A Funder Focused on a Powerful Niche: Photography That Drives Change

Sometimes the real "news" behind a gift isn't the dollar amount as much as the intention of the gift itself. For a particularly timely example of this phenomenon, let's turn our attention to the Bay Area, where this spring, the CatchLight Foundation announced the winners of the first annual CatchLight Fellowship, which was created to recognize and support creative leaders who "have demonstrated excellence in the novel use of photography to depict and bring awareness to challenging social issues."

At $90,000, the total amount of funding won't make you spit coffee on your computer screen. But followers of recent developments in the arts philanthropy space will walk away intrigued, as the fellowship aims to use photography and visual storytelling to drive meaningful social change.

Each of the three fellows will receive a $30,000 grant and be paired with a CatchLight media partner—the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, or the Marshall Project—to complete a project that "builds upon past work, demonstrates measurable social awareness, and expands understanding of how visual art can be used to communicate vital social issues."

Such language is becoming more familiar these days in the arts funding world. Less than a year ago, for example, the Ford Foundation announced a funding partnership with the Skoll and the U.K.-based BRITDOC Foundation, saying in a press release, "We believe creative visual storytelling is vital to the pursuit of justice and equity in the 21st century." So is the new CatchLight Fellowship an arts funder that's discovered the appeal of grantmaking with an activist bent?

Not at all. 

CatchLight's roots can be traced to 2009 in San Francisco, when Nancy Farese founded PhotoPhilanthropy as a platform for the Activist Award to reward excellence for photographers "shooting a body of work that helped nonprofits convey their story through images." 

PhotoPhilanthropy's programming included grants, educational opportunities and exhibitions designed to give "voice, visibility and power to photographers who shoot socially impactful images, and nonprofit and NGO leaders who are eager to better understand the use of visual communications to advance their work."

In 2015, PhotoPhilanthropy was re-launched as CatchLight, sharpening its focus on the "intersection of visual storytelling and social impact." Farese currently serves as executive director and board chair.

Not coincidentally, Farese has also worked with the Skoll Foundation. In 2014, she spoke at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship on the "evolving use of photography as a critical social awareness tool, and the role of visual media in nonprofit storytelling." She's also listed on Skoll's website as a social entrepreneur "contributor."

And so, much like the Ford/Skoll/BRITDOC initiative, the CatchLight's Fellowship embraces the power of "strong partnerships" with "like-minded media partners to foster broader distribution of the best stories across traditional and inventive new channels, in community, and through live + digital events."

To see this play out in practice, consider CatchLight's plan for one of its fellows, Brian Frank. Frank will be working with the Marshall Project to document the activities of organizations working to provide "viable alternatives to prison for people caught in the cycles of poverty and crime." Frank's project echoes the work of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, which recently issued a call for artists to propose "ambitious projects addressing racial justice through the lens of mass incarceration." 

We wouldn't be surprised to see other small or regional funders to step into the growing visual storytelling field. Why? Simple. A picture is worth a thousand words. In a philanthropy space increasingly driven by social media, a single moving photo—like the one of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee child who drowned—can go viral and raise awareness around a specific cause.