Ami Vitale Shares Insights for Creating a Solid Grant Submission

Ami Vitale says, “You need to be passionate and understand your story better than anyone else.”

“Turn off social media and the tv and read voraciously,” says photographer Ami Vitale when asked about resources for grant applications. This year, Ami is the first female judge for the Imagely Fund–which is looking to provide a grant for one environmental photography project and one for a humanitarian photography project. Each of which has a $5,000 prize. As a judge, we talked to Ami Vitale to get some answers to the all-too-often obscure and confusing enigma that is submitting grant applications.

All images by Ami Vitale. Used with permission.

Phoblographer: If you had to provide tips to describe the modern process of writing and compiling an application, what are some things you’d hone in on? For example, do you follow certain steps and/or order of doing things?

AV: When writing a photography grant, it’s different from academic grants and the four questions to consider that I might suggest are:

  1. Why now? What is the urgency to tell this story right now?
  2. Is it visual? Some stories are great but would this be better for radio or text only? DESCRIBE in your grant proposal what you will have access to and be able to SHOW visually.
  3. Why is this important and relevant? It should be a personal story to humanize the issue you are addressing but also tell a story that matters to all of us. Will this story have an impact and create an understanding of a particular issue that impacts all of us?
  4. What will you do with the grant money? Often I see stories that are already complete. You need to articulate what pieces of the story need to be completed and this is why you are applying for the grant.

Phoblographer: What are some tips on how an applicant can make their submission stand out from others? For example, how important is it to present an idea that hasn’t been done before in a world where there seems to be so much recirculation of the same ideas. What’s more important then: the application or the work?

AV: I think the important thing is to teach us something new. It can be a new idea or an old idea but if its something old, surprise us! Find something that your audience may not know already and shows the depth of your understanding. It takes time to understand a story and I would much rather see someone take an issue we “think” we understand, turn it on its head and show us how little we really know.

Phoblographer: Can you recommend any resources that applicants can use when applying for a grant? What are your favorites?

AV: I would just say read more on whatever the subject of your grant is. Turn off social media and the tv and read voraciously.

Phoblographer: How much does the project statement matter in the submission process? In comparison to the images submitted, how would you divide the weight of each?

AV: Enormously! Anyone can make beautiful pictures. Being able to articulate the story in words is essential to a successful grant. I also need to see that the applicant is visually proficient. I think the biggest issue is editing images into a story. (not in photoshop but how you sequence and choose images) Your weakest image can sink your application. Less is often more. Be tough and critical on your work and leave out weak images. Explain the parts of the story you still want to work on with the grant money.

Phoblographer: What aspects or points should the project statement make sure to hit? What aspects would be gross oversights to leave out?

AV:[Make sure to hit] sense of urgency, importance, relevance to our world and impact you will have by telling this story. Too many grants are all about the grantee and their “style”. Great storytelling isn’t about “you” and “your style”. Great storytelling is about creating understanding and awareness. You are there to amplify others voices; not your own.

“Anyone can make beautiful pictures. Being able to articulate the story in words is essential to a successful grant.”

Phoblographer: What would a perfect, complete, 100% successful application look like from your perspective?

AV: A short, succinct essay that explains who, what, why, and when and beautiful, cohesive images (that are not manipulated in photoshop) to go with the story.

Phoblographer: What recommendations do you have for applicants in evaluating what work to submit? Do you have any tips for how they can decide if a project is a good fit for the open call?

AV: You need to be passionate and understand your story better than anyone else. Do you have unique access and perspective to this story? I think writing grants is a great way to figure out if your story is ready for the world or if you need to keep working on it. Even if you don’t win the grant, you win anyway because the very exercise of having to pitch a story, helps you understand what it is you are trying to say.

Phoblographer: How should a photographer evaluate the breakdown of the budget? For instance, does it look educated or greedy to pay yourself an artist fee? What’s an appropriate percentage of the grant to pay yourself if so?

AV: Normally, grants do not pay artists. They are typically going towards expenses only.

“Do you have unique access and perspective to this story? “

Applications for the Imagely Fund grant will be judged by a panel of distinguished reviewers which in 2019 include: Jim Brandenburg, Steve Winter, and Ami Vitale. You can learn more about the Imagely Fund grant here.