Donald Weber says his grants and awards of $178,000 over the past five years have allowed him to work on long-term personal projects. This image was taken in Russia and is from his forthcoming book Interrogations, which will be published by Schilt. Image © Donald Weber/VII Photo.
Canadian photographer Donald Weber estimates that he's won $178,000 through grant funding over the past five years, including a bursary from the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Documentary Prize in 2006, and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 2007. He's used the funding to create award-winning projects such as Interrogations, featured in BJP #7782. He tells BJP how photographers can write better grant applications, as part of our 11 Tips for 2011 series.
When I first started applying for alternate forms of funding, I wanted to beef up my CV, so I was looking for awards that offered a wide range of benefits – a winner’s exhibition or a book or catalogue, perhaps a little cash, or just the title of “first prize” – all very important when you’re applying for the larger grants or to Government-funded arts councils. Crafting a CV is vital. You need to give your work validation and credibility.
In the beginning it took a long time to apply for each grant or award but, now that I’ve figured out the methods and my work has been edited, it’s quicker. I always have about four ideas in my head and writing for grants is good a way to get those ideas fleshed out in detail and on paper. I write a proposal for myself first, just to get it out, then fine-tune it to the specific application – there may be certain themes or passages I re-use, but each application is tailored. It’s not hard to do if you’ve got a strong, well-considered basic idea and, now that I’ve got a few years behind me as a photographer, I’ve figured out what I want to say. I like to go by instinct, and try not to fuss too much about it. You’re not going to win everything, so you just have to be true and honest. I’ve learned to enjoy it, though early on it was a struggle.
Each project is different, but I like to stress my career arc: the things I’m interested in, perhaps why this work should be done and be done only by me, and stressing a sense of urgency. I am a more literary photographer then factual, so I try to combine my proposals with anecdotes and personal experiences, perhaps including people I’ve met on my travels, passages from books I’ve read, or quotes from historical figures or people who live where I intend to shoot. Rarely do I use third-person quotes, such as “The New York Times says...”, as I find it takes the personal out of the proposal.
I think my Guggenheim Fellowship proposal was successful because it was straight and to the point, but was also lyrical and had a sense that this was the only story I could tell, or wanted to tell. That personal touch made the project feel even more valued. I sat down and wrote it one night in a fit of fury, something I am prone to do. Basically, it was an email to a friend who is a writer, and he replied right away saying, “There’s your proposal.” That’s essentially what I handed in, an email with cleaned-up spelling and grammar, but the immediacy, the rage, the knowledge and the heart all came out. I couldn’t type fast enough to get everything out on the page. It’s probably one of my proudest accomplishments and, since then, all my proposals have had the same feeling. It’s about knowing when you are at the Eureka moment, and knowing when it’s good.
Winning grants can generate their own momentum – if you’re applying for an Arts Council grant, it helps if you can show you have won other grants and awards, because they’re looking for a pattern of proven success. However, I do know that I was not nominated for a large photography prize in Canada, worth a lot of money, because I had “won enough”. Ouch! But for me, searching out grants and awards is the only option because I don’t want to have to take a paid job or do assignments. It’s proven a successful route, and has allowed me to create and shape a career in my own way. If it all goes under tomorrow, I won’t be sad. At least I had a few years of making it on my own.
This article, and the other 10 tips from our panel of experts [to be published each day until 31 January], were first appeared in BJP's January issue, published on 05 January 2011. It's still available for purchase from your nearest newsagent until 02 February 2011. To find your nearest newsagent, check our Store Finder.
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