Anatomy of a Successful Grant Application

By David Walker

© Andrew Lichtenstein
Lichtenstein impressed jurors with his fresh look at U.S. history. Above: Women at the bus stop where Rosa Parks began her famous 1955 ride.

This past November, New York City-based photographer Andrew Lichtenstein won the 2012 Aftermath Project Grant for his project called “American Memory.” It is a series of landscape photographs of sites around the U.S. where historic struggles for civil rights, labor rights and Native American rights took place decades ago, so obvious signs of those struggles have long faded.

The $20,000 Aftermath Project Grant is intended to support photo projects about the after effects of war. Most of the six grants awarded previously were for projects exploring the open, visible wounds of recent conflicts and ethnic strife outside the U.S.

Lichtenstein thought his entry would be a long shot, so he contacted Aftermath Project founder Sara Terry to ask if it was too much of a stretch. She encouraged him to apply. Lichtenstein also notes, “The big problem with this story is trying to capture what doesn’t exist there anymore. It’s hard to photograph the absence of [an event].”

Terry, who was one of the three jurors, says awarding the grant to Lichtenstein was “an exhilarating way to expand the conversation about the aftermath [of conflict]. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.” The grant isn’t just for documentary projects, she explains. “From the beginning I’ve encouraged conceptual and fine-art photographers to apply.”

Terry says jurors first screened applications for the quality of the images. That winnowed 183 applications down to about 30, she says. From there, judges started to consider the merits of the written proposals.

“Andrew’s proposal wasn’t a great big statement. It was simply stated: If we don’t address our wounds, the scars don’t heal. And then he listed places he was looking [to photograph],” Terry says.

Lichtenstein told PDN that the historic sites he’s been photographing “are of particular interest to me because of my view of the struggle for justice and equality in this country. I’m not saying America is an awful place built on genocide. I’m trying to say it’s a country like any other, which is actually a radical idea if you look at what some people want to pass off as American history. There’s this idea that this nation is [exceptional] and great for its ability to foster freedom and equality. I want to stop and say, ‘Which history are you looking at?’”

He says he explained that idea in clear, direct terms on the application. “I do not know ‘grant speak’; I don’t write it, I don’t want to write it, I don’t understand it. People should just say what they mean, rather than hide it in terms of elite conversation,” he asserts. “I want it to be as accessible and honest as possible a description of what I believe the work to be about.”

Lichtenstein says that because he started the project two years ago, it was easier to write about it with clarity. “So I knew what the issues were about. It’s still a healthy process to put it on paper, and explain it to other people,” he says.

“What brought his application to the top was the degree of imagination,” says juror (and VII Photo agency director) Stephen Mayes. “His concept is new—it’s a very fresh look at American history. He’s filtering that through current social and political situations.”

Mayes continues, “The presentation was clearly written with an introduction that said he was looking for places where past and present intersect, followed by succinct bullet points saying exactly what he was talking about, and then pictures to show it.” Because the locations he photographs show no obvious signs of their historical significance, Lichtenstein’s images depend upon captions for context. But the jurors had no problem with that. “I subscribe to the idea that all pictures need some context. If that comes in form of words, that’s fine,” Mayes says.

“There were other proposals that were much more philosophical, that were compelling,” Mayes notes. “But even if the proposal is theoretical and philosophical, it still has to be clear about what the applicant intends to do and how.”

The one image that crystallized Lichtenstein’s proposal for the jurors shows three Southern women in antebellum costumes, sitting on a bench at the bus stop where Rosa Parks began her famous bus ride in 1955, launching the civil rights movement. “That image is amazing. It said so much, and got our attention right away,” says Terry.

Juror Anne Wilkes Tucker, who is photography curator of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, observes: “Lots of people have tried to find pictures that make you understand the complications of [chosen] locations. The picture of the three women on the bench does that. I’m presuming he didn’t stage it. It’s pretty perfect.”

That Lichtenstein already had strong images for his proposed project gave him an advantage over those who applied on the strength of images from past projects. Even if those images were very good, Tucker notes, “We [jurors] just don’t know that they can translate what they’re proposing to do into pictures.”

Tucker says finalists for the grant weren’t necessarily skilled writers, “But the ideas were there [in the application]. They knew what they were going to do, how it was going to relate to the theme proposed, what was possible to do and [their idea] was focused enough ... You have to know what’s a manageable project” and convey that in the application—with words and pictures.

Mayes says some proposals were eliminated “because they lacked that clarity. [We’re awarding] a chunk of money—we need to know it is going to be spent with real effect.”

The four other finalists for the grant were Christopher Capozziello, with a project about the Ku Klux Klan; Michelle Frankfurter, with a project about emigration to the U.S. in the aftermath of the Central American civil wars of the 1980s; Simon Thorpe, with a conceptual project about Sahrawi soldiers who fought for their land in the Western Sahara; and Michael Zumstein, with a project about national reconciliation in Ivory Coast after the 2010 elections there.

Lichtenstein says he’s applied for only a few grants out of necessity; editorial assignment work is no longer reliable enough as a source of income. Applying for grants, he says, “is a tremendous amount of work, and there’s no kill fee. If you don’t get it, that’s two weeks gone. The plus side is that it really helps you think about the issues of your project and put together an edit, and articulate what you’re saying in your photos.”

His advice to others applying for grants: “Look at the grant carefully to see if your work is appropriate for it,” he says. “The second thing is, there’s nothing you can say or do to make up for not having the pictures. It’s fundamentally about the work.”

Related Articles:

Picture Story: Untangling the Afghanistan Tragedy
Bringing Documentary Photography To a Grassroots Audience
How to Pitch a Crowd for Project Funding

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