The transformative power of my first grant

One of the first grants that I ever received was not a particularly big one, but it was an important one.  It taught me many lessons that I still follow to this day. It changed my life as a photographer.  That grant still exists today and I was surprised/pleased to get a recent update about it.

The organization behind the grant, the American Council on Germany supports the annual McCloy Fellowships in Journalism. They describe the program:

The fellowships provide American print, broadcast, and new-media journalists in relatively early stages of their careers with the opportunity to travel overseas to conduct on-site research and interviews and pursue stories of their own design. McCloy Fellows travel to Germany and/or other EU27 countries, provided that the project bears relevance for Germany within the wider EU context. The Fellowships are for up to 21 days and may be extended for up to 7 additional days if a compelling need is demonstrated. Fellows receive a stipend of $200 per day to cover housing, meals and local transportation costs. Transatlantic roundtrip airfare and approved inter-city travel are also covered by the grant.

If you want to read more about the program start at: http://www.acgusa.org

The email that I recently received about the program said:

The American Council on Germany is currently seeking applications from talented young journalists for its 2009 McCloy Fellowships in Journalism. In years past, we have relied on the expertise and networks of our former fellows to help us identify top talent for our programs, and we hope you will help us again this year.

Past fellows have explored issues such as immigration and integration in Germany, energy security and climate change policy, Germany’s Jewish renaissance, European labor policy, architecture and national identity, and comparative perspectives on a wide range of public policy issues, from health care to education.

Journalists attached to media organizations are encouraged to apply. Freelance journalists are asked to demonstrate where resulting articles and/or related pieces could be placed.

Please note that as a former recipient of these fellowships, you are unfortunately not eligible to apply for a second grant.

To me personally, that last sentence really hurts…..

The first sentences caught my attention.  In case you cannot translate, they mean that they need more (and probably better quality) applicants.

The middle of the second paragraph refers to me (and probably a few others) when they mention projects on “Germany’s Jewish renaissance.” My project, which I did in 1989, was on the rebirth of the Jewish community in Berlin.  At that point in time, the slow growing community rising out of the ashes of the Holocaust was primarily made up of Israelis and Eastern Europeans who had immigrated to Germany, particularly Berlin.

During the fellowship, I spent three weeks in Berlin interviewing and photographing the small but growing new Jewish community there.  (If you are wondering, I only worked in West Berlin, because during the part of 1989 that I was in Berlin, it was still divided. The Berlin wall ran right through the middle of the city, with communist East Berlin on one side and the democratic West Berlin on the other side.) I visited East Berlin briefly.

Overall, I had an interesting experience and at the end I assembled an article that was promptly published in the Sunday magazine of the newspaper, Newsday, the daily newspaper of Long island, New York.

So what did I learn?

• I learned that I loved immersing myself in one topic so I could really understand it, inside and out. Since then, when I can, that is exactly what I try to do in all my projects.

• I learned that many topics, especially larger ones that are framed by historical events (such as the Holocaust,) present a big problem to photographers.  Since the historical event in question cannot be photographed, a good article requires an extensive amount of writing.

• I learned that I really do not like writing. It requires the journalist in me to listen for the interesting point, rather than looking for the interesting visual that will best tell the story. So, now I try to work on projects where the required writing will be minimal, or ideally, non-existent.

• I learned that I should TRY not to assume that things always continue to be as they were.  During the brief time I was there, I occasionally photographed the Berlin wall, which had been there since before I was born and history suggested it would be there after my death.  In December of 1989 of course, the Berlin wall came down and with it the old Soviet empire. Had I made a more systematic attempt to photograph the wall when I was there in early 1989, I might have ended up with one of the last serious archives on the soon-to-be-gone Berlin wall.

• I learned that small grants could make a big difference to me as an emerging photojournalist and to the foundation as a supporter of people like me with projects like mine.

So, if you know anyone who has some background as a photojournalist (I did not have that much experience when I was honored) and they have an interest in working on a project in Europe (on someone else’s money,) please send them this info. You might transform their life in the way the McCloy fellowship transformed mine.

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