Strategies for Photographers Applying for Grants & Awards

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday March 6, 2013

One of the most prestigious photography awards continues to be the W. Eugene Smith Fund Grant. Presented annually since 1980 to a photographer who seeks to complete a major project, it supports work made in the spirit of Smith’s humanism. The Smith Grant honors work that could change the way we think about photography and the world we live in. 

In one way or another, according to the Fund, a contender must approach Smith’s own high standards. “I am a compassionate cynic,” he wrote, “yet I believe I am one of the most affirmative photographers around. I have tried to let the truth be my prejudice. It has taken much sweat. It has been worth it.”

To announce the 2013 call for entries, the Fund held a panel discussion Monday night at Aperture Foundation on strategies for applying for the Smith and other photographic grants and awards. On the panel were David Friend (Vanity Fair), Wm. Hunt (Dancing Bear), Marcel Saba (Redux), and Lauren Wendel (PDN), all of whom are on the Fund’s board of directors and have been jurors for this award; the panelists have served on numerous juries for other awards and competitions as well. 


The 2012 grant was given to Peter van Agtmael, who is now completing his series about how people in Iraq and Afghanistan live amid violence [image above from his submission]. Lauren Wendel, a board member and juror for that award, talked about why his work was singled out by the jury. “Among a field of 7 or 8 finalists last year, Peter’s work really stood out because it was both strong and intimate. He is about the same age as the soldiers in these conflicts, so his life has been informed by the consequences of war. Half of his story is so far untold – what we’ve left behind and how the people living [in Afghanistan and Iraq] would handle it. We hadn’t seen anything like this before.” [View van Agtmael’s submission.]

Bill Hunt, serving as moderator, got things off to a lively start by outlining a few things to keep in mind when forming a strategy for applying for the Smith grant or entering other awards and competitions. Chief among these are: What do you want to get out of it? And: Your submission will be judged by the worst photo in the series you submit.

Lauren Wendel then took up the theme by running through some considerations for selecting what to submit, ideas completely logical, but which sometimes elude photographers new to the process. For example, she said, “Ask yourself: Is this your best work and does it thematically answer the call for entries? Is it a well-edited selection? Have you provided all the information required by the CFE?”

David Friend continued with his top 10 list of considerations:
• Know the rules: don’t submit work that doesn’t answer the call for entries.
• Don’t pad your entry; one mediocre picture can be fatal.
• Clichés (such as the lone soldier; the heartbreak pieta; the cryptic cityscape; the police raid) are part of the epic of human life and cannot be avoided. But when considering your cliché image, be sure you’ve never seen it before [in someone else's portfolio].
• Rightness is all: the work should be fresh and original.
• When selecting which images to submit, consider asking a colleague, as well as another person who is not in the field, to critique your selection; you want images that connect with people in a universal way.
• Avoid images that you’ve cleaned up in Photoshop; you want photos that are authentic and truthful.
• Some awards are more like popularity contests so don’t feel defeated when you don’t win.
• For the same reason, some juries are all about the jury, and not about the work. Ditto if you don’t win.
• For some awards, including the Smith and World Press Photo, captions are extremely important; be brief and concise, but if your photo has created ripples, include that information; no one else will be bragging to the jury on your behalf.
• For the Smith, it’s important that your selection clearly articulates why you feel this project must be completed; that’s the main purpose of this award; exceptionalism is critical.

Bill Hunt had a brief but tangy list of strategies for submitting work to competitions, illustrated by examples from some of the recent juries he’s served on. His top 4 considerations all begin with letter “C,” so they shouldn’t be hard to remember:

Clarity: If the first slide tells me the story, that’s it – I want to know Who, What, Where, I want to know all about you in the first shot. 

Color: Be intense, even if it’s black and white. It’s hard to make a point with subtle images in these situations – the projected images can be small and they’re up for 2 or 3 seconds. Walter Astrada’s photos of violent fighting in the streets of Madagascar, a winner at Sony WPO 2009, for example, were so bloody, and because it was a subject that was under the radar, it rose to the top of the jurors' lists.

Clacissism: There’s no harm in being a formalist. For example Mitch Dobrowner’s tornado photos grabbed everyone because they are stately and almost old-fashioned, in the way Ansel Adams photos are. Same thing with Lauren Marsolier’s photo of a car under a shroud – she’s doing Robert Frank, and it’s very cool.

Collaboration: I like it when a photographer invites me into his/her world. Here, Helen Thompson, mainly known for still lifes in shelter magazines, did a series of highly styled images of last meals for death row inmates. They’re incredible. And these portraits of happy Sikhs, in their turbans; it’s a crazy-brilliant way to make a portrait interesting. It comes down to this: Show me something I haven’t seen before; if you’ve somehow broken the mold, you’ve killed me.

Marcel Saba, the Smith Fund President, ran through the main considerations in the Smith CFE. He then outlined the importance of writing a strong proposal, which is judged before the images are studied. He said that if you don’t feel that your writing skills are great, it’s OK to get some help. The judging for the Smith is in two rounds, he said: You have to convince a jury of three why you should get the Fund’s help to finish your project and your proposal is a big part of that story. 

Bill Hunt added that it’s important to cultivate the people you want to be aware of, and speak about your work—and how important it is to ask for references well in advance of deadlines.

David Friend concluded with an important note about letters of recommendation: When you ask for a reference, you’re asking someone who already knows your work to speak about you. Write what you would want that person to say about your project, send it to him/her, and let them rework it and add their own thoughts. You’ve made it much easier for them to say that your work is great.

This is the first in a series of programs and panels organized by the W. Eugene Smith Fund and presented in collaboration with Aperture Gallery in advance of the the award next October. For a list of past winners, visit the Smith Fund website.

About the 2013 Grants (from the Press Release)

The 2013 W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography and the Howard Chapnick Grant are open for entries. The deadline for the receipt of applications is May 31, 2013.

This year the Smith Grant award will be $30,000. An additional $5,000 in fellowship money will be disbursed, at the discretion of the jury, to one or more finalist. Grants will be awarded at a ceremony in New York City on the evening of October 16, 2013, at the SVA Theater, at 333 West 23rd Street.

The W. Eugene Smith Legacy Collection

Recipients of the Smith Grant donate a portfolio of representative images to the Fund. This unique portfolioof contemporary reportage is housed, on an extended loan, at the International Center of Photography and is accessible in the Print Study Room of the ICP’s Photography Collection. Research appointments may be made by contacting the Collections Assistant. Information.

Learn more about the Smith Fund Grant and how to apply.