Who supports crowdfunded projects? And why? (via the Emphas.is blog)

The following post by Miki Johnson was copied with permission from the Emphas.is blog.

• • •

One of the most important, but possibly least understood, aspects of crowdfunding is what makes a person decide to support a specific project? Understanding this will help more projects reach their goals, help organizations like Emphas.is focus their energies, and possibly give us a glimpse into the kind of journalism that audiences will be willing to pay for in the future.

To help answer this, several backers of Tomas van Houtryve’s project graciously agreed to answer a few questions. We asked them:

  • How they found out about the project
  • Why they decided to support it
  • What the experience of being a backer has been like
  • If they would recommend Emphas.is to friends or suggest any improvements

We were happy to hear that everyone would (and did) recommend Emphas.is to friends, and that their suggestions were mostly for technical improvements to the site (which we’re working on). Their input gives us an important glimpse into the mind of a backer, but this is obviously a small sample, so we will continue to do more interviews. If you have any input, whether you’re a backer or not, please share it in the comments!

Ethnic Hmong relatives of CIA Secret War veterans walk through the jungle in the Vientiane province of Laos. Photo by Tomas van Houtryve.

Kimo Quaintance, 36, is an American living in Munich, Germany, and a lecturer in International Relations at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces. He’s been involved in photography for nearly 20 years, mostly as an amateur.

Last summer he and a social anthropologist colleague organized a photo elicitation/photo repatriation project reuniting archival photographs with their source communities in the Marsabit area of northern Kenya. This summer they’ll be using photography as part of their research exploring Somali diaspora trade and trust networks throughout Kenya.

“This was the first project of its kind I’ve funded. I heard about it through Tomas’ Facebook page and I encouraged my friends to support it through my Facebook page, which I know a few people responded to.

Last summer I had an exchange with Tomas over the idea of crowdfunding. At the time he was experimenting with the micropayment service Flattr, which I was skeptical about for numerous reasons.

I kept an eye on his work, however, and felt like he’d hit upon a good approach with Emphas.is. He’d obviously thought a lot about the relationship of the photographer to their audience/supporters, and was smart with the way he was adding value for his supporters. With the larger concept of crowdfunding, these questions of engagement and added value are essential.

“For a number of reasons, I don’t think we have much of an audience for simply consuming photojournalism anymore.”

It’s not that people don’t care about quality photojournalism, it’s just that our media environment is both saturated and fragmented, so both the emotional impact and market for quality photojournalism have been greatly diluted on the societal level.

That said, some of the same forces that have been diluting the impact of photojournalism also open up new opportunities for photojournalists to build personal connections with their audience. This requires a willingness to open up the process of photojournalism and empower an audience through direct engagement. Fortunately, I think Tomas has figured that out, and is using this opportunity to share his skill and experience in a more direct way. That approach represents a type of humility and willingness to nurture an audience that resonates very deeply with me as a teacher.

Tomas did a nice job of trying to serve a number of different audiences with his behind-the-scenes updates. Personally, I was most interested in the vignettes that wouldn’t have made it into a final presentation, and especially in the exploration of his tools and techniques for actually doing this kind of work.

“I supported this project partly in the hopes that I could learn things that would help me in my own photographic work, and on that level of teaching, he certainly succeeded.”

Tomas appreciated that this kind of engagement is only meaningful when there is a dialogue rather than a broadcast. His responsiveness to questions and audience contributions was a model that others who want to use the same approach should take very seriously.

Relatives of veterans of the CIA Secret War break down in tears at their hidden village in the Vientiane province of Laos. Photo by Tomas van Houtryve.

At the moment, I’m not following the project so closely. I’m trying to learn what the “market” wants by following my natural feelings, rather than any idea of what I “should” do. Interestingly, I stopped following it after he reached his funding goal, which makes me think that much like storytelling itself, the most successful projects will be ones that find a way to maintain suspense and surprise throughout the process. In that way, I think it was quite lucky that he started the project before the funding target was reached, as it created a real sense of urgency and suspense to the whole process, that when combined with quality substance, made for a very engaging experience.”

Gwen Lafage, 33, lives in San Francisco, where she moved five months ago from Paris. Formerly a business director for advertising agencies, she is passionate about photography and is currently starting a new photo project in San Francisco.

“I had already seen Tomas’ photos on the VII photo agency site, and I really enjoyed his perception of the world, his photographic style. I read a lot about photography so I was aware of Emphas.is before its launch, and when I saw Tomas’project there I instantly decided to follow him.

“I like the idea of photojournalists going places that are not top priority in the news.”

I like that some of them dedicate themselves to long-term project to give us a deeper perspective on a story. And I loved the idea of being able to follow a photographer though a project, to better understand the details of his daily life, how he manages his day, how people react to his presence, where he stays, who he meets, etc.

I decided to back Tomas’ project specifically because of his previous images, and because he was going to a country I wished to see. I traveled for a year a few years ago, but because of a motorcycle accident in Malaysia I had to shorten my stay in south east Asia and I didn’t get to visit Laos, which was part of my plan.

I really enjoyed Tomas’ posts; they were very well written, very detailed, and very real. I also enjoyed being able to start a ‘relationship’ with him. It felt as if I had a friend writing me emails from the opposite side of the world, which is really different than reading a story in the news.

I’m very concerned by the changing model of photojournalism and the threat it presents for photojournalists, and everyone else. News travel fast with the Internet, and we can get easily overwhelmed, but newspapers don’t have the money to pay for long-term projects anymore. We rush through news and don’t take the time to read a good story, to learn more about something.

I love that some people have innovative ideas and are trying to solve these issues – Emphas.is is a great idea! I mentioned it and Tomas’ project to my friends on Facebook, Twitter, and on my blog.

Now I’m looking forward to seeing more images, to getting the final book, and hopefully an exhibition, possibly at my new gallery, Carte Blanche in SF! :) I would be interested in being involved in the book-making process or on the selection of images; of course not for everything he does, but maybe for some of it.”

Selim Korycki, 36, was born in Poland and currently lives in London, UK, where he has been a freelance photographer for the last few years (and was a bike messenger for ten years before that). He will graduate with a photography degree from University of Westminster next year.

“I came across Tomas’ work from North Korea following an online link about two years ago — I was glued to the computer screen. Having grown up in a country ruled by a socialist government, I was interested in how socialism and communism are being represented since the Iron Curtain went down.

The experience of living in both political systems — a socialist republic and a western democracy — gives me a unique point of view on both. Tomas’ work on 21st-Century communism totally fascinated me. Over the last couple of years I kept coming back to Tomas’ website and blog, and that is how I learned about Emphas.is and Tomas’ plans to go back to Laos.

My main reason to back his project was the “behind the scenes” access to the preparations, itinerary, choice of places/people/situations. It is a great way to learn. The ability to see images/footage that may not make it to the final edit is simply priceless. So are the comments and thoughts of the photographer.

“Memories fade away quickly and any writing about the project at the later stage is likely to be very different than blogging right there, right then.”

Another reason to back Tomas’ project was the ability to contribute to creation of a body of work that would communicate what is happening in Laos, which many Western visitors perceive as an exotic place they visit to get stoned.

I have pointed a few of my friends towards projects featured on Emphas.is. Why? All those projects are dealing with important issues that otherwise may not get the coverage they should be getting.

I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the final edit of the images, the actual visual narrative. I’m also very curious to see the published project, and to find out which outlets will decide to disseminate it. Also what impact the project can have on the situation in Laos, and on Western perceptions of the country.”

Andrew Stanbridge is a 32 year old photographer based in Portland, Oregon, and Southeast Asia, who describes his work as “toeing the line between photojournalism and fine art documentary photography.”

“I think all photojournalists know about Emphas.is at this point through the grapevine. I have been following Tomas’s work for some time and was excited to see that he was going to approach Laos finally in his quest to document the surviving Communist nations.

I have been photographing in Laos intensively for the past 12 years and contacted him to see if he wanted any advice as to places to photograph, themes, contacts, etc. From there we started a fun back-and-forth of emails, before and during his trip.

“I will be backing many projects on Emphas.is, since I see it as a big part of the future of how independent projects will be possible.”

I was ready as soon as the site went live, thinking about which ones to back. I also have shared and continue to share the idea of Emphas.is, as well as individual projects that either fascinate me or that I think may intrigue particular friends.

I went a little larger on Tomas’s than I expected (being the starving photographer that we all are), but I was excited to add his small book to my library of Laos-related publications. I also think that we photographers need to have each other’s backs, be it sharing advice, equipment, encouragement, or money.

Ethnic Hmong women return from the jungle with baskets full of roots to be eaten in the Vientiane province of Laos. Photo by Tomas van Houtryve.

As a backer, I felt the same way that I do whenever I come into contact with people who are interested in similar subjects and are not carrying a big ego on their shoulders. I think that the myth of the photographer is held by those not in the field. Most of us know each other as the same sort of people, scrambling around the world, figuring out the best way to tell the stories that resonate with us.

I am looking forward to sharing a Beer Lao with Tomas somewhere in the world and comparing notes on our experiences in Laos. In the meantime, it was great to get both the personal notes from him, as well as the updates that he created for all his backers on Emphas.is.

In the end it is about the rewards of knowing that I got to help in little ways to make a very worthwhile project come to fruition, as well as being part of the beginning of a powerful new crowdfunding model for photographers.

Now I’m looking forward to seeing how Tomas puts the photos together to tell the story that has evolved during his travels. I am particularly interested in the defined project of Laos, but will also be paying attention to how he fits it into his broader project on communism. I imagine that certain images will take on more meaning as he begins to edit, and I hope to see some stories/reflections along with those images when he is ready to share them.”

Anja Lampert sent this comment to Tomas unsolicited, and he suggested I include it in this post, since it highlights yet another way his work has been helpful to a backer.

“Hi Tomas! I find your blog entries really interesting and want to say thanks for this opportunity to get some background info on your project and Laos itself.

I never knew about Laos (apart from that it existed on the map), about the heavy bombings during the Vietnam war and how people are still living with the aftermath of this era until I had to research some info about Benzoin Resinoid.

I work for a cosmetics company and we use quite an amount of this resin. We buy it from a few villages in Laos, and it was quite complicated to get in touch with the people who produce/collect it. As I had to hold a training session on this particular ingredient, I also found out more about Laos, but then discovered that most people hardly know anything about this country, and that it’s not easy to get information about how people live there.

This is a great opportunity for me to get some more information about this country, plus having all this information brought along with pictures, which are a pleasure to see!”

(Compiled and written by Miki Johnson)

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