In the past few months, the idea of crowdfunding photography has caught fire, with a number of renowned individuals putting their photo projects up for public backing.
I’ve been supporting some, watching others, and trying to try draw early lessons from these brave pioneers and the public’s reaction to them.
Below are a few projects and how I rate them.
Not so many years ago, Krisanne and I were in photo class together under the guidance of our instructor Kevin Moloney. Even then, her talent set her apart from the other students. She later went on to win a World Press Photo Award.
Her project is about young women coming of age amidst the H.I.V/AIDS epidemic in Swaziland. I already knew her, trust her and love the project, so I choose to support her with $25. At that level, backers are rewarded with a personal thank you on a postcard. Mine arrived in the mail promptly after she reached her funding goal.
Rating the project:
• My personal connection to Krisanne
• Talented photographer
• Original project idea
• Reasonable incentives
• Endorsement from the Magnum Foundation which funded a previous segment
• Funding exceeded goal by 30%
• Two months later, and still no project updates posted online
• • •
For decades, Larry Towell has been one the most interesting photographers in Magnum’s stable of elite talent. His previous work stands above reproach. For an established photographer of his generation to jump into the fast shifting world of online funding took some guts. Despite the relevancy of his topic, and the power of his vision, his first stab at crowdfunding came off as slightly awkward. Nevertheless, I contributed to his project without hesitation, though I occasionally cringed as he grappled with online comments. He reached his funding goal on January 12th.
• Exceptionally high level of talent and dedication in previous projects
• Taking the long view on a critical contemporary conflict
• Endorsement from the Magnum Foundation which funded a previous segment
• A good-natured hodgepodge of backer incentives that resemble a yard sale more than a well thought out business plan
• A tension between the use of the word “Crisis” in the project title and later updates that mention a “retreat in Italy” and a “road trip with a novelist” before Mr. Towell will “begin the process of planning for Afghanistan.” That schedule seriously clashes with the perception of urgency in the project title.
• Sometimes awkward replies to comments and questions
• • •
Gerd Ludwig has been one my favorite color photographers for years. His genuine humanism and commitment to difficult issues make him shine even among his acclaimed contemporaries at National Geographic magazine. I would have liked to contribute $100 to his project, but I am already the owner of his book Broken Empire: After the Fall of the USSR. With postcards from Krisanne and Larry Towell already ordered, and no interest in a $45 poster, I opted for a humble $10 contribution, for which I was rewarded with a “shout-out” on the project’s Facebook page.
• Top level photographer with a reliable track record
• Important story that deserves ongoing coverage, even after the mainstream press has lost interest
• Multi-faceted distribution plan using exhibitions and new media
• Initially posted project budget lacked details, justification was posted ad hoc
• • •
And here is an example of how not to use crowdfunding.
An aspiring film student put up this crowdfunding request for $7000 because he wanted to “get a Canon 7D and a Cinema Bundle kit made by RedRock.” After eight months, he collected $13.
According to his blog, he managed to eventually raise the money for a 7D by “selling as much stuff” as he could. I’m sorry to single him out as a botched funding attempt, and I do hope he will give it another try some day after more carefully thinking through his proposals.
• • •
Taking a step back from the details to look at the big picture, there are three budding trends in photo crowdfunding that are making me uncomfortable. If they aren’t corrected, things could head in the wrong direction and diminish the long term potential of this tool. They are:
1) Using the general tone and catchphrases of a charity
Although NGOs and charities raise money from the public, there is no reason why photographers should be adopting their language.
Until a few years ago, it was quite common for magazines to give “guarantees” to photographers before they started on the project. No promise of publication was involved, and it certainly was not enough for the photographer to make a living from. It was only enough to get a project rolling. Guarantees were often linked to the first right of refusal for a publication, or the promise of exclusivity if a simmering news event suddenly boiled over. The practice waned due to the feeble economic health of print publications, and not because there were suddenly less stories to be told.
Outside photojournalism, upfront funding is used on things as varied as motion picture films, artistic residences and business startups. The terminology they use never sounds like a charity. In some cases a return is expected on the investment, but in cases involving art and culture the idea is clearly to make projects happen outside of the sphere of pure market capitalism.
I think photographers need to drop the “donate” or “help save me” vocabulary that sounds like it was lifted from the Red Cross home page, and adopt terms like patronage, participation and guarantee. Let’s be perfectly honest here. None of us – not myself, not Johnson, not Towell nor Ludwig – are desperate for food, shelter or medical care. We live privileged lives compared with most of humanity. The simple truth is that we want to tell stories, and we’d like the people who are most interested in our work to get involved financially.
Framing our situation in more dramatic or misleading terms just leaves photographers open to the accusation of cyber-begging, which is summed up perfectly in this satirical cover from The Onion.
2) Missing the chance to harness backer incentives as business tools
The people who have done amazingly well on Kickstarter are those who have combined a clever idea with well priced rewards for backers. Check out the TikTok+LunaTik Multi-Touch Watch Kits by Scott Wilson. They asked for $15,000 to develop wrist bands for iPod Nanos, and they ended up with nearly $1 million in pre-orders, despite the product’s frumpy name.
Admittedly, gritty documentary photo essays don’t have a potential market as big as slick Apple accessories, but clearly there is a lesson here that unique incentives with a good price-to-value ratio can do very well on crowdfunding platforms.
This is one aspect where Larry Towell’s proposal was completely off target. For $10, he offers backers a “personal handshake if I see you on the street corner of my home town.” At least we know that he has a cheeky sense of humor. Sadly, the joke is at the expense of his lowest level supporters who might have been offered something more meaningful.
For $10, I can buy a movie ticket or four newspapers or a couple of beers. Are you telling me that a renowned conflict photographer can’t offer an incentive that is roughly as interesting as those products for the same price?
Karim and Tina from Emphas.is think that $10 should buy backers a “unique bond between photojournalists and their audience,” by way of a communication channel that offers behind-the-scenes updates from the project. News is already free on the internet, so what exactly are we getting here?
The analogy that comes to my mind is the music industry. As digital music caused the revenue from album sales evaporate, some bands switched to making their money from live concerts. Now that you can get U2’s songs for free on the internet, why would you shell out $100 for a concert ticket? Much of the answer has to be the uniqueness of the experience, the immediacy and exclusivity.
If visual journalists can use social media to create interesting levels of immediacy and exclusivity for their backers for the price of a movie ticket, I think they’ll get people to come back.
And one word of caution for photographers offering rewards to backers: be sure to check with local tax rules and factor it into your business plan, as this animated video suggests.
3) Using old media, with all its failings, as the only guidepost for success
The traditional print media, which is indeed suffering a slow death, may have been responsible for producing many memorable photo essays and sending a long line of photographers to cover wars, but it was by no means perfect. That model—based on the concept of bundling information, maximizing circulation and attracting advertisers—has several systemic flaws which contribute to tarnishing the name of journalism and diminishing its power.
Think about the sensationalism, the short attention spans, the scattershot distribution, and the conflicts of interest with advertisers’ agendas that plague our current media landscape.
In an ideal world, stories would be well researched, executed with transparency and credibility, and then delivered directly to an audience that is relevantly connected to the information. Does that sound like the system we have in place today? Not to me.
If visual journalists take the lead in steering our profession back in the right direction, and if backers want to improve the media landscape, this moment of profound change is the time for us to bond together. And if we get things right, the old media may even pay attention and swing back in line.
[Also, if you want to learn more, I will participate in a live webinar with Karim Ben Khelifa, the CEO of Emphas.is, and Paul Lowe, Course Director of the Masters Programme in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication, on Tuesday, February 1. Please follow these detailed instructions to participate.]
*UPDATE – Jan. 25: Another top-level photojournalism proposal just went up on Kickstarter last night. Check out the powerful “Bedrooms of the Fallen” project by Ashley Gilbertson.