Still on the Story

February 18, 2015

©Peter Menzel

A New York City family surrounded by a week’s worth of recyclables and landfill-bound trash, from a commercial assignment Peter Menzel landed on the strength of his long-term project about consumer habits around the world.

Most of the time, photographers spend at most a few days, weeks, or months on a story. But sometimes, photographers are so drawn in by a subject or an issue, that they end up pursuing a project for years. They are often able to document stories with unusual depth, intimacy and nuance because they earn a lot of access, and come to know their subjects well.  For instance, Joseph Sywenkyj, who has spent 15 years documenting a Ukrainian family struggling with the consequences of HIV infection, says, “I have spent so much time that I am practically a family member. There is a lot of trust and history between us.”

Funding such long-term projects, however, takes ingenuity and hard work. Here are several stories from past issues of PDN that highlight noteworthy documentary projects that photographers have pursued over long periods of time. The stories explore a range of issues, including the photographers’ motivations and production challenges, and the creative ways they fund and distribute stories that continue long past the attention span of most media outlets. (Note: all the stories below are available to PDN subscribers only unless otherwise noted)

How I Got That Grant: Joseph Sywenkyj On Winning the 2014 W. Eugene Smith Grant

Joseph Sywenkyj tells PDN how he won the prestigious photojournalism grant for a multi-faceted project about Ukraine that he began working on in 2001. (Available to non-subscribers)

Janet Jarman: A 16-Year Immigration Odyssey

In 1996, Janet Jarman met a family struggling to survive in a Mexican dump while she was conducting graduate student research. It led to a wide-ranging project about immigration issues, reflected by the personal struggles of different family members.

Matt Black and Ed Kashi Bring California’s Dried Out Central Valley to The New Yorker

Photographer Matt Black, who has made California’s Central Valley his life’s work, was tapped by Ed Kashi to round out an assignment on the region’s crippling drought in 2014. (Available to non-subscribers)

Donna DeCesare on Photographing Central America’s Long Cycle of Violence

The photojournalist has spent her career documenting gangs and urban violence, two legacies of Central America’s civil wars of the 1980s.

Picture Story: A Film Documenting the Emotional Stress of Chronic Violence

Photographer Jon Lowenstein breaks the conventions of documentary narrative with his impressionistic video about how generations of Chicago’s South Side residents experience the violence all around them.

(Lowenstein has been documenting Chicago’s South Side neighborhood for more than a decade, exploring the underlying causes of its poverty and violence. See also: Anatomy of a Successful Grant Application: Jon Lowenstein’s Guggenheim Application and Jon Lowenstein Wins $10,000 2014 Lange-Taylor Prize for “South Side”)

Helping Communities Speak for Themselves: Upstate Girls

While spending eight years documenting a group of teenage girls living in a low-income neighborhood of Troy, New York, photojournalist Brenda Ann Kenneally found ways to help her subjects to tell their own stories for the historical record.

Helping Communities Speak for Themselves: Through Positive Eyes

Gideon Mendel has spent more than two decades documenting stories related to AIDS and HIV. He spent much of that time exploring the treatment and effects of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere, but more recently has worked to help HIV-positive individuals document their own lives, by leading the Through Positive Eyes workshops with photographer Crispin Hughes.

Personal Work That Lands Assignments: Peter Menzel’s Focus on Household Consumption

Peter Menzel and writer Faith D’Aluisio have built a brand around projects about household consumption and the environment. That led to a challenging public service project for Glad, the trash bag company, to teach Americans to throw away less and recycle more.

Anatomy of a Successful Grant Application: Tim Matsui on the Woman’s Initiative Grant

Photojournalist Tim Matsui has focused his work since 2007 on the issue of sex trafficking around the world. In 2012, he won the Alexia Foundation’s inaugural Woman’s Initiative Grant for a project about new approaches to the problem by law enforcement officials in Seattle.

Personal Project: Bryant Austin’s Whale Obsession

Bryant Austin spent nearly a decade figuring out how to make close-up portraits and full-body panoramic images of whales, risking and nearly losing everything along the way.


Chasing the Money: How to Fund a Documentary Project (Available to non-subscribers)