On February 21, 2020, the film “Minamata” had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. The movie finds the acclaimed photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, played by Johnny Depp, taking on a powerful corporation that’s poisoning residents by discharging heavy metals into water sources around Minamata, Japan, in the early 1970s.
Smith’s other major photo essays included World War II photographs, a profile of a dedicated country doctor in the town of Kremmling, Colorado, and the clinic of Dr. Albert Schweitzer in French Equatorial Africa. By infusing his work with a strong sense of empathy and social justice, Smith was “perhaps the single most important American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay,” wrote The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan.
Smith passed away in 1978, but his legacy, which foreshadowed modern funders’ interest in framing the arts as a way to drive social change, lives on in the New York City-based W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund. Established in 1980, the fund supports photographers whose work follows the tradition of Smith’s “dedicated compassion evidenced during his 45-year career as a photographic essayist.” It’s one of the few philanthropic vehicles dedicated solely to photojournalism, a field that often falls between the cracks of more substantial fine arts and media funding.
The fund presents the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography annually to a photographer who follows in the tradition of Smith’s humanistic approach. Fund President Phillip S. Block told me that judges look for a photographer whose work addresses “an issue related to the human condition, social change, humanitarian concern, armed conflict or cultural, social, environmental and/or political significance, ideally expressing an underlying acknowledgment of our common humanity.”
Previously, the fund awarded $40,000 to a single photographer. However, in recognition of the widespread financial distress caused by the pandemic, the fund will award $10,000 to five photographers. The deadline for the W. Eugene Smith Grant—as well as the W. Eugene Smith Grant for Student Photographers and the Howard Chapnick Grant, which supports leadership in photojournalism fields like editing, research, education and management—is May 30.
“A Catalyst for Change”
In 1951, Life published Smith’s photojournalistic profile of Maude E. Callen, a black nurse-midwife working long hours to serve poor and isolated residents in South Carolina. After the piece ran, Callen received more than $20,000 in donations from readers, allowing her to create the Maude Callen Clinic, which opened in Pineville, South Carolina, in May 1953. Smith was present at the ceremony.
This case study encapsulates the fund’s belief that photography can advance social change. “We believe that engaged practitioners, bearing witness to the struggles and stories in the world, have the means to leverage change,” Block said. “We believe this work makes a difference, and through the dedicated support to these talented storytellers, the Smith Fund acts as a catalyst for change.”
The fund awarded the 2019 W. Eugene Smith Grant to Mexican photographer Yale Martínez for his project “The House that Bleeds,” which explored the epidemic of missing persons presumed to be victims of organized crime and drug traffickers.
Surveying the current state of photography grantmaking, Block said the field is much like the other arts disciplines in that it “finds its patrons, but could always use greater support.” Other grantmakers operating in the photography and photojournalism fields include the CatchLight Foundation, the Aaron Siskind Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the Enlight Foundation, and the Alexia Foundation.
The W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund receives support from the Herb Ritts Foundation, Canon USA, and the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation, plus a host of funders with a footprint in the photojournalism space, including the Center for Creative Photography, the International Center of Photography, and MediaStorm.
Despite this support, Block accurately noted that documentary photography and photojournalism “doesn’t receive the same monetary support as other forms of photography such as fine art. This seems odd when you consider that documentary photography and photojournalism are what expose humanitarian need throughout the world.”
Navigating the Digital Landscape
The fund helps photojournalists navigate a crowded and vexing digital landscape that W. Eugene Smith would hardly recognize. “Where still photography was once at the summit of the media world at a time when magazines and newspapers reigned supreme,” Block said, “today, this form of deliberative, first-hand practice is increasingly expensive, out of sync, and time-consuming for the new world of information distribution.”
The information distribution elephant in the room is, of course, Instagram. “Instagram is a tremendous platform where a photograph is the hero of every post. It provides a level playing field for everyone with an IG account,” Block said. “But social media doesn’t reward the thoughtful, multi-image documentary story, built with words and pictures, all of which requires time to produce and attention to read and digest.”
Block told me that documentary photographers and photojournalists prefer to use Instagram as a way to encourage the public “to explore more in-depth and complex versions residing elsewhere.”
Moreover, the rules by which Instagram currently operates pose some issues to photographers in terms of copyright. In mid-April, the New York district court ruled that websites in general are permitted to embed Instagram posts without breaking copyright laws. “If this continues to be the rule set by the courts regarding copyright,” Block said, “photographers will no longer be able to showcase their work via Instagram unless they want to make their photographs public property, without any form of financial compensation for their use.”
The coronavirus has impacted the Smith Fund in “the same way it has impacted charities and not-for-profits around the world,” Block told me. The fund had to cancel its annual awards ceremony in New York, an event that normally “created tremendous buzz and excitement” about the fund and served as an opportunity to thank current donors as well as introduce the fund to potential new donors.
Corporate and private donations are also down, forcing the fund’s leadership to think about how it will fulfill its mandate in 2021 and beyond. Fortunately, “thanks to the commitment of our supporters, we are able to fulfill and even exceed our financial support of photographers with our grants in 2020,” Block said.
COVID-19 also changed how the fund supports photojournalists. Since its inception, the fund provided a single annual grant to a photographer and smaller financial fellowships to other works at the sole discretion of the judges. However, since the pandemic has imperiled funding and editorial opportunities for photojournalists, the Smith Fund board “felt that the grant amount totaling $50,000 might better serve the photographic community by supporting five photographers with $10,000 grants,” Block said.
“Now more than ever, when the funds for photographers are scarce and the assignments have virtually disappeared for most, is the time for us to attempt to underwrite as many deserving image makers as possible with the limited funding we have available.” The board of trustees elected to make this change to the structure of the grant for 2020 only.
“The Smith Fund is proud to use all of its resources to help the community of documentary photographers and photojournalists continue with their important work,” Block said. “We feel that our commitment must be to the working practitioner, and as an organization, we must continue to distribute our grants. The world is a better, richer place because of the work these photographers produce.”