Photographer Donald Weber has mastered the art of photography grant writing. He’s earned more than $300,000 from photography grants in 12 years, including a Guggenheim Fellowship—an average of more than $20,000 per year to fund his photography. He regularly teaches a grant-writing workshop and has agreed to share his suggestions to help photographers not only to understand why grants are so important, but also to find success in the application process.
“The quote I like to use in my grant writing workshops,” Weber says, “is by John Szarkowski, who said: ‘The great Hank Aaron hit 756 homers in his career, but struck out nearly 12,000 times.’ That, to me, is exactly what grant writing is about. I’ll hit a homer, but the time and effort to get there is endless.”
Many organizations offer financial grants to photographers whose work supports the goals of the organization. Typically aimed at photographers producing documentary or fine art work, those goals are often simply to assist photographers in the production of their work, to fund the publication of a book or to otherwise subsidize some element of a project. For many, serious photographic pursuits would not be possible without grants. What does it take to have success in applying for photography grants? And are they really that important?
In general, applying for photography grants is fairly straightforward. Doing it well, however, requires a deeper understanding of what grantors are looking for. Typically, the photographer writes a thoughtful explanation of the project to be undertaken and provides photographs along with a curriculum vitae (CV) and a budget for the project (or at least an explanation of the portion to be financed by the grant). Done well, the grant application may earn the photographer a place among many awarded $1,000 or the sole awardee of a sum approaching an annual salary.
To find success when seeking a grant, Donald Weber’s experience is particularly instructive. “I have written dozens of proposals,” he says, “and I understand how to structure, what to say, where to hold back and how to engage an audience. I see this as an integral component of working as a photographer—go out and find the money. Be clear, be concise, articulate your vision of who you are, what you want to do and where you want to go and people will respond.”
How to do that? Read on…
Make writing integral to the creative process
Writing about your project early in the process will not only provide a well written explanation of the work when a grant’s deadline is looming, it will also help to coalesce the creative concepts into a more nuanced, fully formed vision for the photographer himself.
“When I made my first grant application in 2004,” Weber says, “I understood immediately the power of grants and writing. I struggled immensely with that proposal, as it was the first moment where I had to literally translate what was in my head onto paper. I always could conceive of projects, but it was that moment when I had to strike finger to key where I understood writing was more than just a way to get some money, but rather it was a process of articulation. Since then, I have always viewed the writing process as integral to my photographic process.”
“Whenever I have a vague notion of an idea,” he continues, “I begin writing something, anything, just to see how it ‘works’ outside my head. And grants work on deadlines. For a procrastinator like me, a deadline is your best friend. It forces you to make decisions and get it done.”
Embrace the pursuit of funding as fundamental to the job
Weber says applying for grants is not just a dalliance, but rather a key means to an end—the end being complete artistic freedom and the ability to pursue the large-scale projects he does. These projects take a significant amount of time and money, and grants—and by extension, other sources of funding they can lead to—are the only way for someone who isn’t independently wealthy to finance their work. The benefit of this is not just the ability to pursue a given project, but the creative freedom that comes from working for oneself.
“Many see it as a magic bullet,” Weber says, “free money. I do not. I see it as the ultimate form of photographic freedom. Grants offer freedom. Since I started writing grants, I have been able to rely less and less upon the more corporate or commercial endeavors many photographers need to work and make large-scale projects. No magazine these days will send someone for months or support a work over a period of years. Sure, a few might support the creation of a segment of a project or it may help in securing airfare, but ultimately it becomes their work, not ours. I want to make my work, the way I want and at my own pace. My work has become ambitious precisely because I work for myself and nobody else.”
“Secondly,” he continues, “just getting into the act of writing has allowed me so many other possibilities that if I stuck to the insides of the editorial marketplace I could never achieve. I now go after funds that might not be considered a ‘grant’ in the traditional sense. Instead I look for institutions or other organizations that align with what I think my work is about. I write a proposal, almost a cold call, try to get an appointment, and meet with them. This, of course, doesn’t work every time. Securing funding is a difficult process, and by being able to articulate your thoughts into a cohesive proposal, this becomes a powerful tool to attract funding from all kinds of sources. You don’t need to wait for a certain deadline. Instead, go approach an outlet that you feel could potentially be interested in what you have to offer.”
“At times I feel as photographers we have become trained to rely on a certain system or way of doing things,” Weber adds, “and we lose our independence and freedom. All I want is to make my work on my terms. Grants afford one that possibility.”
Demonstrate a clear record of past success and real passion for the work
As expected, organizations don’t freely give their funds away to just anyone. They want to ensure their dollars will be put to good use. The easiest way to assure them of this is to show a history of past successes—evidenced by a portfolio that demonstrates capability at seeing projects through, as much as this is possible given the limitations on how past work can be shown. It regularly falls to the curriculum vitae (CV) to elucidate your track record.
“My experience has shown that grantors are looking for a history of executability,” Weber says. “You must have a proven record of accomplishing something. To show this, it is usually reflected in time. Show you have made a project of depth and thoughtfulness, show you have an ability to get it in front of the public, these kinds of things really are critical. That being said, I won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007 with barely a history behind me. I believe this was successful because the proposal itself was written with an incredibly urgency. Reading it now, it reads as if there’s nothing in the world I as a photographer needed than to continue working on my proposed project. It was heartfelt, real, well considered, thoughtful. I had a small portfolio, but enough to convince a jury that I would go do this in the spirit of the proposal.”
“I always encourage everyone just to get going,” he says, “get on it. Start exhibiting, get your work out there. Enter whatever you can, just start writing and thinking about your work. It takes time to articulate the core themes and ideas. Most of us are not writers, but we are visual, and that’s what a great proposal is: it allows someone else to see what you’ll do.”
“I don’t think you can ever be too early,” Weber adds, “as getting into the process and rhythm of writing is critical to any successful proposal. But like anything, you need to have some experience to work out the kinks. Many arts councils use the exhibition/CV as a means to gauge the executability of a proposal. As a relative unknown—or rather someone with a very thin record of creating and completing work—it’s very difficult. That is why a CV is super-critical to start developing. A portfolio is difficult to show work because you are so limited in the amount of images, and usually it is only a ‘slideshow’ type format, which is tough for others with large bodies of work, so a CV shows what you have done, how it relates and that you can then get the work out there.”
Don’t provide more information than requested—particularly regarding budget
Weber says that while it’s important to be forthright when it comes to the costs outlined in the budget portion of a grant application, there’s such a thing as too much information. Rather than overanalyzing and providing much more detail than is requested, it’s better to provide precisely the budgetary information requested and no more. One doesn’t need to line item every nickel to ensure that the expenses meet the grantor’s criteria.
“My general rule is never to offer more than the outlet is asking you for,” Weber says. “It can never be perfect, and usually they are very clear on what will and will not be funded. For example, if ‘capital costs’ will not be funded, this means any kind of camera gear or computers, etcetera, unless it is integral to the work itself. Usually there is a simple line that says, ‘Travel (Other, specify).’ This I take to mean do a simple Google search on flights to where you need to go, or check mileage estimates or rental car prices, and make a basic calculation. There’s a fine balance between offering too much and too little. Show you have done your homework but don’t get into itemized lists, as there may be something that really is not allowed for funding. Most grants already have an Excel sheet or a table with their required questions and amounts, so just tell them what they ask. ‘Diligence’ can also be ‘too much.’”
The writing is the thing, learn to do it well
Study the craft of writing, as it’s integral to success. There’s a reason, after all, that it’s called “grant writing.” Weber has spent more than a decade working on his writing and he’s honed his skills to the point that he can confidently knock out a 500-word proposal in an afternoon. That said, he strongly suggests taking the time to ensure the proposal is more than sufficient, written in such a compelling manner as to convey the photographer’s passion for the project as well as the distinctive point of view unique to every artist.
“The proposal is so much more than just ‘I want to photograph this,’” Weber explains. “It says who you are, what you have done, where you want to go. What have you done in the past, how does this body of work elaborate upon or develop your point of view? What exactly will you do, and how ill you do it? Why are you the best person for this project? Why you, why now? What is the urgency and why should we care? What’s the context surrounding the topic, what’s the history? As you can see, a proposal is much more than just ‘My project is…’ It’s just that—a proposal. It shows what you can do, what you have done, and where you position yourself. It is also a means to show you can do it; you’re not going to blow the money on a stereo setup. You’re realistic yet ambitious.”
“I always consider structure,” he continues, “just as you do in editing and sequencing you must in writing. Think about the drama or the narrative arc of the proposal itself. When do you share what you will do? How do you share your ideas and context, at what point? I recently read a book called Draft No. 4 by John McPhee, a writer for 50 years with the New Yorker. In his book he always talks about the structure of a story, a simple diagram that can help communicate just what the story itself is about. This was also something Kurt Vonnegut talked about in The Shape of Stories—that every story has shape, so what’s yours? Why should a proposal be anything different? It should have a beginning, middle and end. It should have impact, created through tension and release. So yes, think clearly about structure and how content unveils itself through this structure.”
“I also greatly believe in the visual nature of writing,” Weber says. “Take, for example, Robert Frank’s Guggenheim Fellowship proposal for The Americans: ‘…a town at night, a parking lot, a supermarket, a highway, a man who owns three cars and a man who owns none, the farmer and his children, a new house and a warped clapboard house, the dictation of taste, the dream of grandeur, advertising, neon lights, the faces of the leaders, the faces of the followers, gas tanks and post offices and backyards…’ Now that is great writing. It’s personal, it’s evocative. We ‘see’ the images but also the larger themes at play: racial and income inequality, dreams, and broken promises. You must share with people a universe, a world that you will photograph.”
Donald Weber is a Guggenheim Fellow and serves on the faculty of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, Netherlands.
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.