Watching, and learning from, the Alexia Grant judging

Kira Pollack, Whitney Johnson and Maggie Steber judge the 2012 Alexia Grant at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communication. Peter and Aphrodite Tsairis, who founded the grant, are to their right and making a picture is Bruce Strong, newly appointed chair of the Multimedia, Photography and Design Department at Newhouse.

What happens when you put Kira Pollack, Whitney Johnson and Maggie Steber in a room with more than 200 photographic projects? If you were sitting in the room, a whole lot of learning happened. And they chose several bodies of work to receive significant grants.

The setting was Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communication. The reason for the gathering was to judge entries in the 2012 Alexia Grant, from both professionals and students. Tom Kennedy, as the Alexia Chair at Newhouse, lead the day’s proceedings deftly.

Also bringing a wonderful presence and voice to the day were Dr. Peter and Aphrodite Tsairis, founders of the Alexia Foundation for World Peace and Cultural Understanding, which funds the grants and the chair at Newhouse. Alexia, for whom the foundation was named, was their daughter. She was killed on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and was a Newhouse student.

Winning any grant is tough. This one is uniquely challenging because of its goals. Kira, Whitney and Maggie were considering not just which images stood above others but also whether the proposal met the demands of the grant, whether the proposal was clear and could be accomplished by that photographer, whether students could also learn from the project. In other words, there was as much burden on what and how the photographers proposed as there was on the photography they presented.

Some things I heard Maggie, Whitney and Kira say about proposals: Be specific about what you’re going to do with the grant money, what part of the work you’ll be able to accomplish. If you strive to accomplish all of a project with the grant money and that doesn’t appear to be realistic, then you probably won’t get the grant. The same is true if the project is all but done and you don’t outline how you’ll use the money to add value to the project.

Some subjects just weren’t in line with the mission of the grant, so read the mission carefully and craft your proposal so it clearly falls within the arms of the grants’ embrace.

If you use one body of work to show that you can do a project, while proposing to do another project with the grant, you’re expecting judges to make a leap of faith. That’s risky, unless they happen to be familiar with your work and know that you could pull it off. None of the projects under final consideration were like this, at least not this year.

On the photographic side, Kira spoke of the need to show great photographs and then explained that great photographs have to be technically well executed (light, color, composition, etc.) but more important is that the photographer’s voice needs to be strong, his or her style/approach to making photographs has to be distinctive in order for that work to compel her.

Maggie spoke throughout the day of the need for photographers to feel passion and compassion for their subjects, to strive to tell stories that engage dimensionally.

And Whitney, in talking about individual proposals and bodies of work, recognized the strength of clarity of voice and how high photographers strive to reach with their work - and in some cases, the paucity of both.

What won? Stay tuned to the Alexia site for the announcement.

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