Extending the Frame: some notes on learning documentary photography and constructing photo essays from groups of photographs
The editors of Visual Anthropology Review invited me to write this essay because they are keen to encourage the submission of photo essays for potential publication within the journal. It is designed as a companion piece to my essay in VAR (issue 32:2, 2016) and offers some advisory notes to support the submission of photo essays to the journal.
Photographs in photo essays are constructed from the continually changing world around us. They are made by photographers rather than just captured by cameras. Consequently they often reveal the concerns and personal perspectives of the photographer as well as recording what is framed by the technology. Through reflection on my own personal experiences of learning documentary photography and subsequently teaching the subject, I suggest how an understanding of different approaches to making photographic images can be linked directly to the editorial processes involved in presenting these images.
The Newport School of documentary photography
I studied documentary photography at Newport College of Art in Wales in the late 1970s. At that time, the core taught program consisted of a sequence of linked assignments entitled “Man at Work”, “Relationships” and “Establishing Shots”, delineating three kinds of image that could be combined to make a simple three picture story. These forms of photographic imagery had been identified by the course founder David Hurn as building blocks for a conventional magazine photo essay. Other important ingredients included portraits and close up details.
Fundamental to the Newport philosophy was the understanding that documentary photography was best learned by actually making pictures: by producing work, shot in real situations, and presenting it for feedback within a supportive, critical environment. For every shoot, students were expected to present edited and marked up contact sheets from a couple of rolls of film. These were presented at “crit sessions”, one to one tutorials with a member of the staff team. The assignments were undertaken one after the other: you would spend three weeks or more photographing “Man at Work”, returning for crits on a daily basis before moving on to the next assignment.
In these sessions, a tutor would examine the contact sheets, looking at the whole sheet and then the images, frame by frame, and respond to your individual edit, choice of the best frames and overall approach to photographing. They would discuss what they felt worked and what did not work, about the framing and your shooting methods. Tutors would remark on the position of the camera and how by moving the camera backwards or forwards, up or down, or from one side to the other photographers control the position and arrange the distribution of the different elements within the frame. They would consider the timing of the exposures, whether there were better potential moments to be captured. They would also comment on whether they felt you were moving around too much rather than staying with a situation and letting it develop in front of you or not moving enough and failing to explore and vary the pictures. Finally they would note whether they felt you were overshooting, taking too many pictures without thinking and needed to “tighten up” or undershooting, being over cautious, rigid and needed to “loosen up”. You would than be sent out to take more pictures, often returning to photograph the same person or situation again.
As students, you were encouraged to respond to and select situations that felt rich in visual potential and then allow things to emerge and develop in front of the camera: sometimes shooting several frames without significantly changing position, but always attempting to make each frame work. This was an important lesson because this approach acknowledges and embraces the element of chance and allows for the unexpected. This is a key ingredient of documentary and reportage photography.
The editing process was based on meticulous frame by frame comparison. Minor details of gesture or expression, the tilt of a head, the position of a hand, the direction in which the eyes were pointing, or the unexpected appearance of a figure in the background make one image more or less effective than the other: effective in terms of overall graphic structure or clarity of visual expression, in terms of conveying a particular mood or feeling or in making a specific point of importance to the ideas being communicated. These subtle visual details are the heart of reportage photography, of the kind we see in the work of Cartier-Bresson, Sebastião Salgado, Susan Meiselas, Eugene Richards and many other photographers working closely with people and operating within a humanistic tradition. Importantly, this process of detailed examination of contact sheets feeds directly back into a developing understanding of what to pay attention to whilst shooting. It also highlights the expressive potential of the medium.
Students worked with a handheld 35mm analogue camera with a single fixed focal length lens (either 35mm or 50mm). Flash, high-speed film or zoom lenses were not allowed. These restrictive, almost puritanical rules had a very specific effect and were paradoxically liberating. Working with a fixed lens rather than a zoom lens means that you have to physically move the camera in order to fill the frame with the subject matter you are photographing. As your experience grows, this process of understanding when a photograph is working becomes almost instinctive. You move around because the image you are attempting to produce demands it. Understanding where to place the camera and where to stand becomes a kind of embodied knowledge. Moving the camera or, rather, moving with the camera is fundamental to reportage photography.
Working with a standard or slightly wide-angle lens when photographing people means that you need to be close to them to fill the frame. Consequently you have to communicate directly and develop working relationships. These social skills become an essential part of the role. Photographers have to develop the ability to enter social situations and to remain in these situations whilst they are working. This obviously parallels the anthropological methodology of participant observation. Photographers have to be able to move around the situation they are documenting and yet remain distanced enough from it to be observing it and producing images rather than being drawn in.
For the assignment “Man at Work,” you were required to photograph an individual person working. The aim of the assignment was to produce a single effective photograph of someone doing something: a man digging a hole in the road or a woman neurosurgeon in an operating theatre for example. You were trying to create a frame that would show a recognizable person and also articulate the essence of the work being undertaken. Body posture and the position of the hands were key elements to pay attention to. The choice of worker, activity and location was left to the individual student. From the start you were encouraged to pursue your own interests, connections and ideas and through this to develop your own approach to the medium, but also to vary the kind of situations you were working in and gain a breadth of experience.
The subject of work is an excellent starting point for new photographers: people are often comfortable in the formal occupational roles they inhabit. If the work is busy or engrossing they soon lose awareness of the camera. Photographs of people doing things are important in photo essays. They introduce individual people and highlight the socio-economic roles they play, the positions they occupy or the activities they are associated with. However my memory of my first assignment at Newport is primarily of embarrassment. My inexperience felt contagious. I had chosen to photograph a cobbler working in a very cramped space. I was uncomfortable with the equipment I was using and concentrated so much on his hands that I managed to leave his head out of the frame for most of the photographs. It is profoundly peculiar behaviour to point a camera at another human being for an extended period of time and it takes time for this to become normalised.
What became clear later was that we were all learning a whole raft of important skills within which the technical, visual and photographic aspects were only a part. Learning social and interpersonal skills, gaining confidence in approaching people and getting access to social situations, gatherings and institutions. Learning how to negotiate our way into other people’s lives and most importantly how to stay there long enough to be able to photograph over an extended period of time. Photographing people now feels like an extraordinary privilege, having the opportunity to observe human activities at close quarters. For a photographer like myself and many of those whom I have taught and know, photography is like a passport into other worlds. This is one of the principal motivations for practitioners, the potential of being able to step outside your own day to day existence and experience other people’s worlds and perspectives.
The next assignment was entitled “Relationships”, essentially an assignment to photograph the visual manifestations of human relationships. Starting off with relationships between two people and looking out for those clues of gesture, posture and facial expression that articulate the nature of the relationship taking place. This was immediately more complex than photographing people working. Moments when the relationship between people is expressed visually are often fleeting and transitory. One of the important lessons here was the possibility of searching for something very specific and perhaps ephemeral, rather than just mechanically recording what was continuously visible to everyone. Relationship photographs are important in determining the overall mood and tone within a photo essay. They can reveal complex human experiences of intimacy or alienation for example. They can manifest the expression of human feelings and the emotional dimension of interactions as well as revealing relationships of hierarchy and power.
The final single picture assignment was to produce establishing shots. This kind of image is concerned with place and space. It also introduces the idea of pacing within groupings of photographs: of having photographs that are taken from different distances and show a different sense of scale. The choice of establishing shot depends substantially on the story that is being told, the fundamental ideas being communicated. It locates the other photographs in a particular place or environment. So this assignment introduced the idea of constructing a narrative through several photographs, of trying to communicate a story through visual means.
After this assignment the students were tasked with producing short picture stories: groupings of images on a specific theme, created from the three visual elements described above. Other kinds of images like portraits and close up details could be added to extend the story and vary the visual structure of the narrative. In this way, the experience of constructing smaller picture stories gradually develops into undertaking longer photo essays and documentary projects.
The Newport system was quite widely criticized. It was seen by some as being old fashioned, perhaps even reactionary, harking back to the dying traditions of magazine photojournalism within the publications Picture Post and Life magazine rather than aligning itself with contemporary trends and emerging practices within documentary photography. It was seen by many as being reductive, simplistic and tending towards the formulaic rather than encouraging individual creativity.
Of course the world cannot be broken down into such neat typologies. But the Newport system provides a template that can be applied to many situations as well as a set of rules that can be reacted against. Thinking of different ways of making pictures encourages a process of reflection and analysis and advances the development of workable visual strategies. In complex and rapidly changing social situations it is often difficult to decide what to photograph, what not to photograph and where to position the frame.
The system is also flexible enough to be employed for approaches other than photojournalism. In particular it offers clear potential for anthropologists interested in recording aspects of the social world for later analysis or equally for undertaking a photographic documentation in order to present research in a visual format. Such photo essays offer visual anthropologists a set of tools and an overall framework within which to operate and experiment. Working closely with people over an extended period of time, observing and recording the minutiae of human behavior brings the photo essay very close to the ethnographic methodologies of social scientists.
The photo essay is not the only approach to producing documentary photography in social situations. Indeed it is not that commonly employed by contemporary photographers. Other approaches include working serially, producing an extended series of photographs that are structurally and formally similar: a group of interiors, portraits or still life details for example.
Contemporary digital cameras are extraordinarily sophisticated technologies. They remove much of the craft, skill and knowledge once needed to produce high quality images. But as yet they cannot make essential decisions about framing or understand what is significant and worth photographing. And for some photographers, there is another issue. Digital technologies produce images with a similar overall tonal quality and feel. Many fine art documentary photographers are using larger format film cameras or other analogue technologies as a reaction to this tendency. In an increasingly competitive field, documentary photographers increasingly want to assert individual authorship over their images: a recognizable authorial style is important in the current marketplace. This clearly clashes with the idea of documentary as a relatively neutral and value-free process of recording. It also runs contrary to anthropological ideas of incorporating the perspectives of others into visual representations of the world.
The Craft of Editing
Editing single pictures from a shoot, whether by selecting individual frames from contact sheets or choosing between digital files displayed on a computer screen is a process of reduction, of weeding out the weaker images and choosing the more effective images. But when producing a short picture story, a longer photo essay or a documentary project, editing becomes a process of construction, of bringing together different kinds of images and different design elements to build a varied visual narrative. The specifics of this process depends partly on the nature and the scale of the intended output: whether it is for a magazine essay, a book, an exhibition for a gallery wall, a projection at a festival, or a portfolio on a website.
For many of these outputs, editing consists primarily of arranging a linear sequence of images: choosing an image to start and finish the sequence and then ordering the other images that fall in between. There are no formal rules or guidelines to adhere to. It is usually a process of experimentation, of trial and error. Personally I find it easier to work with actual printed images rather than working on a computer screen. I find it easier to be able to shuffle small prints around on a table or floor, experimenting with different sequences and allowing for the unexpected.
Although the sequence from start to finish is a fundamental element of most published photo essays, the format, whether in a magazine or a book, allows for the possibility of more complex connections between images: images facing each other across opposing pages, images above or below other images. It also allows for substantial variations in scale. Horizontal images on a single page, images running across the gutter but with a white border, and images bled off all four sides of a double page spread. Photo essays commonly employ visual variety as an editorial and design strategy and avoid repetition unless repetition is a key concept of the essay. Most importantly, a photo essay is substantially more than a portfolio of the photographer’s best images.
From my experience, the final form of an essay often emerges from a process neither entirely rational nor completely controlled. It is of course really important to understand the individual images you are selecting, to know why they are effective and what they contribute to a larger grouping. However, subtle and unpredicted visual and narrative connections appear between images randomly placed next to each other when editing. Shifts of meaning occur when the structure and sequence of a narrative is changed: a different ordering of the same group of images changes the overall visual statement. By altering the placement of an image in a sequence, you alter the interrelationship between the images. By changing the size of individual images in the wider grouping you are changing the emphasis placed upon these images within the overall narrative construction. Such interplay involves not just the rational grouping of images by subject matter and theme but the emotive connections made between images in terms of their mood and tone. It is always informative to pair images together and see what happens when they are viewed in context with each another. Unexpected formal connections emerge: visual elements echoing each other or the dynamics of gesture and graphic shape that lead from one image to another within a layout.
Once again, there are no formal rules to follow, but you can get a great sense of the possibilities of this kind of editing by looking at a wide variety of documentary photography books. As an exercise in the possibilities of presentational form, it is worth trying to analyse how and why the photographer has sequenced the images from beginning to end, where the images sit on the page and how the images vary in scale, if at all, within the overall narrative structure. Some books use only one size and shape of image throughout, for example Martin Parr’s Commonsense (1999) or Gilles Peress’ The Silence (1995) both of which use images bled to the edge of the page but to very different effect. Joel Sternfeld’s On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam (1996) or Mark Power’s The Shipping Forecast (1996) use one size of image on the same position on the page, each framed with a white margin. In contrast, some books employ substantial variation in the size of images, for example Sebastião Salgado’s Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age (1993) or Sahel: L’Homme en Détresse (1986) both of which function like extended magazine photo essays but reproduced in book format. Some books use very substantial captioning, for example Philip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc (1971) or Taryn Simon’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007). Others have no captions at all, for example Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies (1975).
But producing the final edit for a photo essay is not merely a question of sequencing and presentation on the page. During the editing process, you have to come back repeatedly to the basic question of what the essay is about, what you as a photographer are trying to communicate and whether the final structure succeeds in this ambition.
Photojournalism, Documentary Photography and Visual Anthropology
I have been running a workshop on the MA in Visual Anthropology at Manchester University’s Granada Centre for nine years, and am currently a member of the Photography Committee at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. I am interested in the potential overlap between visual anthropology and the practices of documentary photography and photojournalism.
Each of these fields is fluid and increasingly difficult to define. I think of documentary photography as being a broad territory encompassing many approaches to still photography, but at its core is the process of recording and description. There is no inherent subject matter for documentary photography, nor are there obvious limits to its attempts to describe the world through visual images. Perhaps it can be understood as embracing the genre of photojournalism, which is a kind of applied documentary photography, informed historically by a journalistic and news agenda but now commonly operating independently of its traditional outlets. And perhaps the key aspect defining visual anthropology as a form of documentary practice utilizing still photography is the conceptual framework within which the practice is situated rather than what the specific individual images taken by a visual anthropologist actually look like. I suspect that the anthropological nature of still photographic practice is to be found less within the individual imagery and more within the interrelationships between groups of images and with their relationship to accompanying text.
In this context it is revealing to examine Danny Lyon’s recently reissued book Conversations with the Dead (1971) a project about Texas penal institutions in the late 1960s. On one level this is classic photo essay that could easily have been published in a magazine and in that context would have been viewed as a work of photojournalism. But Lyon presented the work in an extended book format, a clear decision to retain editorial control over the sequencing and presentation, and the use of captions and texts.
The book is constructed not as magazine layouts but as a simple linear sequence with images positioned on the right-hand page, one single picture after another, and minimal captions on the left. The photographs start with a filmic sequence of prisoners arriving and entering the penitentiary. This sequence functions not only to describe the journey from outside to inside, from freedom to imprisonment, but it also takes the viewer, through the experience of the photographer, deep inside the culture of the prison.
It is revealing to examine where Lyon positions himself. Much of the time he is on the ground in amongst the prisoners and photographing from within looking out or looking up. This deep immersion within the community he is documenting adds significantly to the sense of an inmate’s perspective, especially noticeable when he photographs the prison staff.
There is substantial repetition in the overall sequence. A magazine photo essay might tend to avoid the replication of similar kinds of pictures but in the context of a longer book such recurring usage amplifies the sense of regulation and institutionalized procedure. There are several images of shakedowns, of the strip searches of labourers re-entering prison from the fields. They detail the relentless day to day indignities suffered by felons. The repetition adds to the sense of the unremitting loss of individual dignity and invasion of personal space.
Conversations with the Dead includes the letters and paintings and even the execution order of an inmate called Billy McCune (McCune was eventually released). They open up another avenue of communication, giving the reader a bleak sense of the hopeless and remorseless brutality of the penal system of America at that time. They also add significantly to communicating the worldview of the prisoners being documented. This commitment to expressing the views and perspective of the inmates takes Lyons’ work further away from photojournalism or conventional documentary practice and much closer to a work of visual anthropology. The anthropological quality of the work is therefore located not within the specific single images but in their cumulative effect, in the photographer’s insider and immersed standpoint and perhaps equally in the author’s collaboration with McCune.
Jones Griffiths, Philip. 1971. Vietnam Inc. New York: Collier.
Koudelka, Josef. 1975. Gypsies. New York: Aperture.
Lyon, Danny. 1971. Conversations with the Dead. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
Mitidieri, Dario. 1994. Children of Bombay. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.
Parr, Martin. 1999. Commonsense. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.
Peress, Gilles. 1995. The Silence. New York: Scalo.
Power, Mark. 1996. The Shipping Forecast. London: Zelda Cheatle Press.
Salgado, Sebastião. 1993. Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age. London: Phaidon.
Salgado, Sebastião. 1986. Sahel: L’Homme en Détresse. France: Prisma Presse.
Salgado, Sebastião. 1986. Other Americas. New York: Pantheon.
Simon, Taryn. 2007. An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. Göttingen: Steidl.
Sternfeld, Joel. 1996. On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
For photographers, grants are an increasingly critical source of funding for project-based work. But the process can be arduous. As part of ViewFind’s free monthly webinar series, we invited industry leaders from both sides of the table about what works and what doesn’t when preparing a photography grant.
First we’ll take you into the minds of three industry leaders who will speak to what they look for when judging grants:
SARA TERRY is Founder of the Aftermath Project. She is a professional grant writer, filmmaker, documentary photographer, who estimates that she has won grants totaling nearly $1 million over the last 15 years.
MIKE DAVIS is the Alexia Tsairis Chair of Documentary Photography at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, where he runs the annual Alexia Foundation grants and teaches. He was also one of the judges for ViewFinds’ inaugural grants for stories about race.
KENNY IRBY served on Poynter Institute’s faculty of visual journalism and diversity from 1995–2015 and as Deputy Director of Newsday prior to that. He was recently named as the City of St. Petersburg’s Community Intervention Director working with at-risk youth. He was also a judge of ViewFind’s inaugural grants.
Then we’ll hear from three of the winners of our recent grant competition, speaking from the applicant’s point of view:
DANIELLA ZALCMAN — “Signs of Your Identity”
MICHAEL VINCE KIM — “Koreans of Kazahkstan"
JONAH MARKOWITZ — “Three Bags Full”
Lastly, we’ll be presenting two real winning grant proposals! Daniella and Michael have kindly allowed us to share with you the proposals that won them ViewFind’s inaugural grants for stories about race.
I’ve got some questions that I was asked to talked about. The first is what kinds of research can you do to make sure your application is going to stand out. A really, really important thing in doing a successful grant proposal is to first research the grant organization itself. You would be amazed at how many proposals we get for the Aftermath Project about the environment or other topics that don’t meet our specific definition of “conflict”. One of things you can do with any responsible granting organization is to reach out and say “Does this meet your criteria?” And I recommend reaching out early— not waiting until the last 72 hours — because you’ll be much less likely to get a thoughtful response at the last minute.
You also research who has won. At the Aftermath Project, we’re a very small granting organization, we just did our 10th grant. Especially early on, I’d be amazed how many people would submit things with no consciousness of who won the grant the previous year. Very rarely is any organization going to give a grant on the same subject matter two years running. So you really need to know the history of the granting organization. There was a period of time where if you looked carefully at the Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize that comes out of Duke University grants they had given, one year it would be a grant for an American project, and the next year, it would be a grant for an international project for about ten years in a row. So you knew that if it was national grant one year, the next year would be an international grant and if you submitted a national grant, you didn’t really stand a chance. I think they’ve changed that now, it’s hard to tell, but that’s part of the information you can tell from researching past recipients.
When I won an Alicia Patterson Grant for “Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace” at one point the grant went mostly to print journalists, there would be one photographer every once and a while. And I applied once with my Bosnia work and didn’t get it so I went back to apply again and I thought “you know I’m going to read this more carefully this time.” At that point, they said they specifically wanted to support projects that would make a difference in the way that news is reported, since the Alicia Patterson Grant came out of a newspaper woman’s background. So I went back to my proposal and I proposed four specific stories and wrote about how this story is meeting a need that isn’t being covered in the news — and that was the year I won the grant. It obviously also has to do with the strength of your photographs but if your proposal is really good, it’ll get you to the finalist stage.
The way it works for the Aftermath Project is first we cut you if your photographs aren’t very good. Then we still move forward a bit on the strength of the photographs and then when we get down to about 40 or 50, it’s really about the strength of the proposal. And then when you’re in that final 10–15, it’s really neck and neck between the quality of your proposal, your understanding of an Aftermath post-conflict story, and who we recognized in past years.
Also, don’t give up on applying for grants. Legend has it that Mary Ellen Mark didn’t get her Guggenheim until her fourteenth time. I know people who give up after once and I’m like “no, no, no! Keep going!” I applied once with my Bosnia work, didn’t get it. And then I applied once at the beginning with my Africa work and didn’t get it and then I came back one more time with my Africa work after I was partway through and that’s when I won the Guggenheim. And what I’ve noticed about tone of voice is with the Guggenheim, they look for confidence. They want to see that you’re at a turning point in your work and your career and you have to be able to write about why it matters. There’s a confidence they look for.
Another question I was asked was whether to talk to judges: Never approach the judges. But you can talk to other photographers, especially other photographers who have won in the past.
I run the Alexia Foundation Grant competition which means I just got through reading 198 professional proposals and I’m about ready to read all of the student proposals, and saw the images that we submitted with those proposals. One thing worth noting is that we value the proposal equal to the body of work shown. Ours is not recognizing work done but considering work that is to be done.
What makes an entry stronger? Or the flip side of that: what kicks things out very quickly? Not surprisingly, poorly edited, poorly sequenced, lesser quality images make it go away quickly. But also proposals that are not concise and clear and well-researched leave the group quickly. One pet peeve for me is proposals where the writer uses the word “I” or “me” more than about 3 times. There are proposals where virtually every sentence starts with “I” or “me” and it just sends the message that the photographer is more important than the subject being photographed, where the opposite should be true. You should be compassionate and passionate about what you’re doing and what you’re proposing.
There are some general things that I offer people in presenting their proposals and the images: First, as Sara said, understanding what the specific grant you’re applying for is about, what they’ve awarded in the past, what their mission is — that helps you understand whether what you’re proposing is appropriate for this grant but it also helps you ask your proposal more clearly, more precisely. The audience for your proposal are the judges and you usually don’t know the judges but you can use a more active voice.
The first thing I suggest is that people tell a story about the subject that you’re proposing to photograph. Take the people reading the proposal to a place and engage them somehow emotionally with that setting, with the humanistic aspect of that setting. If people don’t care about what you’re proposing from the outset then you have a diminished chance of succeeding. The second thing is telling them why what you just told them is important. It presents your research. And the third aspect is telling them how you’re going to carryout the proposal. Bullet-points usually work well for outlining how you’re going to produce a coverage. And then an increasingly important part is explaining what’s going to happen because you’ve done this. We like to see “I’ve got this partnership with this nonprofit or organization or I have a book in the works or a gallery show” or whatever. The more the photographer has considered these things and begun to set things in motion the more likely they’re going to get a positive response.
In the case of the Alexia grant, very rarely does a proposal receive a positive response if the photographer has not already started that project. It’s a tricky balance because you have to have introduced yourself into the subject enough to show that you can access it, that people do trust you, that you have the knowledge to produce a body of work that is significant, but not so much that “yeah I just need a little more time and the rest of the money I’ll use to produce a book” or whatever. Our grant is to produce work but the trick is the balance of having produced enough but not too much on that subject.
A lot of grants say “up to X number of images” and the key words there are “up to”. A lot of people feel like that’s an obligation and then often times what happens is that there will be lesser images in the submission which bring down every other strong image in that submission.
Sequencing is super critical too. And — as a picture editor for 30 years — I believe that sequencing is an art form. So if you don’t sequence carefully and thoughtfully and visually you’re diminishing your chances. A lot of people sequence based on the caption information (“I want you to understand this and that and this and that and then that”) and that’s generally a pretty boring way to present images; it suggests a lack of sophistication on the part of the presenter. Captions are critical, in the same way, they should tell a story that goes beyond simply describing what’s in the photograph. Each caption presents the opportunity to give the image context or an aspect that isn’t apparent just based on what is in the photograph.
I would corroborate what Mike said about the importance of writing, clarity in writing specifically, as it’s related to the entry. When judging the ViewFind Grants [for stories about Race], it was really important to see applicants who were engaged in the reporting so they knew exactly what they were trying to articulate and could offer a glimpse or a perspective of works in progress — so we, as a juror body, could consider how might this story might go forward and what are the opportunities that are available for the visual journalist to continue to execute their vision. It’s also really important to know that diversity isn’t just a concept here for a different category but it is a practical strategy that is embedded in moving beyond the routine. So diversity was not only in terms of the subject matter and content. Diversity is a rich category in terms of the approach.
My specific area is to help coach and have applicants consider what are things that are immediate attention grabbers beyond the photographs? Because as Mike already said, the images tell their own story. The images offer a perspective. However, the images cannot present full context and that’s where your writing and the thoughtfulness of your application and the details and nuance in the reporting are so important. The other thing we were really particular about [when judging the ViewFind Grant] was the level of detail. So if you look at the winners, those folks had really investigated what it would take in terms of time, logistics, further research and reporting, and so forth. Doing the research that substantiates the visual idea is an imperative.
We needed to see the images and the ideas that journalists were suggesting could be substantiated in terms of the practical realities of what it would take to execute the idea and bring that idea to fruition. The individuals who actually offered detailed budget proposals and analysis were also very favorably added to the next layer of evaluation.
At this point, about 70% of the work I do is grant funded. I write dozens and dozens of grants per year, of which, maybe 10% end up being successful. The primary application I put together for this project was for the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting who funds most of my work and that’s a short and sweet 250-word proposal but often I’m also writing 1500 to 2000 word proposals. Sometimes they want something that is snappy and quick and very focused and sometimes they really want you to dig in and pull all of your research and all of the context you already have in your reporting into an application.
For me, one of the most challenging aspects is not just conveying why I care about a subject but it’s conveying why anyone else aught to care about a story — those two are often very different things. On my end, I think it’s very important to express not only why in general a story deserves to be covered and why it deserves more attention than it has received, but also why do you have a particular vested interest in being the one to tell that story. I think increasingly as we see people inserting themselves more and more into their reporting so it becomes incredibly important and meaningful for the judges to understand who you are and who you are as a journalist in the landscape of that story.
I will second what Mike said about inserting yourself — not just as a perspective but yourself as an individual — into your application far too much. I’ve seen too many applications where people do tend to make it about themselves and not about any research that they’ve done for the story and that’s damaging and distracting. I think it’s always really important to show that you have done your research, that you really know the story and that you have the sources and the facts and the history to back up whatever it is you want to dig into even further.
Michael Vince Kim
What have I learned in the process of applying for grants? The most important thing is to make sure your project fits in the grant because not all of them focus on the same things. So you need to read the specifications, see what the judges are looking for, what kind of work. In the case of ViewFind, the theme was race and my project fortunately fit perfectly.
Another thing that I’ve learned is that it’s really important to show that you’re passionate and, as Daniella said, to show that you’re really knowledgable about the subject. In my case, the story, The Koreans of Kazahkstan is a very personal story because I am an ethnic Korean and my parents are migrants who traveled all across the world due to economic reasons and I found out about this story while doing research for my linguistics dissertation while I was in University. So I traveled to Kazakhstan for two months, completely unrelated to photography, and it was just about language and history, and then I took pictures, and I hope you can tell in my application that I did my research.
Sometimes it can be really daunting and intimidating to write an application but you just have to go for it. It’s a matter of sitting down trying to figure out who you are as a photographer, what your work is about, and why it’s important for your story to be told.
I am one of the grant winners, for a story I’ve been working on about a kid named Tavaris Sanders and his journey from a group home on the south side of Chicago to getting a scholarship to Connecticut College — which is about as foreign of an environment as you can get for him.
The question I was asked to talk about here was what do you think contributed to your application’s success? Primarily, I think the strength of Tavaris’ story contributed to my grant’s success and putting his story at the forefront of my application. In my application, I wanted let Tavaris tell his story in his own words, and let my photographs be the arc for the story. His voice was basically the narrator throughout the whole piece. I felt like that was the best way to allow him to tell his story, because he does such a great job at it. I did also include a detailed budget proposal. I’ve been working on this story for quite awhile and I have a good grip on the story and what I want to do with the story. So, I could specifically lay out what the money will be going to and how that will translate into story content.
Michael, how do you condense an application down to 500-words or less?
Michael: Of course it’s really easy to write a lot, but it’s very important to be concrete and definite, and try to cut down on unnecessary bits. You have to get down to the essence of the story, what is it really about? Not just the subject but the theme of the story. And you kind of go top to bottom, it’s like an inverted pyramid. And I think if you do that, you can slowly start seeing what your project is about and it starts shaping itself, at least in my experience.
Jonah, was your proposal written as first-person narrative?
Jonah: No. The proposal was about his story, but in the proposal (the entire grant application), that section was based on interviews I had done with Tavaris that had been transcribed.
Kenny, do you have thoughts on the style of the writing in Jonah’s proposal?
Kenny: Jonah’s proposal clearly offered insights about the relationship he had and the access that he had already demonstrated through the body of photographs and the voice that he was able to bring and the projection about what was yet to be done in the project. That’s the really important element that we as evaluators try to consider: not what you’ve done, but what you will do moving forward.
Jonah, how long did you spend with your subject before the grant?
Jonah: I had spent the better part of a year photographing him at college. To speak a little about the relationship between him and I, this wasn’t a piece that was sought out as a photographer trying to tell his story, this was a piece that came to me by way of a mutual friend who also grew up in a group home in Brooklyn. He asked me to go up there and try to be a bridge between these two worlds. I had spent some time with him establishing that relationship before I asked him if I could photograph and be a conduit for his story.
Sara, how personal versus journalistic should the proposal be?
Sara: There’s a cross between the two, if it’s a personal project, like one of our finalists two years ago, Jessica Hines, was doing a project called My Brother’s War, about her brother who was a vet who committed suicide. So it’s a deeply personal project tracing his history and his route and it’s entirely appropriate that you understand that it’s a personal story. For more reported stories, like Danny Wilcox Frazier’s Pine Ridge, he very smartly described Pine Ridge as a post-conflict situation that has ramifications today. He talked about the massacre at Wounded Knee and was able to explain its consequences in the present day. It just depends on the project. You can certainly place yourself in context, but if it’s really a story thats issue based and not based on a personal journey, you can back off on the personal story.
Sara and Kenny, with photo proposals, should there be a balance of completed and in-progress work?
Sara: Most grants are production grants, and you would not submit a completed body of work to get a production grant. Show us what you have left to do.
Kenny: We want to see the work as a barometer of how well you handle similar kinds of situations so we know how developed you are with you photographic reportage.
Kenny and Sara, Is it true that in the first round, judges only see the first three pictures? Should you sacrifice the sequence of your images and make sure the first three are strongest even if it’s not necessarily the sequence that perfect for the story?
Kenny: The simple answer is lead with your best work. If the sequence is relevant to what your overall idea is, that’s fine. In some instances that was the case and in other instances it is not. I think what’s really important is the ability to demonstrate storytelling acuity. We’re looking for story, to see if in three images you can begin to tell a story and give the viewer a sense of story that gives a sense of the place and detail.
Sara: If you start out quiet and try to ramp up to your best image, you will have lost people. Lead with your best shot, literally. That may break up your essay a bit, you may be editing differently from a magazine story, but every magazine story will open with the most powerful picture. We’re looking at your pictures first. That’s what we want to see. We’re not reading captions until we’re down to the last group of 30 or so.
In the 1840s, the Canadian government created the Indian Residential School system. This network of church run boarding schools was developed to forcibly assimilate indigenous children into Western Canadian culture. Attendance was mandatory, and Indian Agents would regularly visit reserves to take children as young as two or three from their communities. Many of them wouldn’t see their families again for the next decade. These students were punished for speaking their native languages or observing any indigenous traditions, routinely physically and sexually assaulted, and in some extreme instances subjected to medical experimentation and sterilization.
The last residential school didn’t close until 1996. The Canadian government issued its first formal apology in 2008.
The lasting impact on Canada’s indigenous population is immeasurable and grotesque. At least 4,000 children died while in the system — so many that it was common for residential schools to have their own cemeteries. And those who did survive, deprived of their families and their own cultural identities, became part of a series of lost generations. Languages died out, sacred ceremonies were criminalized and suppressed. The Canadian government has officially termed the residential school system a cultural genocide.
The work I’ve shot so far over the past year focuses on the impact of what it means to lose your identity. A disproportionate number of residential school survivors and their immediate family struggle with PTSD, depression, and substance abuse — and this persistent legacy of social and public health consequences needs to be documented and shared. These multiple exposure portraits are an attempt to photograph survivors who are still fighting to overcome the memories of their residential school experiences. These individuals are reflected in the sites where those schools once stood, in the government documents that enforced strategic assimilation, in the places where today, First Nations people now struggle to access services that should be available to all Canadians. These are the echoes of trauma that remain even as the healing process begins.
With the help of the Viewfind grant, I plan on returning to Saskatchewan (the province that is home to the last residential school to close in Canada, and some of the most notorious sites of abuse and neglect) to interview and photograph another 30 survivors, bringing the total number of subjects to 80 — one for every thousand still living. I also hope to travel to sites in the U.S. where a very similar school system operated throughout the 20th century — not only to document the survivors, but also maybe more importantly to compare and contrast the ways in which each respective government is currently handling reparations and facilitating healing.
Thank you very much for your time and consideration.