Emphas.is, a new site that is creating an innovative platform for crowdfunding photojournalism, did an in-depth interview with me. The full text is reposted below with permission. The original post was published on Dec. 27, 2010.
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In part IV of our series of interviews with photojournalists, TOMAS VAN HOUTRYVE talks about sneaking into North Korea, the relative advantages of working outside the mainstream news, and how to break out of your little photo cave on the internet.
I first met Tomas Van Houtryve on a bus in Guantanamo Bay at the beginning of 2002. We were part of the first batch of reporters allowed to visit Gitmo as part of a not so successful attempt by the US Marines to convince world opinion that the prisoners there were being treated fairly.
Gitmo was Van Houtryve’s beat as a staff photographer with the AP bureau in Puerto Rico. I’m afraid I’m partly responsible for convincing him to quit his job and become a freelance photographer. These were exciting times––there was a war going on in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq was just around the corner. Puerto Rico seemed like a dead end for a photojournalist in 2002.
But although Van Houtryve did quit his job with the AP, he didn’t follow the pack to Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, he decided to concentrate on that most forgotten of all wars: the Maoist rebellion in Nepal. It seemed like a strange choice at the time, and there were times when he must have cursed the people who talked him into going freelance.
Eventually though the hard work in the shadows paid off. His Nepal work earned Van Houtryve the Visa Pour l’Image Young Photographer’s Award and the Bayeux Prize for War Correspondents. In 2010 he was named POYI Photographer of the Year and he was asked to join the prestigious VII Network. Along the way he also turned out to be a talented writer.
The Nepal work gradually developed into an ambitious project to document the remaining communist regimes in the world. It included a crazy trip to North Korea for which Van Houtryve went to great lengths to change his identity on the internet, grew a moustache, developed a foreign accent, and acquired a second passport from a small inoffensive European country––all so he could enter North Korea as part of one of the so-called “friendship brigades.”
We spoke to Van Houtryve in Paris, where he lives.
Has working on stories outside the mainstream helped you prepare for the new media environment?
“It think it has made the transition a bit less brutal than it was for people that were doing mainly headline news and had the rug pulled from under them. It was always quite a struggle to get media interested in the projects I was doing, like Nepal. But at least before the crisis there were more doors to knock on and there were more people with budgets. Now, there are maybe half as many or a quarter as many people out there who are willing to finance this kind of thing. So what was already a challenging task has become even more difficult.”
Has the effect been mainly financial or has it also reduced your ability to get the story out there?
“It’s mostly financial because there a quite a few websites that have sprung up that are willing to take photos but for a lot cheaper. At the same time that Time Magazine cut down how much they were buying or sending people on assignment, Time.com began running many more photo essays. But they only pay $750 per essay so you can still get your work out there but it will never pay to finance it.”
You’ve given this a lot of thought, experimenting with things like Twitter and Flattr. What have you learned?
“I have learned that there are ways that you can harness social networking and the internet to reach out to more people. Of course the money amounts in Flattr are fairly symbolic. At this point I’m making $20-$30 euros per month from Flattr; it basically pays for my online activities. But it does show that people are willing to at least make the effort of signing up for a PayPal account. It says there is a willingness out there for people to change the way they consume and pay for information.
“And once in a while you have a story that catches fire. I had a slideshow about North Korea that went viral on the Foreign Policy website. You have things like Digg where people click to put it at the top of the list and the more people click the higher it goes and eventually it goes viral.
“So this one thing about North Korea got like 400,000 clicks in one day and then topped a million within four days or something like that. That was a year-and-a-half ago, before Flattr was launched, but you can imagine if 10% of the people had been giving money on Flattr there, you would actually have had some real money coming in.
“Of course it’s very rare that a story goes viral like that, but it opened my eyes to the fact that the numbers you can get on the internet are totally different from the numbers you can get in print. I mean, 1 million hits, that’s The New York Times right there. But it all depends on how you promote it. If you just put something on your website you’ll get maybe a couple of hits a day but if it catches on to other groups, communities on the internet, there’s no telling how far it can go.
“It’s totally fickle and you don’t really want to go chasing after 1 milllion hits every time because the top hits will always be things like Shakira videos. But if you can raise your visibility and get a fairly consistent portion of the crowd then it can be worthwhile. There are lessons to be learned in terms of breaking out of your little cave on the internet and reaching out to wider audiences and what the tools are to do that.”
How does Emphas.is fit into all this?
“There are all these tools and ideas floating around in the new media environment and the guy that gets the recipe just right has the chance to make something powerful. And so far, within journalism, Emphas.is seems to have the best combination of ideas for distributing journalism and making that into a monetary model. It is taking many different ideas that are already out there and combining them into an interesting recipe.”
What do you think photojournalists need to do to get backers and to keep them as well?
“A lot will depend on the backers themselves. The one new thing that Emphas.is is bringing to the table is this idea of direct communication with the backer in more or less real time. And that seems like it would be useful to a lot of people but not to everybody.
“It is useful to people who want to know how photographers go about their business. It is useful to people who want to know about a particular subject or conflict and have the time to figure out a more nuanced form of communication rather than just a synopsis at the end. It is useful to students, for example, who are going to make a leap from their education to the real world, and to be able to tag along online with somebody in the real world is helpful for their formative process.
“But that’s not going to appeal to everybody. People who collect photography are probably not the ones who are going to jump online. So you may have to offer different incentives to different people. It depends on who your crowd is.”
Do you see it working for you?
“I do see it working for me. I think it’s definitely worth a try. And I think it offers a bigger opportunity. If you can build these crowds, the very act of cutting out the middleman and communicating with them directly, is something that is useful for journalism in general. It’s good for the public and it’s good for the journalist. I think that’s an opportunity not to be missed either.”
Which types of media will you be using to communicate with your backers on Emphas.is?
“Probably quite a bit of blogging, because I’m comfortable writing. Short video clips and also pictures from behind the scenes, pictures that wouldn’t make my final edit to a magazine because it doesn’t fit whatever the magazine’s point of view or needs are, or because they didn’t pass the ultimate quality test for publication but they may have some other value.
“There is also a question of the appropriateness of putting yourself in a story. In a story for the mass media it may seem weird to take away from the subject of the story to put yourself in there, but within the context of social media it may be that people actually want to hear the story from my personal point of view. I think that’s a door worth opening.”
Of course the biggest story that you’ve put yourself in was when you made up a whole new identity for yourself to get into North Korea.
“Yes, I probably wouldn’t have been able to live blog from North Korea…”
You would probably still be in North Korea if you had.
“Exactly. But as soon as I got back from North Korea I did do a short video from my hotel room in Beijing and I wrote tons of notes. Of course, when you have put both economic and physical risks into gathering this information, you hesitate about just dumping it all on the internet for free. But if you have a stable of backers that thrive off that kind of information, you’re much more likely to share it because it can help you finance your next project.”
Your first pitch for Emphas.is is a trip to Laos as part of your communism project. Tell us a bit more about that.
“I’m getting near the end of my communism project. Some of the countries, like Cuba and Nepal, I’ve been to seven times or more. But I’ve only been to Laos once. That is partly because I had a hell of a time getting anyone to back me to go in there.
“I eventually persuaded The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune to split the cost to each put me on assignment for three days. And they didn’t want to pay for my plane ticket out there either, only for the short plane ride from Bangkok to the north.
“But when The New York Times journalist and I got back from talking to the Hmong the story actually made quite a splash. The Hmong were allies of the Americans in the secret CIA war in Laos during the Vietnam war era, and thousands of them are still in hiding in the jungle today where they are being tracked and killed by the Laotian army. But Americans are hardly aware of the fact.
“So the story ended up getting three excerpts on The New York Times front page and three pictures on the front page of the Herald. I think it was one of the cheapest front page stories they’ve ever had, but I didn’t even break even on it.”
“For Emphas.is I want to go back to Laos to put the shocking things I’ve seen there in the jungle into context. What kind of state has Laos evolved into today? What kind of state can allow this kind of thing to go on in the jungle? I also want to look into the left-over ordnance from the war that is still killing people today.
“So the idea is to go back to Laos and get a full picture of Laos and how it fits into my larger project about how communism has adapted to the 21st century.”
What kind of incentives will you be offering backers for the Laos trip?
“I’m going to do blogging similar to what I did on my first trip to Laos. It described how I got in contact with these groups, what the process was to gain access to the jungle, how I got the media interested and what happened afterwards. This will be exclusive for my backers on Emphas.is; it will not be available for free on my blog.
“I will also be making custom mini 7-by-7-inch (18-by-18-cm) photo books of the Laos project for backers. People can choose between either an economical softcover, a beautiful hardcover, or for significant donors they can have their name listed in the book. And if enough people are interested live presentations could be organized in Paris or New York, or even via Skype for people elsewhere.”
(Interview by Gert Van Langendonck)