very prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship:


Garry Winogrand — 1963 application for a Guggenheim, which he used to cross the United States:


“I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books, I look at some magazines [our press]. They all deal in illusions and fantasies. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn’t matter, we have not loved life. I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue this photographic investigation and deeper. This is my project.”


Robert Frank —  1954 application for a Guggenheim, which he used to cross the United States:

“To photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively. The making of a broad, voluminous picture record of things American, past and present. This project is essentially the visual study of a civilization and will include caption notes; but it is only partly documentary in nature: one of its aims is more artistic than the word documentary implies.”


Donald Weber’s — Guggenheim Grant Application 2007, first paragraph:

“I am going to photograph a project titled “The Underclass and Its Bosses”. It’s about crime and the gap between the rich and poor. The terror of the Bolsheviks is now just replaced with the terror of the oligarchs. I will look at “power” being the real currency, a vacuum of bosses – from the Central Committee to the office high rise. The eradication of a cultural class- just like Stalin did 60 years ago. Education is neglected; thievery respected.”




In addition to grant making organizations NGOs and aid organizations have long understood the power of imagery to get their message across and the better the work, often the more awareness and money can be raised.


Below is a list of some of the larger and more well-known aid organizations, but there are literally thousands of smaller organizations, many operating regionally within the United States or other countries, and sometimes paying  expenses or honorarium. The list below covers health care and aid to refugees but many organizations fund heritage projects to preserve architecture or fund portrait projects to showcase local artists.


Be creative and see what’s available in your community. There are lots of grants out there but it’s very time consuming to apply. So you want to make sure that your project is a good fit with a particular grant. Don’t be afraid to contact organizations that have no established grant program about an  original idea. Many organizations have money broadly earmarked for development. Be sure you have a clear proposal in mind before you do.


Amnesty International

Peter Beneson House

1 Easton Street London WC1 XODW

44 207 413 5585




151 Ellis St. NE

Atlanta, Georgia 30303-2440




Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontires

333 7th Avenue, 2nd Floor

New York, New York 10001-5004




Human Rights Watch

350 5th Avenue, 34th Floor

New York, New York 10118-3299




International Rescue Committee

122 East 42nd St.

New York, New York

10168 212-551-3000



United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Case Postale 2500

CH-1211 Geneva 2 Depot


41 22 739 8111



World Health Organization

Avenue Appia 20

1211 Geneva 27


41 22 791 2222