How I Got That Grant: Winning a Pulitzer Center Travel Grant
May 7, 2018
From Sean Gallagher’s project about desertification in China, the first of several projects he’s funded in part with Pulitzer Center grants.
James Whitlow Delano won his most recent grant from the Pulitzer Center for a project about the obesity epidemic in Mexico.
Photography grants are usually awarded once a year, with no repeat winners. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, by contrast, awards more than 100 travel grants every year on a rolling basis, and it builds relationships with journalists of all media who often win multiple grants over time.
“It’s an open process, there’s no deadline, and they are likely to fund people they haven’t worked with before,” says photographer James Whitlow Delano, who has won half a dozen Pulitzer Center grants since 2011.
Initiated a decade ago, the Pulitzer Center travel grants range from $1,500 to $15,000. The grants are intended to fund the production of stories of global importance that are unreported or under-reported by the mainstream media in the U.S. and Europe. The online application calls for a 250-word project proposal, a budget estimate and a CV. Applicants must include “a credible plan” for broad dissemination of the work once it is completed.
“I would say to someone [making] their first pitch to the Pulitzer Center: Aim small and build up that relationship,” says Beijing-based photographer Sean Gallagher, whose work focuses on environmental issues in Asia. His first grant, in 2009, was a modest sum of money for a project about desertification in China. He has since submitted winning applications for five other grants. “The main thing is to be able to deliver on the story you’ve proposed. Once you’ve completed the first project, they’re keen to establish long terms connections with journalists.”
Although the grant rules don’t require applicants to have started their projects, Gallagher advises first-time applicants to do that in order to show “you are already thinking about the story, and you are already invested in it.”
Delano, who has been living in Asia since the mid 1990s and is now based in Tokyo, focuses on projects about how global economics and politics affect local populations. His first grant was for a project about palm oil production in Malaysia, and its impact on indigenous communities. His most recent grant, which he won last year, was for a project about the obesity epidemic plaguing Mexico since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994.
Gallagher and Delano both emphasize the importance of researching the Pulitzer Center’s website to see what topics and stories the Center has already funded. “Make sure your project is unique [and] original,” Gallagher says. “If they have covered it before, make sure you’re doing it in a different way.”
Pulitzer Center senior editor Tom Hundley, who reviews the grant applications, says in a video on the center’s website that the most common mistake applicants make is not researching what stories have already been funded. The second most common mistake “is confusing crisis and conflict,” he says, explaining that a crisis isn’t necessarily an armed conflict. It can also be a struggle for access to clean water, or against rainforest destruction, or against female genital mutilation in parts of Africa. “What we’re looking for are broad, systemic crises that are underreported,” he says.
Delano says that a proposed project has a better chance of success if it connects American audiences to a pressing global issue. It took him a couple of attempts to get his first grant for the palm oil project, he explains, because his first proposal—a pitch for a story about deforestation, the violation of human rights, and indigenous people being pushed to the edge of extinction—didn’t link those issues to the U.S. in a direct way.
“Then the Gulf oil spill happened and people were talking about biofuels, and palm oil is used in biofuels,” Whitlow explains. He was able to connect palm oil production to the consumption of bio fuels in the U.S. “Whenever I find a local issue, it’s important to bring people in New York into it, and show how we [Americans] are affecting people on the other side of the planet.”
For his second grant, Gallagher pitched a series of local stories in a province of southwest China about the issue of fragile forests. One was about the giant panda and its disappearing habitat. Another looked at how traditional Chinese medicine harvesting was damaging a forest. “Deforestation and habitat loss are issues happening all over Asia, and all over the world,” Gallagher says. “I made sure that even though I had these very local stories, I was connecting them [in the grant proposal] to these much broader regional and global issues.”
In making a grant pitch, he notes, “you have to get immediately to the point of the story” because the Pulitzer Center limits the grant applications to 250-word project proposals.
“I keep to the basics: what I want to do, why it’s important, where I want to publish it, and a little bit of background on the story,” Delano says. In his pitch for funding for “Hidden Crisis,” his project about obesity in Mexico, he explains, “I said that since the NAFTA agreement was signed, a tsunami of sugary drinks entered into the Mexican economy, and they’re sometimes cheaper than water. So when we re-negotiate NAFTA”—something the Trump administration is now doing—“will this issue come up at all? I’m always trying to find a slightly different angle.”
He notes that the summaries of his funded projects, which are posted on the Pulitzer Center’s website, closely reflect the wording of his grant applications. So the summaries of funded projects can be a guide for writing a project proposal.
The Pulitzer Center is also concerned about the impact of projects that it funds, so it favors proposals from applicants who already have commitments from media outlets for distribution. And Gallagher says, “They’re not interested in a project with one dimension. They’re looking for projects that combine photography, video, writing and audio.” For that reason, journalists with different skills have often collaborated successfully on grant proposals.
Delano’s parting advice is not to get discouraged if your application is rejected. “Don’t give up,” he says, noting that he’s had to apply more than once for some of his grants. “Consider it a conversation, just like the first time you approach a magazine editor. It might take a year or two before they have the right project for you. It’s always important to view the process as a conversation and finding common ground. That’s good advice in life: Keep the conversation going.”