Victor Sira has applied for so many photography grants, he knew before even opening the envelope from the Guggenheim Foundation that he'd won a 2006 fellowship.
"I know how much the letter weighs," he explains. "This one was heavier."
Sira was awarded the fellowship of more than $30,000 for his "Uprooted" project, which examines three stages of immigration: the homeland, the move, and life in a new country. He has been working on "Uprooted" for a decade, and actually wrapped it up before the Guggenheim letter arrived.
"That's the thing about grants, they usually arrive very late," he says, laughing.
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While "Uprooted's" insightful black and whites show immigrants from Mexico and South America, the photos in Sira's newer project, "Points of Entry," are hauntingly void of people, focusing instead on colorful bits of clothing left by immigrants in Europe's deserted borderlands.
"Within the immigrant issue, I can ask more philosophical questions," Sira says. "'Like what does the desert mean,' or 'do I have to show anyone?'"
Sira calls immigration, which has been at the heart of most of his work, "a process of self discovery." At 20 he left Venezuela to study at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City. There he joined his mother, who had immigrated in 1986, and whose adjustment to the U.S. became the subject of his first photo project.
So what convinced the Guggenheim foundation to award Sira a fellowship this year, after passing him over for so many years? Obviously the portfolio comes first, but Sira also is convinced that including his biography and presenting high-quality prints sealed the deal.
"A good biography is more important than the description," he insists. Clear communication with your recommendation writers is also imperative. Sira had trouble gathering the requisite four letters from well-respected photographers when he applied before. This year, he admits, it couldn't have hurt that three of his four letters came from past Guggenheim fellows.
But the most important tactic Sira uses to ensure a steady flow of grants is simply to apply - to lots of foundations, over and over. He has applied to the Guggenheim at least four previous times, and this year's application was only one of about 15 he sent out in total. The Guggenheim was the only acceptance letter Sira received, which leads him to believe that the process includes a healthy dose of chance as well.
"A rejection letter is terrible," he admits. "But don't take it personal."
With this method of perseverance, along with obvious hard work and talent, Sira has received grants almost every year he has applied. In 2003 he won a W. Eugene Smith Fellowship Grant and a Mosaique Fellowship Grant. In 2002 he was awarded a grant for documentary photography by the Fifty Crows International Fund, and the year before, the Andrea Frank Foundation grant.
The Guggenheim, the largest grant Sira has received to date, is designed to allow a photographer the economic freedom to pursue a project for one year. Sira, though, who does no commercial or assignment work, knows that even the biggest grants must be reinvested to keep up his momentum.
"It's almost like being a farmer," he says, explaining that he plans to use the money to start a few seed projects. The hope is that the Guggenheim's seal of approval on his resume will eventually help them blossom and grow.
One new project germinating in his mind would close the cycle began by "Uprooted" and "Points of Entry" by traveling back to the homelands he documented - Mexico, sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe - with capture and reproduction equipment.
"In Eastern Europe especially, with the trafficking of women, I will go to the houses of the families to see if they have pictures of these girls," he explains. "I will reproduce the images from people who have left."
For Sira, this third stage of his immigration exploration traces a shift in the role the immigration issue plays in his work. In the beginning, he says, "immigration was the main point," but now he is more interested in how images of immigrants are perceived.