Photographer as white messiah: looking back at a picture I wish I hadn’t taken

Last week, I wrote about Avatar and its representation of an indigenous society. In response, a friend forwarded me this Op-Ed by David Brooks, where he takes my criticisms quite a few steps further.

The White Messiah fable, says Brooks, is offensive because, “It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

“It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind — even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains.”

I love this. He says it so clearly. And that clarity is helpful, because in practice this is a complex issue that can be difficult to understand and to spot. As a photographer who is interested in social change, I have been a “benevolent imperialist.” And that’s not what I want to be. I worry about seeing myself as an agent of positive social change when I am actually exacerbating a social divide.

And here’s why. It’s very easy to come from relative affluence (which you do, in this world, if you own a camera) and try to work for the betterment of others as an outsider, and end up further marginalizing or denigrating the very people you seek to assist.

For example, I worked for the International Rescue Committee in Tanzania in 2005, and part of my job was to document the work they were doing in the refugee camps along the border with Burundi. In that area, malnutrition can sometimes be an issue.

Juan Arredondo on behalf of the International Rescue Committee

I was making pictures in the hospitals, which the IRC ran, and I met a woman seeking treatment for her malnourished child. I asked the woman if I could photograph her.

She was extremely embarrassed. It took her a few moments to muster the courage to say anything. She said I could photograph the child, but not her face. She covered herself with a scarf. A hospital worker turned to me and said, “She is ashamed because her child is malnourished.”

When I think about that incident, I feel gross. Of course she was embarrassed! I would be embarrassed! Is there any mother who wouldn’t be? Can you imagine how awful she felt? Why was I so thickheaded? How did I think she would feel? Did I think she didn’t have feelings? Did I think she would feel differently than I would in the same situation?

I humiliated a woman. I basically coerced her into being photographed because I represented an agency that was giving her assistance. And I made what was already a very painful, stressful situation for her significantly worse.

It is I who am now ashamed when I talk about this.

And I wonder, how can I do better next time? How can I see these moments coming more effectively? What are the attitudes I need to change? What are the approaches I can take that will allow me to be more respectful and considerate of others?

Inherent within this discussion is the question of whether it is possible to make great art about a community as an outsider to that community. In her comment on last week’s post, reader Sittingpugs said, “Smoke Signals is indeed an amazing film not only because of its quality acting, directing, and writing, but also because the ethnic minority experience is told from within (not to say that an ethnic “majority” artist couldn’t create an equally authentic story or that every piece of ethnic cinema features Truths).”

I’ve had writing teachers that said, “Write only what you know!” and others that said, “Write what you don’t know!”

I think great art surprises us—it can come from anywhere, and be about anything. So I don’t think you have to be from a community to chronicle it with beauty and subtlety. But, it’s also very easy to become a hapless messiah, a benevolent imperialist, or simply someone who is not actually helping anyone. Especially with photography, there are issues of exploitation, power dynamics, and simply knowing where to be that make working with a community difficult to negotiate for an outsider. It’s still worth doing, but it’s also worth thinking and talking about.

Juan Arredondo on behalf of the IRC

And these photographs, by Juan Arredondo on behalf of the IRC in Colombia, are really nice. As always, you can click on the images to see his full photo essay, or click here.

January 14, 2010 at 5:03 am 7 comments

Avatar: a picture of the noble (sparkly) savage

Last night I went to see Avatar. The Imax screen at the Melbourne Museum is 7 stories tall, 32 meters wide, and featured a prim voice asking us to move to the middle to fill every available seat.

And no wonder. At yesterday’s count from boxofficemojo.com, Avatar had $1,063,151,759 in box office sales. As you’ve no doubt heard, it’s broken the $1 billion mark faster than any other film. Michael Carmichael of the Huffington Post called it “political dynamite” and “powerful art.” Clearly, James Cameron knows his audience.

And doesn’t.

I feel pretty weird about watching a movie that so blatantly returns to an unambiguous portrayal of a perfect, “untouched” indigenous society, dramatically saved from ruin by an outsider (who is, as usual, a white boy). My friend Thom Loubet said it well: “I mean, I feel like a cranky old man complaining about this, because it really is a fun movie, but in 2010, do we still need the perfectly innocent/noble/pure (clueless) native in our fictional narratives?! Give me ‘Smoke Signals’ any day.”

In that clip from Smoke Signals, the story Thomas Builds-the-Fire recounts is from Sherman Alexie’s first book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which is just an awesome book and I hope you buy one right this second and read it.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be interested in other cultures. It’s not that we shouldn’t fantasize about living in harmony with the earth (or Pandora) or building a better society. It’s just that I don’t like being told to idealize a lot of creatures that look like blue, sparkly Masai people who move through life to a soundtrack of Peruvian panpipes.

Because idealizing something is actually not the same as respecting it.

If I respect another culture, I acknowledge both how similar and how different I am to the people living within that other culture. I acknowledge that they have the same emotional range, mental capabilities, desires and potential for being annoying that I have. Idealizing someone sets them apart from you in a way that is false, just as dismissing someone also creates a false division.

And that’s why Sherman Alexie’s work is so fantastic. It is never false. It rings true, and you know it from the first line of the introduction to The Lone Ranger and Tonto. And if anyone is going to save the characters in Alexie’s fiction, it is not going to be some white person who has been to a fancy college, or has been a marine, or who photographs Victor’s father at a protest and wins a Pulitzer Prize.* (See excerpt in comment below)

It’s not the documentation of an issue that solves the issue, it’s the discussion that documentation creates. It’s the feeling a picture inspires; the connections and relationships it engenders; the kinds of audiences it reaches–that’s how a picture creates social change. And, as a photographer, you have some control over the kind of conversation you begin. For example, these two images by Richard Misrach and Edward Burtynsky raise serious cultural and environmental questions, but they start a nuanced conversation.

Richard Misrach

Edward Burtynsky

Avatar, even though it’s in gorgeous 3D, starts a one dimensional conversation. And yeah, I guess it isn’t really documentary work–those hammerhead-elephants aren’t quite that big in real life–but it does have an overt social-change message.

So anyway. It was a fun romp. But I wish it had been more thoughtful. And perhaps contained a single humorous moment. And I agree with Thom. He also said, “The art direction looks like an 11-year-old’s Trapper-Keeper–everything highlighted in purple neon.” My dad was reminded of Fern Gully.

January 6, 2010 at 7:22 am 36 comments

An interview with Ian MacLellan, winner of the PhotoPhilanthropy Student Activist Award

Ian MacLellan is a 19-year-old sophomore at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. He’s studying biology and geology. With a strong interest in international development, those subjects translate into water systems and strategies for public health.

“I had worked for nonprofits locally in my town and in Massachusetts, and I love to travel,” says MacLellan. “I found this group called International Bridges to Justice through Idealist.org. They had hosted a competition for justice makers and needed journalists to go out and document the projects they were funding.”

“IBJ was really, really supportive in linking journalists with appropriate projects,” says MacLellan. In fact, Jeff Kennel’s photo essay on PhotoPhilanthropy came about through a connection made by IBJ as well.

Jeff Kennel

MacLellan was also impressed by the way that IBJ clearly laid out their goals, in contract form, and delineated who would have what rights to the photographs, who had liability, and other basic parameters for the partnership.

When he arrived in Kisumu, MacLellan’s began thinking about how to tell a compelling story about this nonprofit. It’s hard to do. “Most of the work of any nonprofit is office work,” says MacLellan, “So you have to come up with your own creative projects to help tell the story.” That takes a while to figure out. But in some ways, it’s time well spent.

“It’s really great to not take pictures a lot of the time. You need time to learn, to find out people’s stories. Because the stories are what tell something about the nonprofit. They tell the spirit, the value, the meaning behind everything—in my opinion.

“I think semi-positive stories can be a great vehicle for social change, like the story of the newspaper—the Kakuma News Reflector. I think that it’s important to show something unique and not just show suffering. I don’t think people pay attention to stuff like that anymore. I think 30 years ago they might have, but not now.

“I’m not against the James Nachtwey’s and Zoriah’s of the world—don’t worry! They show both sides.

James Nachtwey

“I think a lot of people starting out think the James Nachtwey style is THE only way to tell stories. But I think after they get exposed to more work, they sort of see the other side of storytelling and image making.”

And what’s next, for Mr. MacLellan? He’s continuing to apply for grants—the next project he’s proposed is about energy issues in Scotland. And he’s participating in a group at Tufts called Exposure where “we try to have mature conversations about the state of journalism.”

“For students,” he says, “It’d be great if there were more small grants for domestic work. More small grants could be a great tool to promote journalism because newspapers can’t pay for those [small-scale, local] stories anymore. So that’s a void the nonprofits could fill.”

December 30, 2009 at 2:08 am 2 comments

Loving pictures, loving people

Portraits are limited. They can mischaracterize someone as easily as they can accurately represent a person. And who decides what’s accurate? The subject? The photographer? Or someone else entirely?

How often has someone taken a snapshot of you that didn’t look like you at all? Or that didn’t look the way you want to look?

So why do we make pictures of each other? If you know that a portrait can never say everything that you want or need to say about a person, why make one?

I ask myself this question a lot.

My answer has to do with loving pictures. Loving them for what they can do, and not feeling frustrated with them because of what they cannot do.

Pictures, like this one by Massimo Dall’Argine on behalf of Amicus, inspire the imagination. They help me think about other people. They help me feel commonality, connection and love for others and for the world. They help me feel all sorts of things. Just like a movie, or a book, or an amusement park…I go to pictures to feel more.

This picture is by Ian MacLellan for Christian Legal Education Aid and Resarch. When I look at it, I feel as though I’m meeting this man. I feel as though I am working with him or he is working for my school or my community. I feel interested, and curious about who he is, and, personally, quite respectful.

I find that I am often moved by pictures which are not exclusively about a given challenge or tragedy, but are about the life surrounding it—the familiar, beautiful, challenging, painful life that each of us experiences.

When I look at a picture of a person who lives in a very different place from me, it is hard for me to know what that person’s experience has been. I cannot fully imagine it. And the more the picture makes me focus on that difference between me and the subject, the more I think about how much I can’t imagine.

But the more a picture focuses on what I DO have in common with the subject, the more connection I feel to them, the more I think about how much I can imagine about his or her life.

This photograph for Do One Thing by Najlah Faenny delights me. I feel like I could be friends with this girl–I’ve made faces like that. And in this example, because I don’t know where she is, I am really only looking at her face. And she doesn’t seem very different from me.

And I think social change is built on that feeling of connection. I don’t think it’s built on a feeling of distance and dissonance. When people are empowered to work together, when they have mutual respect and shared goals—that’s when institutions grow and communities get stronger.

December 23, 2009 at 4:25 am 1 comment

Looking at leprosy

How do you make images about a debilitating disease that keep the dignity, the complexity, and the feelings of the subjects intact?

How do you create images about this issue without further injuring those people who suffer from it?

In her photo essay for the Turkish Association for the Fight Against Leprosy, Delizia Flaccavento uses a direct, narrative, sometimes impersonal approach. She focuses on the symptoms and scars of leprosy.

I appreciate those photographs. They teach me something I want to know–what leprosy really looks like.

And they take two simultaneous risks: 1. that I will look away because I feel distressed. 2. that I won’t look away because I am interested—not in the people, but in the spectacle of the disease.

They also tell the story of an organization, rather than an individual.

Which, like cropping out or obscuring faces, can occasionally be a more sensitive way to represent a person.

Jan Sochor takes another approach in his photograph of a patient with leprosy in Haiti. He makes this person’s infected feet seem abstract and strange. They are barely recognizable.

This picture dissociates me from the personality connected to those feet. Similar to some of Flaccavento’s pictures, I don’t see a being here so much as I see a disease. The feet are gruesome. I feel revulsion and alarm. (Jan Sochor also has an essay about Haiti posted on PhotoPhilanthropy.org although this picture is from his blog.)

Ehrin Macksey does something very different again. His photographs of a leprosy colony in Vietnam–for Send Me/Kairos Coalition–depict the lives of the people in the village more than they depict the disease itself. In his images, the dock where a woman cleans her vegetables

or the monthly rations of meat each person receives

or the prayers said in a Buddhist temple

are points of entry for a visitor to this town. In his images I am aware of many lives, all intertwined. I’m aware of time: a past and a future. There is a disease in the village, but there are also people.

In spite of the harsh light, this photograph of a man named Bop feels tender. I find my mind lingering, holding onto it for a moment.

Each of these artists tells an important story. Each is searching for a way to gingerly illustrate an issue that can be hard to look at.

December 16, 2009 at 10:39 pm 1 comment

I do love a zoo.

On our way back from the Grampians National Park this weekend, we saw a sign by the side of the road that said ZOO. I demanded that we pull over, despite skepticism on the part of the other passengers. The resulting experience was a huge success. We all got to pat a very sleepy wombat named Wilma. Sublime.

(I didn’t really know what a wombat looked like before moving to Australia, so, for the uninitiated, here’s a photo of one from Flickr by Ben Harris-Roxas.)

When we got back from our adventure, I happened upon Anne Marie Musselman’s photo essay depicting the Sarvey Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Her photographs’ depth and complexity surprised me. I found her images arresting and nuanced; devoid of the many clichés that photographs of animals so frequently contain.

Her images gave animals the same emotional weight that good portraits of people carry. She made me think about what the animal might be feeling, not just what I felt about the animal.

A lot of pictures of animals—and of people—tend to objectify them, rather than make them seem interesting and real. That is easy to do when you are moving from four dimensions down to two. The very nature of photography is to flatten, to edit, to reduce.

Because of Musselman’s dynamic color and striking composition, I was reminded of artist Jill Greenberg’s animal portraits. (This Musselman photograph of a juvenile wolf could be a Greenberg.)

But the two artists diverge  in some significant ways. Greenberg’s work overall has a very different feel to me. Her work makes the animals pictured seem hyperreal, as though they are maybe made of plastic or silicone or are digitally generated.

She photographs animals using the same studio environment that one would use to make pictures of objects for advertisements. She lights a baboon the way she would light a package of soap, a piece of jewelry, or a toy. Greenberg literally objectifies her living subjects.

And the result is that, when I look at her pictures, I don’t think about the animal as a being. I think about it as a thing. I think about what I want from it—how it entertains me, how it pleases me, how pretty it is.

Looking at these two pictures of hers, I think about the dog as a “dog” and the polar bear as a crazy, mythical, white beast. Greenberg is constantly nodding to clichés, popular mythology, and the way we project human qualities onto animals. Many of her pictures contain human gestures manifested by animals. A bear covering its face, for example;

a pig “smiling.”

Musselman’s images lend her subjects a dignity that I appreciate. I find that I am curious about the animals she renders, and I wonder how they are feeling.

And I wonder about the balance between my species and theirs. Her own statement says it well, “The more I was around these animals, the more I saw their inner beauty and intelligence…the more frustrated I became by our world and how much of nature is neglected or destroyed.”

Sigh… I love you, Wilma.

December 11, 2009 at 4:10 am 8 comments

Beginning again

I just moved to Melbourne, VIC, Australia from Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.A. and today I was cranky. Here I am again, with no way to print pictures, no studio, no scanner, no structure, no particular project going, no knowledge of local nonprofits and local issues, and no idea how to tap into the artist community…besides getting tattoos on my calves. (I saw a woman today with two aggressive nymphs staring each other down from each of her calves.)

It is the same old problem that all artists deal with, on micro and macro levels, all the time. You have to make art in order to get support. And you have to get support to make art. You have to know people to meet people. You have to have money to get money.

So I started wandering into galleries, asking questions. I found the Gertrude Contemporary Art Space, and wished desperately that I had found them just a few weeks earlier, when it would have been BEFORE their application deadline. So typical.

A lot of the organizations that help emerging artists are community-based, like that one. In Phoenix, I received a lot of support from the eye lounge, which is an artist-run coop gallery; and Contemporary Forum, which is a group of people affiliated with the Phoenix Art Museum. Best way to find equivalents in your community is, of course, through word of mouth and google. And by looking at the resumes of other artists in your local community, and figuring out who supports them.

However,  I’ve been keeping my eye out for non-local organizations that support emerging photographic artists for a while, so I have a few to list below, for anyone else that might be searching for a boost. (And let me know what else is out there with your comments.)

I think the same problem applies to anyone trying to tap into a network for the first time, and volunteerism is no different. There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal recently about the trend toward taking both short trips and mid-career sabbaticals to volunteer abroad. PhotoPhilanthropy offers one way to make connections if you are looking to donate your time as a photographer through the Volunteer Opportunities tab in the Creative Momentum section. And the WSJ article’s author, Steve Mollman, compiled a list of organizations that facilitate non-photo-based service.

For anyone looking for a meaningful way to give back via the arts, I think philanthropist Ted Decker is an excellent example. His Catalyst Fund, set up in 2003, is designed to help artists market themselves—an expensive and yet crucial component of getting your work out into the world and moving your artistic career forward. He supports both international artists and Phoenix-based artists, and is a strong presence in the Phoenix arts community. His often-small—sometimes less than $300—grants make a huge difference. By helping a few individuals, he builds stronger ties between many people within a disparate city.

So, the nitty gritty—arts organizations that give emerging artists a boost:

1. Humble Arts Foundation New York is a not-for-profit organization that works to advance the careers of emerging fine art photographers by way of exhibition and publishing opportunities, limited-edition print sales, twice–annual artists grants, and educational programming. @humblearts

Bar Tender | San Antonio, TX | 1-Person Household | Goes to sleep at 8AM and wakes up at 4PM daily. by Mark Menjivar

2. Jen Bekman’s 20×200 print editions: (limited editions x low prices) + the internet = art for everyone. And Jen Bekman also has a blog (she is another arts entrepreneur whom I idolize, obviously). This is unrelated, but I love her Thiebaud + O’Hara pairing…”You are trapped in a croissant factory. And you love it.” @20×200 @jenbee

The pictures above and below are from 20×200, and are just the kind of image I’m immediately drawn to–the feral house illuminates a social issue that I’m aware of but haven’t really seen in this way before. And the fridge, in its demonstration of an extreme, reminds me of how unsustainable many of my own patterns are and yet how many other people I share them with. They are also bizzare and funny–a pleasure to look at.

Feral House #7, James Griffioen

3.  The Puffin Foundation seeks to provide support to artists who are outside the mainstream because of their race, gender or social philosophy (grant deadline Dec 9th!)

4. Artist-A-Day highlights a new person every day and sends out info to a large following.

5.  Women in Photography offers grants and exhibition opportunities. This photograph, part of  a series currently featured on the WIPNY site, delights me.

I throw myself at men #1, Lilla McElroy

6.  Saatchi Online, Photography is another chance to post your work and engage with a community of artists, collectors and gallerists.

December 2, 2009 at 12:55 am 2 comments

Artist as entrepreneur: the new paradigm

So where are the models for these kinds of partnerships? Whom can we look to when we want to figure out how to move forward?

Dave Eggers, to me, represents a new model for the 21st century artist: someone who makes his own work, but who also finds new and interesting ways to distribute that work.

He starts organizations. And then scales them up. And he writes. And he makes movies.  He builds the tightly-knit intellectual community that he wants to be a part of.  Dave Eggers is a man that builds communities and creates social change. And he does that by making art and by helping other people make art.

826 Valencia, his tutoring center and pirate supply store was the first of what has become a national 826-tutoring-center-empire.

Then, in addition to a few different publishing enterprises and growing list of books and articles, a few specific pieces have an overtly social purpose. Two of his recent books recount the stories of people who have been struggling to build and rebuild their lives: a Sudanese refugee in What is the What, and a man heavily impacted by hurricane Katrina in Zeitoun.

A friend of mine who works for him once told me, “Dave Eggers has his fingers in many pies.”

Which is all to say, THAT IS SO MUCH TO HAVE DONE! That is so much community building. That is so much art. That is so much social change—no matter how you measure it or how unmeasurable it is, no matter how successful, or unsuccessful, any one project is. This is an artist who engages with and shapes the world.

Now of course, everybody’s different. It’s possible that Dave Eggers is a super-human artist-entrepreneur-bot who doesn’t sleep, and he certainly has skills and opportunities I don’t have. So, at this point, it seems pretty likely that I will not become another Dave Eggers.

However, I think that artist-nonprofit partnerships are right in line with this paradigm, and are exactly the kind of exciting projects that help to build stronger communities and create social change. Each of the photographers who has submitted to PhotoPhilanthropy is also an entrepreneur. So what I am doing is informed by having examples out there like Dave Eggers, and I am grateful for and inspired by that.

November 27, 2009 at 1:30 am 1 comment

Opportunities for artists and nonprofits

Part II: GRANT AGGREGATORS AND PUBLICATION

So, as we know, actually doing projects and making partnerships takes resources. And then getting the work you’ve done out to a large audience takes even more resources. And finding those resources, publication opportunities and exhibition opportunities is a challenge. I have yet to find the definitive artist-opportunity aggregator, but I’m searching hard, and  I have found a few grant/call aggregators that I think are terrific.

Grant Aggregators

1. The best of them are all at the state level, so I suggest finding your state arts organization’s website. I’ve looked at California’s—the California Arts Council—and Arizona’s—the Arizona Commission on the Arts—and they are both terrific.

2. The New York Foundation for the Arts lists national grants and calls for work. They have a searchable database and lots of other resources on their site. This is an excellent resource.

3. Then there is Call for Entry, a site that aggregates opportunities for the Western States. It posts a lot of hyper-local opportunities that you have to wade through to find what’s relevant, but it also has a lot of content and a streamlined application system so that you can upload images only once and then use them to apply to multiple opportunities. (Hey grantosphere—we need more of this! More streamlining of applications!! How can I possibly work to support myself, and make my art, and apply for dozens of different grants with different applications all at the same time? I can’t! It makes me terribly cranky!)

4. And there is the Foundation Center, the go-to source for nonprofits that lists some arts grants as well. They have a lot of different support services, including a massive database of foundations that is accessible via the web, for a subscription fee, or for free via a “cooperating collection” (click here to find the one nearest you).

Publication Opportunities

There is also the issue of getting your work out there so that you have an audience…and also so that you can build the credibility to make you a better candidate to receive grants. I am still hunting for more of these kinds of opportunities, but a few whose tone I appreciate are below.

1. Jen Bekman is an arts entrepreneur whom I admire very much (I recommend following her on twitter; @jenbee). She has a lot of great things going on which I will mention in future posts, but one of her projects is the blog Hey, Hot Shot! which, like PhotoPhilanthropy, posts and discusses the work of many photographers who submit themselves for support. Here is a longer description of what it is and how to apply.

Kipp Wettstein via Hey, Hot Shot!

2. The Aperture Foundation has the “portfolio prize,” with the added bonus of using the grant process as a way to scout for book proposals. When you submit a portfolio, it gets looked at by the editors of Aperture books, which makes the application worth your while, even if you don’t win the prize.

3. Photo Lucida’s Critical Mass competition is similar—only this time the prize is the book publication. The organization seeks to build community at the same time by distributing the book they end up creating to all applicants (a project subsidized by the hefty entry fee of around $75). Updates for the competition are available on their blog.

4. There is also an organization called the Magenta Foundation: Publishing for the Arts, that has just launched the Flash Forward Festival to promote and exhibit emerging photographers in Canada, the U.S. and the UK. In the past they have also published books. Submissions now being accepted for 2010. Deadline: Dec 31, 2009.

5. And, of course, more and more people are jumping into the self-publishing that internet companies like Lulu and Blurb have made so popular, and that is a great way to catalogue a partnership in a way that shows off both organization and artist. These sites allow you to create a book and then order copies as you need them, which is good for both parties. Make a book. Hand it out. Achieve instant fame and glory.

So that’s a start. Please comment below if you have resources to add.

November 25, 2009 at 9:07 am 1 comment

Opportunities for artists and nonprofits

Part I. GRANTS

So, I’ve been applying to a lot of grants, prizes, competitions and exhibitions in the last few years in order to fund my work. And I’ve noticed a couple of things.

First of all, it is hard to find the information, it’s hard to organize it, and it’s hard to get the timing right, unless you just become obsessive about applying for and researching grants, which is not advised if you want to keep your personal relationships intact.

That’s one reason I wanted to start this blog and to create the grants list in the Creative Momentum section of PhotoPhilanthropy—I am always looking for good sources of information on the web. Incidentally, if you can recommend any good grant aggregators or blogs for this kind of information, please do! Comment below or send me a note at eliza@photophilanthropy.org.

But I’ve also noticed that there is an exciting trend toward promoting and funding photographic art that drives social change. A number of organizations and programs have emerged in just the last couple of years that have this specific mission, some of which explicitly require collaborations between artists and charitable organizations.

1.    There is the Shoot Q grant, whose 2009 winner, Annie O’Neill, was just announced (sign up here to be notified when they begin accepting submissions for the 2010 prize).

Annie O'Neill

2.    Getty Images added a new grant program to their existing $20,000 editorial grants (deadline: May 1st). Called “Grants for Good” the new program specifically funds collaborations between photographers and nonprofits. In their words, “Nonprofits need imagery to tell their stories effectively, which is why our Grants for Good provide two grants of $15,000 annually, to cover photographer, filmmaker and agency costs as they create compelling new imagery for the nonprofit of their choice.” Deadline: March 1st. Boo yah.

3.   Once you’ve made the work, you need to figure out how to get it to a broader audience. The Open Society Institute & Soros Foundation Network has a new Distribution Grant for artists and partner organizations to create new ways to distribute their work. Amounts from $5,000-$30,000; deadline, June 2010. Read about last year’s winners here.

4.    The Aftermath Project, another initiative of the Open Society Institute, supports projects that document the aftermath of war. Deadline: November every year.

Asim Rafiqui

5.    The Alexia Foundation gives $15,000 grants to professionals and similarly generous grants to students for projects that further their objectives of promoting peace and cultural understanding. Deadline: January 12, 2010.

In my experience, partnering with a nonprofit organization was helpful in funding my work because it dramatically expanded the breadth of funding sources the project was eligible for. With COAR–Community Outreach & Advocacy for Refugees–my most recent partner organization, I could apply for independent artist grants, artist prizes, project or collaboration-specific grants, and the project was written into general program and operations grants that the organization was submitting anyway.

Because of our collaboration, we were eligible for 4 different categories of funding, instead of one or two. We ended up receiving about 1 grant from each of those categories of funding—so I feel like that strategy served us well. And, I don’t think the project would have been able to move forward if we had disregarded any of those categories.

Last year at ASU, I attended a talk given by Subhankar Banerjee where he recounted his own experience trying to drum up financial support for his projects. If you haven’t seen his work before, you should check it out: I particularly like his landscapes because they are so geometric and organic at the same time; they show you caribou crossing vast swathes of the arctic that could also be cytoplasm drifting around a single cell—it reminds me that I don’t really know how I fit into the world or the universe, I don’t really know how large or small I am, which is unexpectedly inspiring.

Subhankar Banerjee

One of the strategies he pursued in funding his photographs about climate change in the arctic was to partner with Blue Earth Alliance, a nonprofit organization that fills the role that COAR played for me when I was looking for funding. Blue Earth Alliance is relevant in situations where artists have not found an appropriate organization to partner with. This is a very cool org, that offers a lot of different kinds of support to artists—well worth knowing about.

And they have a blog too. Here’s a post I found really useful, all about fundraising strategy.

Next up: publication opportunities and grant aggregators. Very sexy.

November 18, 2009 at 2:42 am Leave a comment

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"In this way his work is more powerful in its moments of creation, when real human interactions are eroding racial stereotypes, than in its exhibition. And if the work succeeds, it is not because Subotzky can use a camera like no one else, it is because his photographs embody his efforts to confront social injustice on a personal level." --Charles Schultz on Mikhael Subotzky

PhotoPhilanthropy’s blog is written by Eliza Gregory

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