Awards & Competitions

How I Got That Grant: The $5,000 Inge Morath Award

June 15, 2017

By David Walker

© Danielle Villasana

In applying for the grant, applicants must explain what the topic is and why it’s important, and how they would use the award. “The jury needs to be convinced that you know what [you are] doing, what you’re going to do, and the importance of that,” says Danielle Villasana, who won the Inge Morath Award in 2015.

© Amr Alfiqy

Magnum Foundation executive director Kristen Lubben. © Amr Alfiqy

Hard-charging male photojournalists dominate the ranks of Magnum Photos, but the agency supports emerging female talent by funding the annual Inge Morath Award. Administered in partnership with the Inge Morath Foundation, the award honors the memory of Magnum’s first female member, who died in 2002. Past winners include Ami Vitale, Jessica Dimmock, Isadora Kasofsky, Emily Schiffer, Daniella Zalcman, and others.

“The Magnum Foundation is committed to expanding creativity and diversity in documentary practice: diversity of approach, and diversity of voices,” says Magnum Foundation executive director Kristen Lubben. “We’re interested in people taking new, challenging or eye-opening approaches.”

The Inge Morath Award provides a $5,000 grant to help female photographers under 30 years of age complete a long-term documentary project. Applicants must submit 20 images from an ongoing project, and a project description of 250-300 words. The application deadline is in late April, and Magnum members choose a winner and finalists from a pre-screened shortlist of competitors. Winners are announced in July.

Competition is stiff. The pre-screeners sift through 80 to 120 applications every year, and present only six or eight of them to the Magnum membership for consideration. Pre-screeners last year included Lubben, Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, Inge Morath Foundation estate representative Sana Manzoor, and Magnum Foundation programs associate Noelle Flores-Theard.

The primary consideration is the strength of both the images and the story, Lubben says. Photographs “really need to hold up on their own” without explanation. Entries are also eliminated if they look familiar or derivative. “Originality of approach is important. People want to be surprised by something.”

The project descriptions have to explain three things clearly and concisely: what the topic is, why it’s important, and how the applicant would use the award money to complete or extend the project. “We want to be able to suss that out in an application without having to work too hard,” says Magnum Foundation communications director Simone Salvo.

Project descriptions are also used to gauge applicants’ commitment to—and connection with—their projects. “We want to know that they have some real investment in it,” Lubben says. “We want to see that it’s more than someone hopping onto a topic” that’s trendy.

For instance, she says, she’s seen a lot of transgender stories, and appreciates the attention to those stories. But she says, “It’s more interesting to me when someone has some relationship to the story. It doesn’t mean that has to be your experience, but you aren’t just landing on something as a topic. It’s something you learn about, you engage with, you have something to contribute to the story.”

© Danielle Villasana

Danielle Villasana won the 2015 Inge Morath Award for her story about transgender women in Peru. Her application described the forces that push many into prostitution, where they are vulnerable to exploitation, HIV infection and abuse. © Danielle Villasana

Danielle Villasana won the 2015 Inge Morath Award with “A Light Inside,” a story about the plight of transgender women in Peru. She started working on transgender stories in 2012, so she’d done a lot of research and work before applying for the award. “Make sure you know [your] topic and why it’s important,” Villasana advises. “The jury needs to be convinced that you know what [you are] doing, what you’re going to do, and the importance of that.”

Her application described how social stigma, rooted in a culture of transphobia and machismo, forces many Peruvian trans women into prostitution in order to survive. That makes them vulnerable to exploitation, HIV infection, abuse and a shockingly high rate of murder. Her application explained all of that, and also how her take on the subject would be different.

Traditional media, she said, “show trans women as hyper-sexualized, deconstructed objects only capable of prostitution. These stories dangerously focus on the superficiality of sex rather than the complexities of gender identity. As a way to combat these stereotypes…I have aimed my camera on their personal lives with friends, family and partners, rather than their lives as sex workers….If society can’t see them as human, how will people see that they deserve rights and respect just like any other?”

Daniella Zalcman won the Inge Morath Award last year for her “Signs of Your Identity” project, about the legacy of coercive assimilation policies on indigenous children. She uses composite portraiture to tell the story, and her project was the most experimental of last year’s shortlist of contenders. “It was a surprising and inventive approach,” Lubben says.

Zalcman says she applied for the award twice before she won. Photos she submitted with previous entries weren’t strong enough, she says, or the projects didn’t fit the ethos of the award. Most winners and finalists, she explains, “have a heavy humanist and social documentary slant, because that’s what Inge was known for in her work.”

In her winning application, Zalcman explained that coercive assimilation “has happened in nearly every country around the world where an indigenous population came into contact with a colonial government. It is a horrifically marginalized part of the American narrative.” Like most people in the U.S. and Canada, she explained, she never learned about it in school.

Suppression of indigenous history and culture continues, she said in her application, adding, “I believe that this project—and the associated educational work—are an important part of beginning to decolonize our newspapers and history textbooks.”

She said she was applying for the Inge Morath Award to continue her project in other countries. At press time, Zalcman was in Central Australia, interviewing and photographing subjects for the project.

Gabriella Demczuk was a finalist for the award in 2016 for “Baltimore Sings the Blues,” about the effects of police violence on communities in that city. Many photographers have covered the story since Freddie Gray died while in police custody in 2015, Lubben notes. But Demczuk’s project stood out because “she was looking at the community as a whole and the way the issue was playing out in different parts of the city. It was a combination of an important story, and someone with a strong, confident eye who wasn’t taking a head-on approach, but trying to do something more complex and nuanced.”

Like Villasana, Zalcman emphasized the importance of research in successful grant applications. “It makes a huge difference if you can prove that you understand the historical context of your work, [and] that you’ve become a true expert in the story you’re documenting,” Zalcman says.

Both photographers also emphasized the importance of applying for as many grants as you can. Zalcman says doing that has taught her “how to be concise and compelling” and “how to make people care about your stories as much as you do.” Villasana says that applying for grants helps her reflect on what she’s doing and why it’s important, and how she can improve her work.

Lubben’s advice to photographers is not to hesitate to apply. She recalls seeing “work that was amazing” at a portfolio review, and asking the photographer why she hadn’t applied for the Inge Morath Award. “She said, ‘I didn’t think I was ready,’” Lubben recalls. “Apply for everything you can, because it’s good experience to do that and have people see your work. Don’t be shy.”

She also advises would-be applicants to make sure they choose the right body of work for submission. “Not necessarily the project that has gotten the most play, but the one you’re most passionate about, that you feel is the most original and exciting, and is going to show you best. Be self-critical, and maybe get feedback from others who know your work and can give you advice about what body of work to put forward.”

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