Anatomy of a Winning Grant Proposal: Louie Palu's Kandahar Project

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by David Walker


In February, Zuma Press contract photographer Louie Palu won a $15,000 Alexia Foundation grant to explore the people and culture of Kandahar, and their significance to the war in Afghanistan. Before he finally won the grant, Palu had applied for it for nearly ten years, and was a finalist last year.

The full text of Palu's proposal is posted here on the Alexia Foundation web site. We asked judges to explain what made it a winner.

According to grant administrator David Sutherland, The Alexia Foundation now receives 200 or more professional grant applications per year. A rotating panel of three independent judges selects winners. To save them time, Sutherland pre-screens the portfolios for quality and subject matter. On that basis, about 150 applications are quickly eliminated.

"People [are] sending in applications whether [their project] fits [the grant criteria] or not," says Sutherland. "The primary reason that proposals don't advance [to the final judging stage] is because they don't fit the grant's goals," which is to promote world peace by supporting photojournalism that builds cross-cultural understanding.

Another mistake applicants make, Sutherland says, is that they submit topics, rather than story proposals. "At times, they just don't make the point about what the story is about. They ramble on about a topic without ever coming to a story proposal."

Louie Palu's application stood out because it "came to a very sharp point," Sutherland says.� In fact, Palu's proposal was sharper than those of many previous Alexia Foundation grant winners, he says.

Palu reflects the goals of the grant explicitly in the third paragraph of his application essay: "It is here [Kandahar City] that I believe the world must focus to understand the people, their hopes and needs to find a path to end this conflict," he wrote. In the fourth paragraph, he spells out his proposal for attaining that essential understanding: �This project will seek to go further into many distant districts to document the cultural and social fabric of villages centuries old and their tribal and ethnic affiliations."

Sutherland pre-screened only the portfolios, not the written proposals. Projects that survived the pre-screening were handed over to the three judges, who reviewed the 750-word (maximum) proposals. This year, the judges included Tom Kennedy, of Kennedy Multimedia; Pam Chen, senior editor for photography and multimedia for the Open Society Institute; and Patty Reksten, director of photography at the Portland Oregonian.

"Throughout this proposal [Palu] paints a picture of who he is, what he's done already, and what he hopes to do. In a way, it's a pitch. It tells us not only why the project is important, and why we should care, but why he's the one uniquely positioned to carry it out," says Chen.

In weighing the various proposals, Chen says judges considered such questions as, What happened? Will it happen again? And why should we care?

"It wasn�t that photographers needed to present a solution," she says, "but that they could demonstrate in writing an urgency or a need for change�or a need to document a visible ill to stimulate a response."

One of the things that impressed Chen about Palu's application was how he put his work into context in the first, second and third paragraphs. "There were several applications that rose to the top because they demonstrated not only an artistic eye, but a thoughtful, intellectual understanding of difficult topics and issues," she says.

Palu managed to take a huge issue with many different elements, "and present it one coherent narrative," she continues. "He has demonstrated [with his portfolio] an ability to photograph very well in Kandahar. There are subtle, quiet moments that could be photographed only by someone with a nuanced understanding. His proposal takes it one step further. It really integrates photography and story-telling into the larger narrative of what is happening."

Chen also praised the application for demonstrating a personal perspective in the third and fourth paragraphs. "It's not just facts and figures, it's about his understanding of a place, of the people and why it is important for all of us. It's an elegant presentation of his experience."

(At the time he won the grant, Paul said that he had finally learned not to "over think" his proposals. "You have to sit down and let your emotions go into it. I used to proofread it 30 times, and I think how I felt got lost. I no longer spend forever.")

And finally, in the fourth paragraph, Palu gave the judges confidence that he could execute his proposed story.

"If you're proposing a project, you need to demonstrate an understanding of what it will take to complete it,� Chen says. �I think there is always an underlying criteria: is this project achievable? It�s nearly impossible to ever know this in advance. But here, he specifically defines where he�s coming from and where he wants to go.�

 

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