Tag Archives: Photojournalism

Sean Gallagher Mentorship Program 2017

I’m pleased to say that I have been awarded the 2017 Mentorship with environmental photojournalist Sean Gallagher. I’ve been following Sean’s work for years, and he was one of the first role models I had to follow when I initially started considering making environmental issues may full time focus. Sean’s work on India’s toxic leather industry and his long-term partnerships with the Pulitzer Center showed me that it was possible to pursue complex environmental stories, even though they might not be dramatic enough to be sought after by the mainstream media.

Ever since I started in this industry I have found that I develop much faster as a storyteller when I have consistently feedback from people I respect, and so I’ve always tried to get as much outside input as possible. In this sense, having a photographer like Sean, someone who is interested in the same issues as I am and who is giving me a full year of his time, will be incredibly valuable and I am looking forward to getting started.

Throughout the course of this program I will continue to work on my long term project about water shortages in Mexico, and I have no doubt that his input is going to increase its power hugely. The visual documentary industry, and the even smaller environmental photojournalism niche within it, can be a solitary one and I am incredibly grateful that there are people like Sean out there who are willing to help along the way.

 

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Reading List for Environmental Journalists

As an environmental photojournalist, writer, and videographer, I’m always looking to understand the conflict between culture and the environment as deeply as possible. It is from books that I get inspiration for projects, fill gaps in my knowledge, and expand the way I think about how to tell environmental stories visually. This list serves as an evolving record of the books that I’ve found most interesting, inspiring, or informative, and I hope that you’ll discover something that makes you think about our relationship to the planet more deeply.

By no means an exhaustive list, these aren’t ranked in order of best to worst, but are stacked one on top of the other as I come across them.

Limits to Growth – Donella and Dennis Meadows

When this book was originally published in the early 1970’s, many — including some of the most reputable environmental experts of the time — dismissed it as doomsday fiction. The husband and wife team of Donella and Dennis Meadows were commissioned by think tank Club of Rome to create a computer model that would predict the world’s environmental future based on rates of consumption. Tracking population, food, pollution, industry, and the use of resources, the project made predictions about the state of the global population to the end of the 21st Century. The simulation found that if significant action wasn’t taken to combat environmental degradation and curb humanity’s rapacious appetites, we would be on the verge of collapse by 2070.

But the really chilling part isn’t the prediction itself, or that most people of the time dismissed it entirely. It’s that the predictions it made, when measured against today’s statistics, have proven to be more or less accurate. And while I’m not saying that our world is going to collapse in 50 years, this freely available book is well worth a read if only for the sake of understanding the great imbalance between resource availability and consumption. There is a limit to how much society can grow, yet despite being warned about it nearly 25 years ago, we still have continued with business as usual.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate – Naomi Klein

One of the most definitive modern texts on climate change and what it means, This Changes Everything is also one of the most readable. Written by the author of No Logo and other bestselling non-fiction books, Klein lays out the problem we’re facing with the clarity of a journalist instead of an academic.

Simply put, we have built our society around the principle that we can expect to continuously grow and expand our profits without end. And despite the fact that this is obviously not true (see Limits to Growth), we proceed to act as though it were. From the oil and gas giants who expand operations every year despite the almost irrefutable indications that they are doing irreparable damage to the climate to the governments who continue to ignore the mountains of science they know to be true, Klein argues that a paradigm shift is needed immediately or everything really will be lost. When read in conjunction with Limits to Growth, This Changes Everything puts the climate change problem into perspective in a writing style that is both informative and highly engaging.

Let My People Go Surfing – Yvon Chouinard

This autobiographical business manifesto written by the founder of Patagonia was originally intended as an employee handbook to explain the ethics and values of the company to new workers, but was eventually published internationally for public consumption. Now nearly 80 years old, Chouinard’s Wikipedia page lists his occupation as “rock climber” even though he has been managing one of the biggest outdoor clothing companies in the world for more than 40 years, which should tell you something about his character.

Decreeing that profits should be secondary to creating long-lasting, high quality, environmentally sustainable, and personal ethics, Patagonia’s corporate philosophy is far from greenwashing. They are one of the few companies that actually goes out of their way to better the world they sell to, and their most recent advertising urges people not to buy their products if they don’t need them. They also offer free repairs to all of their items, something that is sorely needed in the age of planned obsolescence that creates the need for us to buy a new iPhone or laptop every few years to ensure that the companies who make them can keep turning a profit.

Part memoire, part business philosophy, Let My People Go Surfing shows us an alternate example to how businesses can operate sustainably, and how we can continue to buy the things we need without destroying the planet. It’s no coincidence that Naomi Klein, an author who has spent much of her career attacking corporate greed, personally wrote the intro for this businessman’s book.

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival – John Vaillant

The second offering from the author of the equally great The Golden Spruce, this true story recounts the rise of a man-eating tiger in the hostile forests of Siberia and the team that was tasked with tracking it down. Vaillant has an incredible ability to present his subjects in such detail that the freezing world of eastern Russia comes to life, and the tiger itself becomes a living character in its own right. While this is ostensibly a story about killing a wild animal, in reality it is an ode to the fragility of the ecosystem and the incredible impact humanity has made on it.

It is rare to find non-fiction books that move forward with such an attention-grabbing narrative, and I absolutely tore through it. The characters, the setting, and the message all combine to make this one of the most gripping environmentally oriented books I have ever read.

Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water – Maude Barlow

Numerous high profile academics and military leaders have been quoted as saying that just as the wars of the last century were fought over oil, the wars of this century will be fought over water. In persuasive detail, Barlow outlines the facts: there is not enough fresh water on the planet to keep pace with current usages, corporations have been given a free license to privatize the world’s most valuable resource, and pollution is spiralling out of control.

There can be no life without water, but despite this absolute truth, we continue to treat water as if it was worthless and hardly think twice about its wastage. But the time is coming where we will have to stare the reality of our water choices in the face and deal with the consequences. Not just a treatise of doom and gloom, Barlow outlines steps that can be taken to bring us back form the brink of water catastrophe — but it remains to be seen if governments and business leaders will put humanity’s survival ahead of profit margins.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed – Jared Diamond

From the author of the popular Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse is focused on how societies — from the pre-historical to the modern — fall apart. With a great deal of attention paid to the role of environmental degradation in the destruction of societies, I found this book reminded me how much there is to lose. We tend to view our current society as indestructible and we can often bury our heads in the sand and assume that regardless of our actions things will continue as normal. But ancient Babylonians or Sumerians must have thought much the same thing, and their societies are nothing more than an ancient memory today.

Diamond is careful to point out that environmental issues alone were not solely responsible for the collapse of the world’s great civilizations. Military and economic factors brought down the Romans and Soviet Union alike, and cannot be ignored. Among the challenges facing our 21st Century society, however, Diamond views the environmental crisis as one of the most likely to bring us down. A long, sweeping historical narrative along the lines of his other books, Collapse warns that if we don’t do something to check the ecological degradation taking place around us than our future is no more assured than that of the Vikings.

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Have any suggestions for great environmental books? E-mail me: I’d love to hear them.

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Stuff I Liked This Month – September 2016

Like most people I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet reading articles, watching short videos, and looking for inspiration among the millions of new things uploaded everyday. While a lot of what is forced down our throats these days is clickbait trash, every once in a while I stumble across something genuinely of interest to me as a photojournalist, videographer, and more broadly as a human being.

Enjoy this random collection of things I liked from the internet from the last days of August through to the close of September.

To see what I liked last month, click here.

1. Cameraperson – Directed by Kirsten Johnson

Part documentary, part video memoir, Cameraperson is one of the most unique looking pieces of filmmaking I know of when it comes to relating the experiences of doing documentary work – and more broadly about the power of the work itself. The autobiographical details of director Kirsten Johnson’s decades of experience as an international videographer will appeal to those interested in, or currently engaged in, the field of documentary media, while the socio-cultural perspectives on global issues and the media make it much more than a behind-the-scenes piece for industry insiders.

The New York Times says of Cameraperson:

“In the course of her career, Ms. Johnson has found herself in dangerous and somber places, as a witness to some of the worst inhumanity of the recent past. She returns several times to Foca, Bosnia, the scene of mass rapes and killings during the Balkan wars of the ’90s, and also visits Darfur, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay and Manhattan’s ground zero. “Cameraperson” isn’t a work of journalism or advocacy. It’s a scrapbook, a found poem assembled out of scraps and snippets of truth.”

The film is currently on the indie festival circuit (where it looks to be racking up awards) so I’m not sure when exactly it will be available for mainstream audiences, but this is a film I’m going to keep tabs on.

Visit the official website for the film, here.

2. How a French Photographer Made Intimate Photos of Refugees (or The Ethics of Working With Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs))  – James Estrin/The New York Times Lens Blog

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Copyright Marie Dorigny. Click on image to read the full article.

This article by my friend and mentor Jim Estrin was technically written last month, but it’s too relevant to photojournalism to ignore. Photographer Marie Dorigny, the main subject of the article sums up one of the dominant issues for those working in documentary photography today:

“There are no more magazines that will send us on humanitarian social stories. They don’t care anymore and they don’t want to put money on these stories. The NGOs are willing to use photo reporters, and it’s an opportunity for us to keep working on the stories we care about.”

While it’s not necessarily true that there are no more magazines that will pay for humanitarian reporting, the list is dwindling by the day and the only ones who seem to see any of the limited funds that still exist are typically big name photographers with prestigious awards under their belts – and all the power to them. But for those, like me, whose names are not industry-wide brands yet are still living full time from visual storytelling, finding the money to pursue in depth projects is a constant challenge.

In fact, in the last fours years of work, the longest assignment I have ever received from the mainstream media has been six days, and that was an outlier. One or two days is more the norm. This isn’t an indictment of media as they are all dealing with their own well-publicized financial woes, but it does mean that photographers like me who want to pursue long-term stories need to look elsewhere for support – and more often than not, that means reaching out to NGOs.

My recently completed two-year documentation of the Mekong river was funded entirely by the non-profit sector, and despite producing roughly 50 pieces of multimedia journalism, we never received a cent from any media organization. That would seem to indicate that the new trend is to bypass the media altogether and work exclusively with the non-profit sector, but the solution isn’t that neat. Working with major media outlets provides both a legitimacy and scale of distribution that just can’t be matched by NGOs alone, and  the work produced with NGOs can be dismissed as being a piece of advocacy rather than journalism.

This article discusses some of the ins and outs of NGO/photojournalist partnerships, and gives some examples of noteworthy photographers who have stepped away from the media to get personal projects accomplished. This is an issue that will likely stick with my colleagues and I for the foreseeable future, and so I highly recommend reading it.

3. Use Your Photography Skills to Master Video – Jessica Dimmock/CreativeLive

If you work in the documentary photography world, odds are you have been repeatedly bombarded people telling you that you need to start shooting video immediately if you are to have any chance of long-term survival. This two-day course from award-winning photographer Jessica Dimmock of the VII Photo Agency takes a slightly gentler approach in branching the topic. Rather than preying on the fears that photojournalists have about the seismic shifts in the industry to force them to adopt video, Jessica Dimmock takes a different approach.

Through in-depth discussions of gear, methodology, logistics, and, more importantly, intention and motivation, she instead shows how exploring videography can compliment still photography and open up new opportunities that might not have existed otherwise. After watching this course (which spans more than 12 hours) I was left with a feeling of excitement about how video could enhance my projects rather than the normal gloom of obligation that often goes with this topic.

One of the best online education experiences I’ve had to date, I took this course when it streamed for free on launch. Now priced at $129 for lifetime access, if you are serious about trying to bring videography skills into your toolkit, this is far cheaper than any workshop that I know of and a great value. Dimmock is a solid and engaging teacher, and far from a patronizing overview for total beginners, this course delivers what it promises – sound, practical advice for experienced photographers who want to expand their skill set and start producing moving stories.

Visit the course page here

4. So Good They Can’t Ignore You – by Cal Newport

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-4-05-20-pmThe anti-self help book I wish I’d read years ago, So Good They Can’t Ignore You is based around the simple premise that the predominant career advice of the last 40 years – follow your passion – is terrible advice. This has been spouted by everyone from high school guidance counsellors to Steve Jobs, and it is easy to be attracted to these types of ideas. After all, who doesn’t want to believe that simply enjoying something is the key to success?

But as Newport points out, Jobs didn’t build Apple because he was passionate about technology. In fact, quite the opposite. Jobs was a barefoot, LSD-taking hippy who took a job at Atari so that he could have enough disposable income to pursue his real passion of zen meditation. What is omitted in the legendary story of how Jobs built the first Apple computer in his garage is the fact that he saw the endeavour as a chance to make some money, and it was by no means a passion project. It was only later, after he had built the company into something real that he began to actually love what he did.

Newport argues that this is true of many successful people. Rather than following their passions, they slowly but steadily built up a skill set that provided value to the world, and then leveraged these skills into deeply meaningful careers that they grew to love because they got so good at them.

Through examples of high achievers like Jobs (and many, many others), Newport suggests that a deliberate blue-collar work ethic that allows you to grow your value is what will eventually define a career that you love, not divinely inspired passion. In fact, believing that passion should be the driving force behind your career is dangerous as it can lead to chronic dissatisfaction whenever the day to day going gets tough – which it will.

This is especially relevant to people considering a future in photojournalism, as in my experience only long-term deliberate practice will have any impact on your career. All the passion in the world will not land you your first assignment or build your portfolio. Instead you will feel discouraged when you don’t make any progress, no matter how in love with the medium you may be. What will pay off, however, is building up a skills that are valuable to clients, and that can only be done through tedious and repetitive practice.

Obviously this is not to say that you should not be passionate about what you are doing, but that passion alone is not enough. I have met quite a few aspiring documentary photographers over the last several years who have asked me for meetings or sent me emails to tell me how they have just realized they want to dedicate the rest of their lives to photojournalism, and want to know the best way to get started. But when I answer them that they should probably expect to spend at least the first two-three years building up their skills without expectation of recognition or getting paid, their eyes tend to glaze over. Surely, they seem to think, I just don’t understand how much they want it, and that I am missing the obvious fact that they are outliers who don’t need to suffer the drudgery of practice. I can say this because I often felt the same way.

But looking back, I can safely say that Newport is right – passion is not usually enough to get off the ground. What counts is learning to be good at something, and with time the passion will catch up. Unfortunately this is not sexy advice and it is much more satisfying to dive headfirst after your dreams. But if I’d read this book when starting out and listened its suggestions, I would have likely progressed much faster than I did.

5. The News is Dead, So What Comes Next? – Canadaland Podcast

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-00-19-pmThis podcast’s own host admits at the end of the episode that putting “Canada” in the name of the show is
a surefire way to discourage a mainstream audience from listening to it, but I promise that this 30 minute show is relevant not only to Canadians, but for anyone who works with or near media.  The show’s guest is Ian Gill, the author of No News is Bad News: Canada’s Media Collapse―and What Comes Next, asserts that Canada’s (the world’s) major media outlets have utterly failed at their job of keeping the public informed about the everyday events that impact their lives. While this is an obviously pessimistic standpoint, he also delves into non-mainstream services that have picked up the slack and which now, Gill says, do a much better job than the traditional news outlets.

This podcast is thematically connected to Jim Estrin and Marie Dorigny’s article that made the #2 slot on this month’s list, and the two go well together if you’re trying to wrestle with what the future looks like for journalists and storytellers in a post-newspaper world.

Click here to leave this site and steam the podcast.

Click here to stream this podcast in a separate tab.

For the full collection of “Stuff I Liked This Month” articles, and other relevant resources for photojournalists and videographers, click here. 

 

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Stuff I Liked This Month – August 2016

Like most people I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet reading articles, watching short videos, and looking for inspiration among the millions of new things uploaded everyday. While a lot of what is forced down our throats these days is clickbait trash, every once in a while I stumble across something genuinely of interest to me as a photojournalist, videographer, and more broadly as a human being.

I’m going to start posting a small selection of things I’ve come across at the end of every month (travel schedule permitting), in the hopes that others will find these things as helpful as I have and as part of an effort to share interesting work that isn’t necessarily my own.

Enjoy.

1. Listening to the Voices from the Hijabi World – Ed Kashi/Talking Eyes Media

Ed Kashi (VII Photo) is a household name for those in documentary photography, and is known as one of the hardest working and most committed photojournalists/filmmakers around. Ed has become a literal mentor to me (and 15 other emerging photojournalists and documentarians) as part of the three year advanced mentorship program I was lucky enough to be accepted to, and so I was able to see an advanced screening of this short film, produced by Talking Eyes Media, before it was officially released.

To me this video is emblematic of why Ed has been so successful in this hyper-competitive field. He has taken a complex and sometimes divisive topic (the stereotyping of Muslim women wearing the hijab in America) and presented it in a deceptively simple, yet hugely effective way. By giving the voice back to those people actually affected by this issue instead of asserting his own judgements and preconceptions, this film is far more successful in its objective than it might otherwise be.

2. The Fishermen of Elmina, Ghana by Tomasz Tomaszewski

A ritual happens in the fish market in Elmina at the beginning of the fishing season. It is supposed to influence in a positive way the harvest of the fish by local fisherman. © Tomasz Tomaszewski. Click on the image to see the full essay on Lens Culture.

A ritual happens in the fish market in Elmina at the beginning of the fishing season. It is supposed to influence in a positive way the harvest of the fish by local fisherman. © Tomasz Tomaszewski. Click on the image to see the full essay on Lens Culture.

Tomasz Tomaszewski is a photographer, a long time National Geographic contributor, and a photographic educator originally hailing from Poland. I came across this photo essay after a friend posted it on social media and I was immediately blown away by the imagery. Taking such a quiet and simple-seeming topic and producing such strong material is what makes a photographer great.

See the full essay here. 

3) Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

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I picked up the audio version of this book after hearing it repeatedly recommended on various podcasts and found it to be highly applicable to photojournalistic work. Not only is photography an industry which highly prizes the reputation and personal brand of the individual over the work that they do (see Magnum’s John Vink “The Photographer is Not a Hero”), but the pressures of expanding that ego can often lead to near nervous breakdowns for young people trying to get their foot in the door.

I personally have worked myself into fits of panic in the past because my social media following wasn’t big enough, or because I hadn’t appeared in the world’s most prestigious publications, or because someone had given me negative feedback on my work. While I have (mostly) been able to move past these types of unproductive obsessions over the last years, I found Ryan Holiday’s modern distillation of Stoic philosophical principles extremely applicable to this line of work.

A few takeaways I found especially useful:

  1. Always be a student. If you think that you’re the best at something, you’ll be unwilling to learn. Without being willing to learn, you’ll never improve. For anyone heading into their first (or hundredth) portfolio review, this is hugely important. I left the first formal photo critique I ever had feeling angry at the person for not loving my images, and in the end I missed a major opportunity to learn.
  2. You will always be unappreciated. Deal with it and work through it. One of the hardest things about breaking into the photojournalism world is that it seems as though no one is willing to give you a chance. Holiday’s point is that this is always the case, and it really shouldn’t matter. If you aren’t doing the work for yourself (i.e. your ego needs to be constantly stoked by the praise of others), then you probably shouldn’t be doing it at all.
  3. Know what you want. This was one of the most resonant chapters of this book for me personally. As Holiday says, if you don’t know what you are actually working towards, the default answer is always “more”. It is only recently that I have been able to see what I am actually trying to achieve in this line of work, and that has helped me filter out many distractions that used to drive me crazy.

I won’t go into to much detail as this book is very accessible and informative of its own accord, but I would highly recommend its lessons to anyone in the photojournalism or any other creative industry.

You can buy the book here.

4) The Boreal Bash – The Boreal Collective, Oaxaca Mexico. October 28-November 3, 2016.

The Boreal Collective is one of North America’s premiere documentary photography groups, and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of its members who were, beyond being talented photographers, very nice people. The Boreal Bash is an annual event that they organize that helps young photographers get feedback and inspiration at reasonable prices. In a time when photo workshops can often run into the thousands of dollars, the fact that this group puts in so much effort for so little money (relatively speaking) is a breath of fresh air.

Moreover, the fact that they are taking this show on the road to Mexico in an effort to bring photographic education to people who might not otherwise be able to access it is a wonderful gesture. If you’re just starting out and are looking for guidance, consider heading to Oaxaca this October or supporting their fundraising campaign.

5) What Makes a Good Life? – Lessons from the World’s Longest Study on Happiness from Harvard

I found this video through the always interesting Brainpickings blog curated by Maria Popova.

This TED Talk is by Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of a 75-year study on happiness by Harvard University. Researchers have tracked the lives of hundreds of people to try and determine what factors lead to a happy life. The answer they’ve found is both simple and perhaps cliche, but that doesn’t make it any less true. In a period where many young people see the road to happiness as being necessarily lined with fame and money, the findings of the study are highly relevant.

 

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7 Grant Writing Tips for Photographers from Donald Weber

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Over the course of his career, Donald Weber has received more than $250 000 in funding for his personal projects. He knows what he is talking about.

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.

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Don uses an example sentence from Alex Majoli’s winning proposal to illustrate the power of compelling language in grant writing.

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.

Posted in Blog, Canada, Photojournalism Tips Also tagged , , , , |

Laos: Behind the Scenes

As Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country, Laos has a special relationship with the Mekong. Over the course of our journey through the sparsely populated nation, we learned how this great river has given rise to great empires, fostered religion and culture, supported huge varieties of plant and animal life, and provided food and livelihood for millions of people.

Starting in the south at the Khone waterfalls, we travelled more than 1000 km north into the mountainous jungle near the Chinese border. Along the way we met hundreds of Laos people, from emigre coffee barons to young elephant handlers (known as mahouts), and everyone in between.

We explored the country’s complex and often precarious relationship with hydropower dams as it seeks to transform itself into “the battery of Southeast Asia”, and learned about the human impacts of this rapid development.

Ultimately our experience in Laos left us with mixed sensations of happiness and dread. There are few other places on earth possessed of the pure kindness of the Laos people, and it’s natural beauty is spectacular. Yet we also witnessed a country plagued by poverty, and we can only hope that in its rush to develop economically that Laos will not damage itself ecologically beyond repair.

We hope you’ll enjoy this short behind the scenes look at some of our most memorable moments on this leg of A River’s Tail, and keep checking back for weekly multimedia stories from the Mekong.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Laos, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River, Video Also tagged , , , , |

Behind the Scenes: The Mekong in Cambodia

All three members of our team have called Cambodia home for the past few years, and so following the Mekong and its tributaries through the southeast Asian kingdom was a return to the familiar in many ways. Over the course of more than a month we traced the river from the border of Vietnam, along the Tonle Sap to the region’s largest freshwater lake, and north to the controversial Sesan II dam and the Laos border.

This short film is a behind the scenes look at how we worked in the field while following the Mekong through the Kingdom of Cambodia. Enjoy!

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River, Video Also tagged , , , , , |

Entering the Kingdom

Passengers disembark from a speed boat on the banks of the Mekong, near the border crossing to Vietnam.

Passengers disembark from a speed boat on the banks of the Mekong, near the border crossing to Vietnam.

“Ok, you can take pictures, but don’t put me on Facebook,” the man decided after a few minutes of consideration. Judging by the way the rest of the dock workers had looked to him for instructions when we arrived, he was the boss. With his approval secured, the air of apprehension over the presence of two foreigners dissipated and the crew returned to the task at hand: loading a rickety wooden barge with 50kg sacks of sugar and thousands of cartons of cigarettes.

We were back on Cambodian soil after completing the Vietnam leg of the A River’s Tail project and the economic disparity between the two countries was immediately apparent in the dusty border town. Whereas the majority of buildings on the Vietnamese side of the border were made of modern materials, just a few hundred metres into Cambodia, wood had replaced concrete.

As we watched the men slide cargo down a metal ramp into the hold of a small transport vessel, the varying scale of the extent of the respective countries’ activities on the Mekong were also apparent. A sporadic line of yellow buoys stretched across the Mekong marked where Vietnamese waters ended and the purview of Cambodia began, but they were hardly necessary. A line of immense cargo ships dotted the horizon on the Vietnamese side while, only a few small craft drifted in the Cambodian currents.

Though Gareth, Pablo, and myself all called Cambodia home, after three weeks of exploring the Mekong in Vietnam it was easy to forget just how different the two countries were.

Workers throw bags of rice along a ramp into the cargo hold of a river boat.

Workers throw bags of rice along a ramp into the cargo hold of a river boat.

A Time For Corn

Moving away from the border and following the river north along highway 101 towards Phnom Penh, corn was everywhere: heaped in great piles in front of thatched houses, growing in expansive brown fields to the west of the road, and spread across the asphalt, the orange kernels drying in the sun on swaths of tarpaulin that forced our Toyota Camry to slow to a crawl as we veered around them. Knowing Cambodia to be a nation of rice farming, the overwhelming dominance of corn was not what we had expected to see.

“Here we grow different crops depending on the season,” 59-year-old Chheng Tre explained. “During the dry season [in April and May] it is corn, then I will switch to growing beans, and then back to rice when the rains come.” Clad in camouflage military fatigues with a blue checked traditional Khmer scarf known as a krama, Tre looked more like a retired revolutionary than a farmer but spoke with a calm authority that was difficult to question.

A man in Khpob Ateav loads ears of corn into a de-husking machine. Corn is the primary crop grown in the dry season when there is not enough water to support rice.

A man in Khpob Ateav loads ears of corn into a de-husking machine. Corn is the primary crop grown in the dry season when there is not enough water to support rice.

A machine separates the husks from ears of corn in the village of Khpob Ateav. Corn is the primary crop grown in the dry season when there is not enough water to support rice.

A machine separates the husks from ears of corn in the village of Khpob Ateav.

According to Tre, a kilogram of fresh corn could be sold to a broker for 720 riel (around 17 cents US), with dried kernels fetching slightly more. By comparison, even the lowest grade rice sold for between 25 and 30 cents, with more premium strains – such as long grain jasmine – fetching more than 40 cents. The fact that farmers like Tre would bother to grow a crop with such a lower potential for profit was indicative of the pronounced infrastructural differences between Cambodia and Vietnam.

It seemed obvious that, if given the choice, farming rice was the more profitable option. But as Yong Yang, a 35-year-old farmer and friend of Tre’s told us, “Rice needs a lot of water, so we have to wait for the rains.” In contrast, the farmers in Vietnam – among the largest rice exporting nations, both regionally and globally – were growing three harvests of rice per year, regardless of the season.

A family in Khpob Ateav loads dried corn into a machine which separates the kernels from the cob. Most of the corn is sold to wholesalers which distribute it in Vietnam and Thailand as animal feed.

A family in Khpob Ateav loads dried corn into a machine which separates the kernels from the cob. Most of the corn is sold to wholesalers which distribute it in Vietnam and Thailand as animal feed.

ART CAM 0001-2

How Vietnamese farmers, less than 50km away and geographically separated only by an artificially imposed land border, were able to circumvent the realities of nature owed to the complex network of irrigation canals that crisscrossed the Mekong Delta. On the Cambodian side of the border, though there was little difference in the size and flow of the river, there was no such system.

And so, reliant as they were on small gasoline powered pumps to divert the Mekong onto their fields, Cambodians grew corn – which needed far less water to survive than the temperamental rice.

For the Cows

What first struck us as odd about this method of corn production was that we had rarely, if ever, seen Cambodians cook with corn. While grilled corn on the cob was a popular street food snack, the farmers we visited near the border were not keeping the ears in tact. Rather they fed them into a series of grinding machines separated the kernels from the cob which they dried in the sun until they were far too hardened to be enjoyable for human consumption.

Just to be sure our ignorance of Cambodian cuisine wasn’t causing us to jump to conclusions, I called a friend in Phnom Penh to ask if her family ever used the small pieces of corn for cooking. “No, never,” she replied, her bewilderment at my strange question apparent.

“No, it’s for animals,” Chheng Tre said when we asked him to resolve the mystery for us, greatly amused by our confusion. “It is sold Vietnam [or Thailand] where they feed it to cows.”

A man with his cows on the Mekong island of Peam Reang.

A man with his cows on the Mekong island of Peam Reang.

With a new found understanding of interconnectedness of the riparian economies, we spent the rest of the day photographing the corn refining process and speaking to the people who relied on the crop to financially weather the harsh agricultural conditions of the dry season. A Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) eaten on the streets of Saigon, we had learned, might owe its existence to Cambodian corn, fed from the waters of the Mekong.

We left Tre and his fellow corn farmers once the sun had dipped below the horizon and returned to our hotel to get as much sleep as possible. The next day promised yet another pre-dawn wake up so that we could explore the effects of river erosion on the communities who lived along its banks.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , |

Looking Back on the Mekong Delta

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

After months of planning and preparation, when production of A River’s Tail started in Vietnam no one on the crew knew quite what to expect. We each had our own preconceptions of what we’d find in the Mekong delta, and after extensively researching the region we knew that there were a wide range of environmental issues affecting the Mekong. Yet until we’d physically gotten on location they were nothing more than speculations.

We decided to do A River’s Tail in the opposite direction of what logic might dictate, by starting where the Mekong ends and tracing it back to it’s source nearly 5000km away in the Tibetan plateau. The reasoning behind this decision was that we wanted to have a clear picture of the myriad of ways the river facilitated ecology, economics, and culture before we saw its origins. Like being able to travel back in time to visit one of the world’s great thinkers when they were a baby, we hoped that grasping just how important the Mekong is in the life of the 60-odd million people who live downriver would allow us to better appreciate the magnitude of its importance.

And while we started the trip with open (albeit journalistically inclined) minds, the more we explored Vietnam’s Mekong delta, the more concerned we became about the health of the mighty river. Starting on the coast, where the Mekong empties into the South China Sea, we found fishermen hauling in nets clogged with plastic bags. Moving inland we visited shrimp farmers who were experiencing massive losses as their ponds became increasingly infected with unknown poisons carried by the river’s current, killing up to 40% of their shrimp. Later we would witness the widespread dumping of agricultural chemicals into the water table, rendering the river unusable for most domestic purposes and irritating the skin of those locals who would attempt to bathe in it. River fishermen were abandoning their boats and instead constructing massive inland fisheries, telling us that plying the Mekong had long since ceased to be a viable means of supporting a family.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Ba, 84, is blind in both eyes and has not seen anything for 5 years. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Ba, 84, is blind in both eyes and has not seen anything for 5 years. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong – resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Young desciples of the Cao Dai faith enter a prayer service outside Can Tho, Vietnam.

Young desciples of the Cao Dai faith enter a prayer service outside Can Tho, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

We didn’t set out to find a broken river, and it must be said that there are a multitude of global initiatives (both from the government and non-profit sectors) that are working to ensure the Mekong has a productive future. Yet we couldn’t help but leave Vietnam with a feeling of sadness caused by the realization that the Mekong river delta, against a backdrop of great visual beauty and the vast cultural warmth of the Vietnamese people, was a greatly diminished version of its former self.

Even though it would be impossible to completely convey the powerful feelings we experienced after weeks of travel, this short film attempts to bring together some of our final thoughts on what we found during the first leg of A River’s Tail.

A man dives into the Mekong river in the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

A man dives into the Mekong river in the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

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A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Video, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , |

Vietnam: Behind the Scenes

Vietnam, the first country we visited for A River’s Tail, evoked many emotions in us, as powerful as they were often conflicting: happiness and inspiration at the kindness and resilience of those Vietnamese living in the delta, counterbalanced by sadness and concern over the multitude of environmental challenges facing them moving in to the future. A sense of awe at the region’s natural beauty, contrasted with the shock of witnessing the profound physical impacts the region’s rapid development has had on its ecological health. Hopefulness at the eagerness of many of the people we met to preserve and better their environment conflicting with the despair experienced by those whose lives had been forever changed by increased pollution and the corresponding loss of biodiversity.

Working in Vietnam was, on the whole, a wonderful experience. While in the planning stages of this journey we were worried that the country’s reputation as a tightly controlled socialist state would make interacting with its people difficult, for the most part we were welcomed everywhere we went with a smile and a cup of tea.

Over the course of three weeks we travelled from the Mekong’s terminus at the South China Sea to the Cambodian border, stopping in dozens of locations along the way to try and learn as much as possible about how this mighty river factored into the lives of delta residents. Though we could have easily spend twice as much time without coming close to fully grasping the complex relationship between the river and its people, we learned more in these few weeks than we thought possible.

We hope you’ll enjoy this short behind the scenes video that gives some insight into what happens behind the camera.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River, Video, Vietnam Also tagged , , |