April 27, 2011 9:13 PM EDT

The Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund (EF) was founded to keep a critical visual culture—documentary photography—alive, by supporting and mentoring independent photographers. The “emergency” refers to the disintegration of media’s ongoing support of long-form, in-depth documentary photography, and the need for more editorial support for photographers who commit to working on critical issues.

Launched two years ago, and modeled on Magnum Photos IP (Independent Project) fund, the EF finds, funds and mentors photographers, giving them the time to stay on the ground long enough to cover underreported issues in depth, and to anticipate and follow stories that will be, or should be, in the news but are sometimes seen as too risky for publications to assign.

As the EF announced the latest round of photographers it would be supporting, LightBox spoke to Magnum Foundation President and photographer Susan Meiselas who heads up the EF, about its mission, and the challenges facing documentary photography today.

Susan Meiselas: I think anticipation is a key word, one effect of all the changes in the media landscape has meant that it’s much more difficult for independent, freelance photographers to sustain themselves in the field long enough to witness and document issues with depth over time. So that’s what we really wanted to be able to support through the EF.

There’s a dual approach for this support. The initial funds of the foundation come from a combination of philanthropy and donors who value the quality of in-depth work. A second round of support comes through community crowdfunding, presently Kickstarter.

SM: With Kickstarter the point is not only the platform but also building a community. The challenge is to put our forces together to build communities that really care about this quality of work and the issues addressed. Through our curated page on Kickstarter we are extending our support for these projects by bringing them to a wider audience than might not normally be exposed to them.

EF’s chooses international nominators (picture editors, publishers, curators, etc) who propose 10 candidates each and create a potential pool of 100 photographers who are then invited to submit proposals. An independent Editorial Board selects 10 to 20 photographers based on the strength of their proposals and the importance of the issues they propose to address, and awards grants from the funds available to the EF. (Approximately $125,000 in 2010 and 2011.)

SM: By having nominators that are internationally positioned and based in different regions, we have been able to find photographers who are lesser known. The first group in 2010, of the fifteen, about a third were regional. We had two Bangladeshi photographers, Shehab Uddin and Saiful Huq Omi; an Indian photographer, Sohrab Hura; one Armenian photographer, Karen Mirzoyan; and a Chinese photographer, Wang Yishu. I think the surprise for us has been to see how many photographers haven’t had the experience working with someone editorially, whether it’s a journalist in the field or whether it’s an editorial director. Consequently we’re working with photographers in more cases than we expected to help edit their work and structure their narratives. We thought we were going to only facilitate by allocating funds, but we’re more engaged than this. We are working with photographers to expand what they come back with, supporting them to go back out for audio and encouraging them to imagine their work in multimedia when appropriate, and if they choose to.

The two men could hardly have been more different. One the fatherless son of a single mother, the other a scion of the most important American political family since the Adamses; one a cool, intellectual analyst, the other an instinctive gut player who never looked back once a decision was made. Yet there they were, together in the East Room of the White House on a June day in 2012, inexorably linked by history: Barack Hussein Obama and George Walker Bush. The occasion was the unveiling of George and Laura Bush’s White House portraits. “It’s been said,” Obama told the audience, “that no one can ever truly understand what it’s like being President until they sit behind that desk and feel the weight and responsibility for the first time. And that is true. After three and a half years in office—and much more gray hair—I have a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by the Presidents who came before me, including my immediate predecessor, President Bush. In this job, no decision that reaches your desk is easy. No choice you make is without costs. No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to make everybody happy. I think that’s something President Bush and I both learned pretty quickly.” With an ironic twinkle, Bush marked the moment with a bit of self-deprecation, or at least self-awareness: “I am … pleased, Mr. President,” Bush said to Obama, “that when you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you will now be able to gaze at this portrait and ask, ‘What would George do?’” History is full of examples of presidents thinking and talking about their predecessors, seeking inspiration or warning from the successes and the failures of those who came before. All presidents are all members of what the historians and TIME editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy have called “The Presidents Club.” The enormity of that shared experience—of the feeling of holding ultimate power, and ultimate responsibility—can create strange connections and alliances once the heat of battle has faded. A look back suggests that the presidents appreciate what voters appreciate: leaders who at once think big and act smartly, worrying more about the service of ends than the specifics of means. For the presidents, history is always provisional, always conditional, and the greatest of leaders are the ones who—like Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, JFK, and Reagan—are willing to depart from dogma to make the country stronger and more secure. So how do presidents judge other presidents? Two themes emerge. First, they often evoke their predecessors in search of sanction for present policies: they enlist—or rather conscript—the long-dead in the political wars of the moment. The second common theme, I think, is that presidents tend to see as they would be seen, and one clue to understanding how presidents think of themselves is to note how they think of their predecessors. Two Founders Getty Images Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were tall, rich, revolutionary Virginians—and there the similarities began to fade as the years of the early republic went on. As the first president of the infant nation, Washington asked Jefferson, then the American minister to France, to serve as secretary of state. Arriving in New York, then the national capital, in 1790, Jefferson found himself in a city and a political culture that struck him as overly sympathetic to British and too prone to monarchial forms and habits of mind. Fresh from the intoxicating atmosphere of the early revolutionary days in France—the Terror was still in the future—Jefferson was out of phase with the prevailing ethos in the Washington administration, an ethos created and sustained in large measure by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. As Hamilton’s adversary in the Cabinet, Jefferson became the voice—not the only one, but the central one at the highest levels—that competed most ferociously for Washington’s ear. As Jefferson said, he and Hamilton were pitted against one another daily, “like two cocks in the pit.” Washington asked them to end the “internal dissensions that are harrowing and tearing our vitals.” Jefferson and Washington fell out and it was only years later, in 1814, that Jefferson offered a correspondent this reading of Washington: “Perhaps the strongest feature in [Washington’s] character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known. … He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man. His temper was naturally high toned; but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendancy over it. If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath....” There is much here, and perhaps the most revealing insight was about Washington’s temperament. Long celebrated for his capacity to project calm at even the most desperate of hours, Washington was, according to Jefferson’s close observation, also a man who could lose his composure, if only in private, thus showing Washington to be a very human hero. Jefferson’s Washington is a real man who accomplished real things. More interesting than a figure of myth and legend, for figures of myth and legend are unapproachable, Jefferson’s Washington is a human being who overcame his own flaws to do great things. Which is how Jefferson himself wished to be seen. Abe and Andy Getty Images Several decades later, Abraham Lincoln—not even a Jeffersonian Republican, but first a Whig and then the candidate of a new and different Republican Party—turned to Jefferson as an unlikely ally. In April 1859, from Springfield, Ill., Lincoln wrote to a group in Boston declining its invitation to speak to a Jefferson birthday celebration. The moment gave Lincoln the chance to link Jefferson to the cause of freedom in an hour of danger for the Union. “All honor to Jefferson,” said Lincoln, “to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.” In judging Jefferson in this light, Lincoln was using a predecessor was his own political purposes, conscripting a dead slave-owner in the cause of the union. And Lincoln, master politician that he was, also enlisted Andrew Jackson, another dead slave-owner. In an upper room over his brother-in-law’s store near the corner of Sixth and Adams in Springfield—it was called Yates and Smith—Lincoln was at work on his First Inaugural address in early 1861. The only documents Lincoln requested to have at hand as he wrote were the Constitution, Daniel Webster’s second reply to William Hayne (on the importance of union), Henry Clay’s speech on the Compromise of 1850—and Andrew Jackson’s 1832 Proclamation to the People of South Carolina attacking nullification and secession. In a way, then, Lincoln sent for Andrew Jackson. Jackson—states’-rights man, slaveowner, scourge of the Second Bank of the United States—believed in the Union more than anything else. Part of the reason was personal: he had lost his mother and brothers in the Revolution (his father had died before he was born), had himself been a teenaged prisoner of war in the hands of the British, and he saw America, as he put it, as “one great family.” His own family’s blood had consecrated the Union, and he would not allow anything or anyone—he thought in just these apocalyptic terms—to threaten the thing he held dearest. The example Jackson left to posterity—and now Lincoln was that posterity—was one of effective leadership in a sensitive moment in which the overall goal was achieved sometimes slowly and indirectly, but was nonetheless achieved. “The right of a state to secede is not an open or debatable question,” Lincoln had said at the end of 1860. “It was fully discussed in Jackson’s time, and denied … by him … It is the duty of a President to execute the laws and maintain the existing government. He cannot entertain any proposition for dissolution or dismemberment.” Jackson had taken extraordinary steps in his public career to ensure the ultimate success of the American experiment, imposing martial law on New Orleans a general during the War of 1812—an example, along with the love of union, on which Lincoln drew as the 16th president struggled to lead amid the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt later remarked that Lincoln “was a sad man because he couldn’t get it all at once. And nobody can.” FDR was largely right, but Lincoln understood the tragedy and reality of history. He knew he and his nation lived in twilight, and that nothing was perfect nor perfectible. Two Democrats Getty Images When FDR was a small child, he was taken to the White House by his father, James Roosevelt, who was a Grover Cleveland Democrat. President Cleveland had had a long day, and at one point put his hand on young Franklin’s head and said he had a prayer for the boy—that he might never be fated to become president of the United States. As far as we know, few presidential prayers have ever gone as unanswered as that casual one. Franklin Roosevelt was also a great student of history. He loved the idea of himself as a player in the drama of his times (“That was the Garbo in me,” he once joked after watching himself in a newsreel), and in many ways he thought of the White House as a family property not unlike Hyde Park. It was natural, then, for him to think much about those who had come before. Like other presidents, Roosevelt liked in others what he hoped the world would see in him. Roosevelt believed his own struggles through the Depression and later World War II were of a piece with the struggles of Jefferson and Jackson for liberty abroad and equality at home. The interest in Jackson was most evident in the 1930s; that in Jefferson most evident in the early 1940s. In 1934 Roosevelt traveled to the Hermitage, and he insisted on walking—or “stumping,” as he put it in private, darker moments—through a tour of the house. In March 1937, he had the inaugural stand in Washington designed to as a replica of the Hermitage, a tangible sign that he believed his fights were Jackson’s fights. Of Jackson, FDR said: “We look back on his amazing personality, we review his battles because the struggles he went through, the enemies he encountered, the defeats he suffered and the victories he won are part and parcel of the struggles, the enmities, the defeats and the victories of those who have lived in all the generations that have followed.” Jefferson, too, provided Roosevelt with an inspiring example as the world grew dark in the war years. FDR encouraged the building of the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin and, the bicentennial of Jefferson’s birth, on April 13, 1943, the president traveled the short distance from the White House to dedicate it. He was not shy about drawing comparisons between Jefferson’s age and his own; and, by implication, between Jefferson and himself, or at least between the tasks which confronted the two men. “Jefferson was no dreamer—for half a century he led his State and his Nation in fact and in deed. I like to think that this was so because he thought in terms of the morrow as well as the day—and this was why he was hated or feared by those who thought in terms of the day and the yesterday.” Harry and Dick Getty Images Harry Truman was that rarest of creatures: a candid politician. In interviews and private notes after he left the White House, Truman left an unusually rich collection of often-tart judgments about his predecessors—judgments informed, to be sure, by his own experience of human nature and of high office. Of Jackson—another man of the people—Truman said: “He wanted sincerely to look after the little fellow who had no pull, and that’s what a president is supposed to do.” In private Truman could be—well, he could be Trumanesque. He lauded Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Polk, Wilson, and FDR. And he hugely admired FDR, but did say that Roosevelt’s “ego, which probably wasn’t too miniscule to start with,” had led him to overreach on the court-packing scheme after the 1936 landslide. Yet he once called Richard Nixon “a shifty-eyed, goddamn liar, and people know it. I can’t figure out how he came so close to getting elected President in 1960. They say young Kennedy deserves a lot of credit for licking him, but I just can’t see it. I can’t see how the son of a bitch even carried one state.” Of Eisenhower, recalling a visit during the 1952-53 transition, Truman said: “He came to see me. I invited him in not long after the election, and he didn’t want to come; I think he didn’t want to interrupt his golf game down in Florida or Georgia or wherever it was, but he finally did come. And he looked around a little, but I could see that nothing that was said was getting through to him. He got there mad, and he stayed mad. One of his troubles … he wasn’t used to being criticized, and he never did get it through his head that that’s what politics is all about. He was used to getting his ass kissed.” An Unlikely Bond AP One of the more remarkable scenes in recent presidential history came in the spring of 1994, at the funeral of Richard Nixon, the only man other than Franklin Roosevelt to have been a part of five major-party national tickets in the 20th century. Bill Clinton, a son of the generation that came of political age in reaction to the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon’s resignation in 1974, spoke on behalf of the former presidents in attendance—Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. As tends to happen in such moments, Clinton found Nixon to be an example of the things Clinton himself wanted for the country. “When he became President, he took on challenges here at home on matters from cancer research to environmental protection, putting the power of the Federal Government where Republicans and Democrats had neglected to put it in the past,” Clinton said. “In foreign policy, he came to the Presidency at a time in our history when Americans were tempted to say we had had enough of the world. Instead, he knew we had to reach out to old friends and old enemies alike. He would not allow America to quit the world.” The incumbent president made a subtle call for something that all presidents—indeed all people—hope for: that they be seen with a sense of proportion and in a spirit of forbearance. “Oh yes, he knew great controversy amid defeat as well as victory. He made mistakes, and they, like his accomplishments, are part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times. He said many times that unless a person has a goal, a new mountain to climb, his spirit will die….Today is a day for his family, his friends, and his nation to remember President Nixon’s life in totality. To them, let us say, may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.” We don’t often think of the two in the same frame, but Ronald Reagan’s view of JFK is fascinating not least because, as Reagan himself said, he was “for the other fellow” in 1960—Richard Nixon. In Kennedy, Reagan knew a great showman when he saw one. “Many men are great, but few capture the imagination and the spirit of the times. The ones who do are unforgettable," he said in June 1985, at an endowment fundraiser for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. "Four administrations have passed since John Kennedy’s death, five presidents have occupied the Oval Office, and I feel sure that each of them thought of John Kennedy now and then, and his thousand days in the White House.” Then Reagan let his imagination—that vivid, wonderful imagination—take flight. He went on: “And sometimes I want to say to those who are still in school, and who sometimes think that history is a dry thing that lives in a book: Nothing is ever lost in that great house; some music plays on. I have been told that late at night when the clouds are still and the moon is high, you can just about hear the sound of certain memories brushing by. You can almost hear, if you listen close, the whir of a wheelchair rolling by and the sound of a voice calling out, “And another thing, Eleanor!” Turn down a hall and you can hear the brisk strut of a fellow saying, “Bully! Absolutely ripping!” Walk softly now and you’re drawn to the soft notes of a piano and a brilliant gathering in the East Room, where a crowd surrounds a bright young president who is full of hope and laughter. I don’t know if this is true…but it’s a story I’ve been told. And it’s not a bad one, because it reminds us that history is a living thing that never dies. A life given in service to one’s country is a living thing that never dies.” The certitudes and constructs of campaigns crumble under the relentless force of the complicated reality of the actual job. As Obama remarked at the unveiling of the George W. Bush portrait in June 2012—after thanking the 43rd president for leaving him an excellent TV sports package—“We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences. We all love this country. We all want America to succeed.” On that, at least, let’s hope they—and we—can all agree. Meacham, a TIME Contributing Editor-at-Large, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. This essay is adapted from a Presidents' Day lecture Meacham is to deliver at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, on Monday, Feb. 17.
History is full of examples of presidents thinking and talking about their predecessors, writes TIME's Jon Meacham

As well as providing mentorship for photographers, both emerging and seasoned, to assist them in navigating today’s media landscape, the EF also enables partnering with journalists in production and for distribution opportunities.

SM: In the first year what was very special was that we were able to link photographer Cedric Gerbehaye with a writing partner, Rebecca Hamilton, that gave him further exposure, and then we found another funding partner to support his return to report together. Now his story about South Sudan is becoming a substantial long-term project, which was his goal and that’s fantastic for us to see evolve. The EF will continue to partner with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting who has a large host of journalists and our mission will be to do more of that matchmaking where it can work well. It may not be right for every project. But personally I think that’s one of the biggest losses for independent photographers, no longer having those intellectual partners in the field.

The EF’s aim is for increased dissemination and greater impact for the work. Meiselas sees a blend of sources as the most viable way to enable this.

SM: There are some foundations that ask why are we helping subsidize commercial media, be it TIME or the New York Times or others—but that’s not our mission. We know that the media can no longer support the level of production that they did less than a decade ago. Budget cutbacks impact extensive travel, but they are still willing, and should pay for the reproduction of original content. We’re trying to reinforce the value of a community of witnesses, whose contributions are different than citizen journalists. Documentary photographers have a very specific and very entrepreneurial talent and we are looking to explore ways to sustain visual storytelling. It is not a sustainable model to depend on philanthropy. But the question is, can you create a blend of sources and then continue to find ways to disseminate this work? Can we show impact on the issues from this work? We don’t see the EF as a destination site, that’s not its purpose. What we’re hoping is that by showing what projects we support, the EF can connect more people willing to support the importance of this work.

The EF has worked to extend the idea of collaborative community building by supporting photographers from different agencies.

SM: I think the competitiveness has to shift to a collaborative spirit of rebuilding this community that used to function in an interdependent way. It’s really important and we have to have new strategies to do that. Of course there is some competitive energy between different small collectives of photographers. But ultimately we have more common interests than we have differences. We have got to see that and act upon it. One thing that is not very well understood about the EF is people think its all Magnum. I feel for 60+ years Magnum has seeded, supported, and inspired other kinds of groups. Kadir van Lohuizen is with NOOR, Cedric Gerbehaye is with Vu, Tomas van Houtryve is with the VII Network. I could go down the list. We’re supporting other agencies in terms of the photographers we fund to do the work that we believe contributes to a healthier civil society.

As the northeastern U.S. braces for the latest in a seemingly endless series of winter storms, new research has shown that the persistent cold weather suffered by much of the United States this winter may be a result of a changing jet stream pattern. A new study shows that the jet stream over Northern Europe and North America may be taking a longer, more meandering path as a result of a rapidly warming Arctic narrowing the differential between upper and middle latitudes, reports the BBC. Temperatures in the Arctic have been rising two to three times as rapidly as the rest of the globe, and as the difference in temperature between the Arctic and middle latitudes diminishes, the jet stream that separates them slows. That means that cold weather over North America tends to linger longer, according to the study presented at American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago. It also means that warm weather is pushed further north and cold weather heads further South. Alaska and Scandinavia have had unusually warm winters this year, while southern U.S. cities like Atlanta have been struck by rare snowstorms and freezing weather. More snow began bearing down on cities like Boston and New York on Saturday, just days after a mammoth snowstorm inundated the region with over a foot of snow in some areas and caused thousands of flight cancellations across the country. Boston is expecting up to a foot of snow this weekend and up to six inches are expected around New York City. [BBC]

As a photographer, Meiselas fully understands what it takes to make the kind of work that the EF is supporting. She covered the Nicaraguan Insurrection in the late 1970’s and speaks from first hand experience when she talks of the importance of being given the resources to dig deep and being enabled to create “original work” over time.

SM: I went to Nicaragua and stayed a very long time, while other photographers came and left. Giving photographers the resources to really dig in and evolve appropriately with material that they’re exploring is really ideal. Of course, the media was a great partner for this community of freelance photographers for a very long time. I think it worked well for everyone. But now its a real challenge to support the creation of original content. That’s the critical edge we’re on. Most everyone is comfortable replicating content, linking content, ricocheting content. That’s different from making sure there are people out in the world, observing over time. The world is pretty bloody complicated right now and if we don’t see more, we will know that much less.

With today’s media budgets stretched the EF fills a vital role in making sure stories beyond those in the headlines are still being covered.

SM: The significant reduction of media resources means that publications can’t afford to keep people in Afghanistan, Japan and Libya, but then there are all these other places where smaller stories are evolving and some even seething. I don’t want to make it sound like all the EF is supporting is going to be insurrectional, by any means. That’s not its goal. But what is underreported and what lies beyond the media map, is part of our mission. Some say the “Emergency Fund” is badly named because an emergency generally refers to earthquakes and tsunamis. At the time we named it, we thought the “emergency” was something no one was focusing on. That was four years ago and at that time very few people were talking about the collapse of traditional media which has now become much more evident.

Its important to have quality work seen that has some distinctiveness, that is anticipatory that isn’t just reactive to events. That’s what positioned Cedric Gerbehaye’s work well, he was in South Sudan six months before anyone was reading about it in the media, about a referendum, he was thinking long-term, ahead, digging in deep. I mean that’s an ideal project for us and what used to find support, partly because deadlines had to be in advance for print publications.

The EF has shown that there is significant interest for the work it has supported. Cedric Gerbehaye’s work from South Sudan was published in TIME. The models and communities that EF has built have seen positive results. All four out of four EF photographers have been successfully funded to continue long term projects through Kickstarter.

The EF recently announced the 2011 Emergency Fund photographers: Balazs Gardi, Emily Schiffer, Ian Teh, Jonas Bendiksen, Julius Mwelu, Justin Jin, Stephen Ferry, Teun Voeten, Yuri Kozyrev, Tomas van Houtryve and Zalmai.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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