130 Editors: Insights from a photographer’s first crowdfunded project (via the Emphas.is blog)

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

• • •

The Emphas.is team is so grateful to the photographers we’ve collaborated with and the 750+ backers who have pledged more than $60,000 to their projects. Many people have taken a leap of faith on this new funding model for visual journalism — now it’s our responsibility to return the favor.

In this post, and more to come, we hope to contribute to the growing discourse on innovative journalism funding models and to help develop success strategies for Emphas.is and other crowdfunded projects.

We’re excited to kick off with Tomas van Houtryve, one of the first photographers to have his project fully funded on Emphas.is, despite the fact that he was forced to fundraise and update backers while simultaneously making the photos he was fundraising for. Luckily for all of us, he succeeded despite the obstacles (something photojournalists are known for, after all) and has returned from Laos with important insights and advice.


From reading Tomas’ posts from Laos, I was excited to learn that his backers were already impacting the quality of his work, and not simply by supplying him with financing.

One of his backers has worked and photographed in Laos for 12 years and gladly shared his thoughts and contacts. “It was really really helpful,” Tomas says, and convinced him to stay longer in a few places he was initially planning to just pass through.

I wondered if Tomas had ever experienced anything like this before? He hadn’t. Mostly because, in the past, he never would have publicly broadcast online what story he was planning on doing for fear that another photographer might try scoop him.

“This turned the tables completely, turning people from potential competitors to supporters,” he says. “It turns out, at least on this story, any worries of competition were unwarranted, and I had a lot more supporters out there than I would have imagined.”

Tomas now has around 130 backers who he communicates with regularly, posting exclusive updates on his Making Of Zone and fielding questions and comments. So what’s it like to have so many people invested in his story? For Tomas, it’s “fantastic.”

“A backer means so much more to me than just a reader in a magazine because they have a stake in the story; most readers are equally distracted by the ads next to the story,” he explains. “That increases the pressure a little bit, too, but not more than having an editor who gave you money to accomplish a story. In either case, when someone invests in a story, you’re going to feel a sense of commitment and want to get it right.”

Ok, but wasn’t there ever a moment of hesitation, where it felt like maybe he was giving away his secrets?

“Not at all,” Tomas insists. “I can’t, in good financial conscience, sit on the Internet all day telling people how I work. But if I’m paid as a teacher, or if backers are contributing, that’s sustainable, it’s not time lost. And it’s even nicer to be able to do it out in the field, instead of entering an academic structure or setting up a workshop. That’s a golden combination.”


While in Laos, Tomas posted eight updates, ranging from traditional journalistic reports to personal reflections and observations. In one he discussed Phonsavan, “one of the most heavily bombarded places on earth,” where locals use unexploded ammunition as building materials, including “four bombs which were used as columns to prop up a chicken coop.”

He also included a more technical post about his equipment, and a lighthearted tangent on a mysterious suitcase filled with Russian electronics he found in an attic (which turned out to be an early computer). Comments on the posts help Tomas understand his audience’s interests and gave him an important outside perspective.

His backers were eager to know: how Laos compares to other communist countries; how they can help people in Laos; and if Laos is experiencing effects from recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Some backers grew up in Eastern Europe under Communist regimes themselves, and were able to their share and compare their own experiences.

Grateful for the context his backers added to the story, Tomas was keen to respond to their comments and questions as quickly as possible.

“I’m trying to give people a vastly different experience than they would get from a newspaper or magazine website,” he says. “If you post a comment there, no one ever gets back to you, or it often becomes a shouting match with other people leaving comments.”

Backers also helped Tomas see his work with fresh eyes, expressing how hard it was to relate to and understanding a place as war-torn and impoverished as Laos. They asked Tomas to follow up on more pictures of daily life, ones they could relate to better, which he did later in the trip.

“When you only show the extreme points of a story, it’s a little intimidating; it doesn’t always give people a bridge into the topic,” Tomas realizes. “I’ve been working on this topic for a long time, so it was good to be reminded what pieces of context they needed to understand the story.”


Working with an enthusiastic pool of backers seems like an ideal situation, but what we really want to know is: How did he convince 130 people to support his project in the first place?

Tomas’ experience echoes a rule I’ve heard over and over from every corner of the social media landscape: You have to be there already. It sounds simple, but also like a bit of a Catch 22.

Long before posting his project to Emphas.is, Tomas had already joined every social media platform he came across: blogging, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and a social micro-funding site called Flattr. Over a year or so of regular use, he’d built up a small audience on each one, people who trusted him, liked his work, and were therefore willing to support his Emphas.is project by donating and/or by sharing it with their friends.

“I think Facebook was quite effective, but its downside is that friends, family, and colleagues are all mixed together, so everyone is getting the same kind of message,” he reflects. “These tools aren’t perfect, but if you let them build up organically, then send out consistent messages, it eventually filters out to the wider public.”

In addition to the help Emphas.is gives all photographers in promoting their projects, attention was funneled to Tomas’ by his posts on several blogs. These likewise grew from relationships he’d established earlier.

Like many photographers, Google Image searches have helped Tomas find his photos scattered across the Internet, mostly on personal blogs. “The bad news is, I’m not getting paid for the use and reproduction of my photos; the good news is the person who put this on their blog is clearly interested in my work,” he thought.

First he contacted the bloggers and asked them to include a Flattr button next to his images, at least reminding viewers that someone had spent time and money to make this image, even if the remuneration from Flattr was mostly “symbolic.”

“That got me in conversation with quite a few bloggers I hadn’t been in touch with before,” Tomas says. “Those people were then interested to hear more as I was experimenting with Emphas.is.”


Part of Tomas’ proposal includes the creation of a mini-book from his Laos work that backers will receive, as well as help to edit and decide which policy-makers it’s sent to. I imagine the idea of “editing by committee” makes many photographers cringe, so Tomas outlined his idea for me.

He plans to do the “top level” edit himself, sifting out images that are technically flawed or weak. He mostly plans to ask for input when he has doubts or questions. His backers include professional photo editors, fine art photographers, as well as those completely inexperienced in photo editing.

“I think it’s good to get a trained eye, but also somebody that’s fresh,” he reflects. “People who have a fine arts background are interesting too; they might like ambiguity, while people from another point of view will like images that clarify.”

Tomas has also been inspired by the spirited conversation in his posts’ comments and now plans to incorporate the words of his backers into the mini-book. It’s a kind of homage to Gilles Peress’ influential 1984 book, Telex Iran, in which his images are “captioned” by telexes, communications to and from Peress’ lab technicians and the Magnum agency.

“Those images were made in 1979, so it would be really interesting to apply his concept to this completely new way of communicating and funding a project” Tomas says.

(Interview by Miki Johnson)

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