As anyone who has tried to work in the contemporary media environment is well aware, it is getting increasingly difficult to fund long-term personal documentary projects. It’t not that people aren’t interested or that the issues aren’t worth exploring, but rather that the traditional distribution outlets (i.e. newspapers and magazines) simply don’t have the money to keep photographers and videographers in the field for long stretches of time. The industry has, at least for now, been forced to embrace a cycle of quick, cheap, and often disposable content to keep pace with the shortened attention spans of the modern reader.
Media is ultimately a business, and so complaining that these outlets don’t want to give photographers large sums of money to go and explore my personal interests gets us nowhere. Nor does reminiscing about the death of the (likely mythical) golden age of photojournalism and how much better things were in the past. What is far more interesting is accepting that things are difficult, and then thinking about how to do them anyways.
Three years ago as I was preparing to relocate to Cambodia, I found out at the last minute that I was going to miss Donald Weber’s grant writing workshop by one day. At the time I was terribly disappointed and felt that I was being denied an experience that could have had a huge impact on the future of my work. I kept checking Don’s blog to see when I would have another chance to take the class, but much to my disappointment no such opportunity arose.
Looking back, however, I am actually glad that I wasn’t able to be there because it likely would have stopped me from attending the most recent session at the Contact Photography Festival in Toronto. Had I taken the workshop three years ago, without having completed any long-term personal projects of my own, I doubt the takeaway lessons would have been as actionable or as relevant to my work.
The points outlined below are some of the basic ideas Don put forth on how to write a proposal and don’t come close to conveying the full scope of the methodology he shared during the eight hour session – so if you have a chance to attend the workshop I highly suggest that you do. But for those who can’t be there in person and still want to try their hand at applying for grants, I hope these basic lessons will be helpful – they certainly were for me.
1. Don’t Bore People.
This might sound obvious, but considering that visual creatives often fear the process of writing anything longer than an email, the point is well worth noting. When sitting down in front of an empty page, instead of imagining that you need to write for a panel of people who only enjoy stories that are buried beneath layers of difficult vocabulary, remember that you are applying for money to tell a story. There is no better way to convince people not to give you money than to put them to sleep with your proposal. Of course this is easier said than done, but if your proposal bores you as you write it, it will almost certainly bore those who have to read it.
2. Be concrete.
Don’t use big words when small words will do. This is the same advice imparted by nearly every great writer of the last hundred years, but it can still be tempting to slip the biggest words you know into your text to try and make the proposal sound more authoritative. Don’t do this. Hemingway didn’t need long words, and you don’t either.
3. Be definite and clear.
English in particular has over a million words, and each of them has a particular nuance and subtlety. As photographers or videographers, writing is often not our favoured means of communication, and so we run the risk of not being precise with our words. Depending on how much anxiety writing induces in you, consider using a dictionary and always have someone look over your proposal before sending it in. As Don made very clear, confusingly (or wrongly) written submissions are the first to get thrown out.
4. Be yourself.
This point could be renamed “don’t give them what you think they want”. This is probably the one suggestion that is most applicable to my own tendencies, and something I need to work on in my personal work. In the hyper-competitive media climate, it is all too easy to look to projects that have been successful in the past and to try and emulate them. Likewise it might be tempting to try and change the essence of your work to try and fall in line with whatever organization or panel of judges you are submitting to. While it may seem like a strategic move to target the specific personalities or interests of the judges, Don suggests that this is a mistake. Grants are ultimately about supporting the unique personal visions of photographers, and so your greatest chance of success lies in staying true to your vision.
5. Create a narrative.
Avoid using “my proposal is” at all costs. Photography grants exist to support the production of independent visual storytelling, and so your proposal should reflect your ability to tell stories. You only have around one page of text to convince someone that your story needs to be told, and the best way to give others confidence in your ability to tell it successfully is to draw them into the narrative of your proposal. Don demonstrated this point with a sentence from a successful proposal from Magnum photographer Alex Majoli, who wanted funding to document violence in Brazil: “If a gun is cheap, than so is a life.” That is an extremely compelling story in less than ten words. Even if I didn’t know how talented Alex was as a photographer, that sentence would have hooked me into wanting more. Comparatively, “My proposal is to document how cheap gun prices have increased violence in Brazil” falls flat.
6. Be thoughtful.
Demonstrate not just an artistic eye, but a thoughtful and artistic understanding of the topic. Why should you be trusted with a large sum of money? What will you bring to the discussion that another photographer couldn’t? Why are you the only person capable of doing this story justice?
People want to know that you have an understanding of your subject that transcends general interest. They want to feel that you are invested intellectually at a level beyond the casual observer, otherwise it would be just as effective to commission another photographer. Only by demonstrating a sophisticated level of thoughtfulness about your subject can you expect others to believe in your vision.
7. Be inventive and avoid cliches
This one is pretty self explanatory. Cliches are cliched for a reason: they’ve been done too many times in the past. If you think you’ve heard something said before, then chances are others have as well. No one wants to fund projects that are derivative clones of what has already been done, so look for a new angle or a way to highlight how your idea is different from what has come before.
These basic concepts are just the tip of the iceberg of information I took away from Don’s class. Hopefully they are helpful in considering how to write a grant proposal of your own, but ultimately there is no substitute for the real thing. The session was nearly eight hours of actionable information, and Don is both an engaging and approachable speaker. I highly recommend that anyone interested in funding personal documentary projects keep an eye on Don’s Tumblr page to see if he will be holding a session in your area – it is well worth your time.