Successful Grant Applications: Tips From Grant Judge Toren Beasley

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Toren Beasley is director of photography for Newhouse News Service and has recently judged the Alicia Patterson Grant competition. We asked him how judges size up applicants, the mistakes photographers make when applying for grants, what interviews with applicants reveal, and what it takes to win a Patterson Grant.
Interview by David Walker.

PDN: How stiff are these grant competitions?
Toren Beasley:
The competitions is always really, really stiff. And as things heat up in the world, as stories get bigger, it will get a lot tougher, because there are so many high-powered stories out there that have gone way beyond the local stories you may have been able to get by with in the past. [So grant applicants] need to put a lot more thought into developing the stories that they want to tell.

PDN: Are the winning grant applications tending toward these big global stories now?
A lot of them have some global impact, for instance the Cana Brava story by [2006 Alicia Patterson Grant winner] Jon Anderson and Stephen Ferry's story on Colombia and Teru Kuwayama's story about Afghanistan and Pakistan. That doesn't mean that there aren't big national stories, but it means people have to craft them in a way that the judges can see them as big, important issues.

PDN: Are there particular topics that get the attention of the judges, and conversely story ideas that are non-starters?
That people I've worked with have been open to anything. Judges give a real shot to anybody who comes in and can say, �You may not have thought of this, but here's a really important topic and here's why.' Judges are open to seeing how any issue�even those that people might not think are such a big deal anymore�can be made relevant to our time.

PDN: In general, what are the criteria for judging the grant applications?
A lot of it has to do with how important the story is, how tight the story is, and how one proposes to execute that story. Judges are looking at whether an applicant can actually complete the project they're proposing. That's huge.

PDN: What do you mean by how tight the proposal is?
When you decide that there is a story to tell, you have to be able to focus on what the story is. You have to have a deep understanding of it, and what part of it you want to tell. Then you have to be able to say, �this is the best way to tell it. We need to go from point A to point B. And these are the things we're going to find in between.' Some people might come up with a story idea and end up with such a broad take on it that you know there's no way they're going to do all of that. The ideas have to be really tight and really clean.

PDN: Can you give me an example of a recent grant winner that was well-mapped?
If you look at Jon Anderson's Cana Brava story, this is very simply about the lives of Haitian workers in Dominican cane fields, and the similarity between that and the American slavery system. That's a very tight idea. He makes the point that going to the farms is much like looking back at Mississippi during slavery. You can do that story.

PDN: How do they ascertain whether someone will be able to complete a story?
There's a lot of discussion [among judges] about that. Does [the applicant] know their subject? What's the quality of the work they're putting before us? We want to get the best product for a grant that we possibly can. There's also a budget that people submit, and numbers do tell a story. When you look at living expenses, you can get a sense of whether [an applicant] is going to be so distracted by what it takes to survive that they won't be able to pull off the story.

PDN: When you interview finalists, what kinds of things are you looking for at that point?
I'm looking at their knowledge and their take on the subject they propose to cover, how they intend to pull this off, who they're going to be working with, what areas they've recognized they'll need help with, how they're going to fill those gaps. I'm also really taking a hard look at their previous work and how they've pulled it off. The maturity that you see in the work is essentially what you're going to get in the final product.

PDN: What are common mistakes that photographers make in their applications?
I would say that the biggest mistake people make is in assuming that their craft is the end of telling the story. If photographers think that it's only about their pictures, and not about their ability to write the story as well, then they make a mistake. You need to produce text. You need to put together a whole story.

PDN: What advice do you have for photographers applying for these kinds of grants?
I would say the first thing is, choose a subject that you know�a subject that you can really talk about, so you can decide what part of the story is the important part to tell and so that you will know how to execute it. I think you have to be realistic about time, and about money, and about what it takes to do the story other than your skill as a photographer. When you put together a package that shows you know the subject, that you know what it takes to do it, and you have a real solid plan and timetable for executing it, then you have a shot at moving beyond the preliminary stages of a competition. This is money that organizations want to give away to help people do important work, but it's not frivolous money that they're just going to toss out to people.

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