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VII Photographers in London for Frontline’s Photo Week seminar

Join us —  VII Photographers —  May 22 at the Royal Institution of Great Britain for Frontline’s Photo Week seminar where you will find opportunities to ask questions and learn more about our work and the state of modern photojournalism.

9:00 Keynote address by Director and Founder of the Frontline Club Vaughan Smith

9:30 The Creation of VII Photo – The role of photojournalism in the 21st century

With Ron HavivGary KnightSeamus Murphy and John Stanmeyer.

11:00 Photographic Education: Finding your way

With Ashley GilbertsonRon Haviv and Anastasia Taylor-Lind. Moderated by Paul Lowe.

12:30 The New Economy: How to fund your projects

With Venetia DeardenEd KashiTomas van Houtryve and Donald Weber. Moderated by Stephen Mayes.

**I’ll explain how my latest personal project, Borderline: North Korea, was financed with the participation of the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund, individual backers, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.**

14:00 Book signing of Questions Without Answers – The World in Pictures by the Photographers of VII, Behind the Curtains 0f 21st Century Communism by Tomas van Houtryve, and other new and recent books by VII members.

The ‘Borderline: North Korea’ project is 147% funded. works, twice.

My second foray into crowd-funded photography with is drawing to a close with 90 backers signed-up. Amazingly, the project attracted far more support than the $5000 proposed budget. There is $7370 pledged with one day left for backers to participate.

I’m particularly grateful for the very large turnout of second-time backers. Many of the people who supported “21st Century Communism – Laos” last year are back to support “Borderline: North Korea.”

My largest backer this time is a talented photojournalism graduate student who signed-up for a private one-on-one workshop. We are already mapping out the details, and the workshop promises to be an exceptional experience for both of us.

And I’d like to thank founders Karim Ben Khelifa and Tina Ahrens who have worked tirelessly to improve the website since its launch less than a year ago. The interface is now easier for backers and photographers, and the addition of photo book publishing a few weeks ago has taken off with full force. I’d also like to give a special mention to Rachel Fourgous who edited the project video.

A huge thank you to each of my individual backers, and I look forward to all of your questions and comments within the project’s making-of-zone!



“Behind the Curtains” production samples have arrived

Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism

Fresh off the press, the first production samples of Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism are here!

You can pre-order the book via the website until February 28th. Your purchase will help support new work documenting North Korea’s borders. backers also get a behind-the-scenes view of the full production and printing process.

Book details:

Publisher: Editions Intervalles
ISBN: 978-2-916355-65-8
Hardbound, 288 Pages
Cover Price: $65 Price: $65 (making-of-zone access and domestic shipping included)

. . .

Kim Jong Il meets Marilyn Monroe in Atlanta

While working on my ongoing project about North Korea’s borders, I met Song Byoek, a propaganda artist who defected to South Korea and now makes satirical paintings about Kim Jong Il and life in the North.

Song Byeok will have his first exhibition in the U.S. next month. I was delighted to learn that he is also a fan of crowd-funding. You can support his exhibition and order his propaganda-inspired-pop-art via Kickstarter. Watch the below to find out more:

.  .  .

You can also follow my travels along North Korea’s borders and see my portraits and interviews with Song Byeok and other defectors by signing-up for the making-of-zone on my project.

.  .  .

What exactly is going on along the North Korean border?

Deciphering North Korea has never been an easy task, and with the recent rise of a secretive third-generation Kim family dictator, the quest seems more relevant than ever.

As photographer, I’ve been fascinated with North Korea for years. I visited Pyongyang twice, but there was a limit of how much I could see or learn from the inside. Next, my curiosity took me to the Chinese-North Korean border with the help of a grant from the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund. I managed to meet with several North Koreans who had left their country in the past year. They told me of recent food shortages, ongoing power cuts, and the shocking brutality or authorities.

Along the border, I made a series of panoramic-format photographs. It is an attempt to expand our visual understanding of North Korea—beyond the stage-managed scenes from its Potemkin capital—to the less-known border landscapes where unscripted stories of defectors, smugglers, guards and traders play out.

Not everything that I witnessed along the Chinese-North Korea border made for a perfectly publishable photograph. At times I had to work with a handheld mini-video camera to avoid suspicion. Zoomed to maximum magnification, I was able to film North Korean soldiers and civilians carrying scavenged strips of scrap metal to a boat on the river border.

A smuggler then took the boat across the river and dropped off his load illegally on the Chinese shore.

On another occasion I rode in a speedboat along the border river. These boats are often hired by curious Chinese tourists to bring them as close as possible to the North Korean shore. The boat driver told me that his boss had bribed the North Korean border guards to allow these excursions. I took several boat trips, and I saw two things that were very telling of the reality far from Pyongyang. On one of the trips we saw a small North Korean boy hiding along the banks of the river. When he saw us, he motioned to his mouth to beg for food. When I tried to take a picture, the boat driver slapped down my camera, but I managed to get a slightly blurry shot of the boy.

Then the boat driver opened a bag of food and offered to sell me some to give to the boy. He saw North Korean children begging frequently, and he treated the situation like selling treats at a zoo. I bought the boy some food, and he ran off just as a soldier caught sight of us.

On a later ride in a different boat, the driver called out to a North Korean soldier stationed on the shore. Apparently they knew each other, because the soldier came running toward us. When he was only a few meters away, the boat driver threw him an envelope with a Chinese mobile phone card inside. This time I hid my camera and discreetly used the handheld video camera.

Witnessing these situations, I learned more about the real state of discipline of NK’s army and the level of hunger in the country than anything I had seen on my visits inside.

And yet the back-story of a photographer’s work is rarely shared with the public. The idea behind the  is to change that.

I’ve started the second phase of my North Korean border project, tracing the North-South Korean frontier and the D.M.Z. People who sign-up and pay $10 to help fund the project on will get the back-story as I make my way along the border. You are encouraged to ask questions, post comments, and get involved with the issue on a deeper level.

Below is the introduction video for the project. Visit the project on to get involved:

. . .

Response to Requests for Free use of Photography

Reasons Why Professional Photographers Cannot Work for Free

version française | versione italiana | nederlandse versie

Re-posted from Photo Professionals blog with Creative Commons permission.

Dear potential photo buyer,

If you have been directed to this page, it is likely that you have requested the use of an image or images for free or minimal compensation.

As professional photographers, we receive requests for free images on a regular basis. In a perfect world, each of us would love to be able to respond in a positive manner and assist, especially with projects or efforts related to areas such as education, social issues, and conservation of natural resources. It is fair to say that in many cases, we wish we had the time and resources to do more to assist than just send photographs.

Unfortunately, such are the practicalities of life that we are often unable to respond, or that when we do, our replies are brief and do not convey an adequate sense of the reasons underlying our response.

Circumstances vary for each situation, but we have found that there are a number of recurring themes, which we have set out below with the objective of communicating more clearly with you, and hopefully avoiding misunderstandings or unintentionally engendering ill will.

Please take the following points in the constructive manner in which they are intended. We certainly hope that after you have had a chance to read this, we will be able to talk again and establish a mutually beneficial working relationship.

Photographs Are Our Livelihood

Creating compelling images is the way we make our living. If we give away our images for free, or spend too much time responding to requests for free images, we cannot make a living.

We Do Support Worthy Causes With Images

Most of us do contribute photographs, sometimes more, to support certain causes. In many cases, we may have participated directly in projects that we support with images, or we may have a pre-existing personal relationship with key people involved with the efforts concerned. In other words, each of us can and does provide images without compensation on a selective basis.

We Have Time Constraints

Making a leap from such selective support to responding positively to every request we get for free photographs, however, is impractical, if for no other reason than the substantial amount of time required to respond to requests, exchange correspondence, prepare and send files, and then follow-up to find out how our images were used and what objectives, if any, were achieved. It takes a lot of time to respond to requests, and time is always in short supply.

Pleas of “We Have No Money” Are Often Difficult to Fathom

The primary rationale provided in nearly all requests for free photographs is budgetary constraint, meaning that the requestor pleads a lack of funds.

Such requests frequently originate from organisations with a lot of cash on hand, whether they be publicly listed companies, government or quasi-government agencies, or even NGOs. Often, it is a simple matter of taking a look at a public filing or other similar disclosure document to see that the entity concerned has access to significant funding, certainly more than enough to pay photographers a reasonable fee should they choose to do so.

To make matters worse, it is apparent that all too often, of all the parties involved in a project or particular effort, photographers are the only ones being asked to work for free. Everyone else gets paid.

Given considerations like this, you can perhaps understand why we frequently feel slighted when we are told that: “We have no money.” Such claims can come across as a cynical ploy intended to take advantage of gullible individuals.

We Have Real Budget Constraints

With some exceptions, photography is not a highly remunerative profession. We have chosen this path in large part due to the passion we have for visual communication, visual art, and the subject matters in which we specialise.

The substantial increase in photographs available via the internet in recent years, coupled with reduced budgets of many photo buyers, means that our already meager incomes have come under additional strain.

Moreover, being a professional photographer involves significant monetary investment.

Our profession is by nature equipment-intensive. We need to buy cameras, lenses, computers, software, storage devices, and more on a regular basis. Things break and need to be repaired. We need back-ups of all our data, as one ill-placed cup of coffee could literally erase years of work. For all of us, investment in essential hardware and software entails thousands of dollars a year, as we need to stay current with new technology and best practices.

In addition, travel is a big part of many of our businesses. We must spend a lot of money on transportation, lodging and other travel-related costs.

And of course, perhaps most importantly, there is a substantial sum associated with the time and experience we have invested to become proficient at what we do, as well as the personal risks we often take. Taking snapshots may only involve pressing the camera shutter release, but creating images requires skill, experience and judgement.

So the bottom line is that although we certainly understand and can sympathise with budget constraints, from a practical point of view, we simply cannot afford to subsidise everyone who asks.

Getting “Credit” Doesn’t Mean Much

Part and parcel with requests for free images premised on budgetary constraints is often the promise of providing “credit” and “exposure”, in the form or a watermark, link, or perhaps even a specific mention, as a form of compensation in lieu of commercial remuneration.

There are two major problems with this.

First, getting credit isn’t compensation. We did, after all, create the images concerned, so credit is automatic. It is not something that we hope a third party will be kind enough to grant us.

Second, credit doesn’t pay bills. As we hopefully made clear above, we work hard to make the money required to reinvest in our photographic equipment and to cover related business expenses. On top of that, we need to make enough to pay for basic necessities like food, housing, transportation, etc.

In short, receiving credit for an image we created is a given, not compensation, and credit is not a substitute for payment.

“You Are The Only Photographer Being Unreasonable”

When we do have time to engage in correspondence with people and entities who request free photos, the dialogue sometimes degenerates into an agitated statement directed toward us, asserting in essence that all other photographers the person or entity has contacted are more than delighted to provide photos for free, and that somehow, we are “the only photographer being unreasonable”.

We know that is not true.

We also know that no reasonable and competent photographer would agree to unreasonable conditions. We do allow for the fact that some inexperienced photographers or people who happen to own cameras may indeed agree to work for free, but as the folk wisdom goes: “You get what you pay for.”

Please Follow-Up

One other experience we have in common is that when we do provide photographs for free, we often do not receive updates, feedback or any other form of follow-up letting us know how the event or project unfolded, what goals (if any) were achieved, and what good (if any) our photos did.

All too often, we don’t even get responses to emails we send to follow-up, until, of course, the next time that someone wants free photographs.

In instances where we do agree to work for free, please have the courtesy to follow-up and let us know how things went. A little consideration will go a long way in making us feel more inclined to take time to provide additional images in the future.

Wrap Up

We hope that the above points help elucidate why the relevant photographer listed below has sent you to this link. All of us are dedicated professionals, and we would be happy to work with you to move forward in a mutually beneficial manner.

Creative Commons License

Note to photographers: You can use the above text under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.  Text by Tony Wu.

_ _ _

Writer Harlan Ellison offers his arguments for refusing to work for free in the video below. It is certainly less polite than the text above, but straight to the point:

Laos | Open Secret multimedia in VII The Magazine

Laos Open Secret multimedia for VII The Magazine

The latest incarnation of my Laos | Open Secret photo project is featured with sound and video in VII The Magazine. The multimedia was edited by Scott Thode.

If you’ve been following this project, you’ll know that it would not have been possible without the support of 140 individuals through the crowd-funding platform. The International Rescue Committee is also supporting this work and helping to get the word out about the situation in Laos by distributing Open Secret mini-books.

If you would like to help raise awareness about the treatment of the Hmong in Laos, please actively share the multimedia link or contact me to order bulk copies of the mini-books for distribution.



“Laos | Open Secret” goes public with books, Paris screening and VII feature

Thanks to the support of 140+ project backers on, my story about Laos is going public.

• You can now find it featured on the VII Photo website:

VII feature: Laos | Open Secret

• • •

• A softcover mini-book is now available for purchase directly from Blurb:

• • •

• There is also a hardcover collector’s version of the book, which is limited to 100 signed and numbered copies. Please contact me directly for price and availability.

Laos | Open Secret

• • •

• If you are in the Paris area on Monday, June 20, the new photos from Laos will be included in a screening of “Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism” as part of the Slideluck Potshow Paris II. The event includes projections of more than 30 other photographers and takes place from 7:00 PM to 11:45 PM at Le BAL, 6 impasse de la défense, 75018 Paris.

The Laos mini-books are ready to print

Laos | Open Secret mini-book

Laos | Open Secret

Today, the test proofs of the Laos mini-book returned from the printer. I’m really pleased with how well they turned out. They look fantastic, and the hardcover version is an especially nice object to hold in the hands. The front cover is bright red with black titles, and the back cover features a collage of the online comments left by project backers, along with other clippings from the project.

back cover

Back cover detail.

To arrived at this stage, I brought in my project backers to engage in the editorial process at various steps along the way. First, I sent them a Photoshelter lightbox with a large selection of 100 images from Laos.

Lightbox edit

Lightbox sent to backers. comments

Comments and ratings left by project backers.

Over the following days people rated the photos from 1 to 5 stars and added questions and comments to the individual images.

Taking into account this feedback and the average ratings of the photos, I then put together a tight edit of 24 photos. Then I started trying out various page layouts for the mini-book.

Next, I put up a slideshow of the page layouts in the ‘Making of Zone’ and asked for more feedback. The response was very helpful. Overall, people liked the rhythm and message of the book, but two particular pages brought up a debate. For those two pages I made some alternative layouts and put them up for a vote by the backers.

While people had the chance to take part in the edit, I started writing the essay that would go in the book. I spent a few days in isolation and wrote a six-page essay about conditions on the ground in Laos, trying to answer the question of how Communism had managed to adapt and survive in the country.

The resulting mini-book is a lot more condensed and personalized than you would find in an average large print-run photo book, yet much longer and more in-depth than the average magazine feature. More importantly, I feel I have managed to maintain a more pure level of authorship than most magazines generally allow to photojournalists. At the same time, I got crucial feedback from backers which helped to refine, polish and validate the final product. There was never a risk that my photos would be used out of context or as simple illustrations as can unfortunately happen in the press. I was able to express my vision and rely on the tight group of engaged backers to toss out any editorial errors. Harnessing the platform has also allowed me to gather significant resources for a subject that is generally overlooked and forgotten by the media. So far, this way of operating has required more work  on my part than usual, but it has also been much more rewarding.

For people interested in getting involved in this project during this last stage, it is still possible to order a softcover mini-book for $75 or buy access to the ‘Making of Zone’ on for $10 (if you want to look over the behind the scenes process in detail).

The hardcover mini-books are limited to 100 signed and numbered copies, so please contact me directly to request one. The initial price is $125 per copy, but it increases as we get closer to the series limit.

Laos | Open Secret

Laos | Open Secret. First print proofs.

It is also possible to order bulk copies of the book to distribute for advocacy purposes. The International Rescue Committee has already stepped up and ordered 30 copies to distribute to policy makers. If you need bulk copies, contact me directly and I will calculate the bulk discount.

Acknowledgements page detail

Acknowledgements page detail.

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

The following post by Miki Johnson was copied with permission from the 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 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 to friends or suggest any improvements

We were happy to hear that everyone would (and did) recommend 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 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 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 – 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 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 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 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, 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, 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

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)

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

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

• • •

The 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 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, 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, 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 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 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”


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)

Down to the Wire

*UPDATE, APRIL 4, 2011: The project reached and surpassed its funding goal of $8800. It could not have happened without the amazing outpouring of support and generosity from 130+ backers, plus dozens of others who shared and posted the project link. To everyone that pitched in to help this project, I offer my most sincere thanks. This is very exciting, and I am thrilled to learn that so many people care about this issue and are willing to support in-depth photojournalism. Again, thank you.


Previous post continues below.

Thanks to the combined contributions of 100 supporters, we have raised $7371 in the last 24 days. I am truly inspired by the generosity and enthusiasm that this project has sparked. I extend a huge thank you to everyone already involved.

Now, it is down to the wire. There are only 4 days left to raise the remaining $1429 needed for the project. That means four days left to get a signed collector’s edition Laos mini-book, or a limited-edition art print from North Korea, Nepal, China, Moldova, Cuba, Vietnam or Laos. There are only four days left to get access to the project’s “Making Of Zone,” where backers are already posting dozens of interesting questions and comments.

If you are still wondering whether you should get involved or not, now is the time join us!


In partnership with, an innovative internet startup, this project is a groundbreaking experiment in community-funded photojournalism. For the past three weeks, I’ve been simultaneously fundraising, photographing in Laos, and sending exclusive updates to project supporters.

My intention is not only to build a community of supporters that care about this subject, but to distribute this underreported story in a powerful way. Mini-edition books will be sent to prime backers, human rights groups, NGOs, and influential policy makers, while a multimedia piece will be featured in VII The Magazine.


By contributing, you become an active participant in shaping the future of photojournalism. If this project is successful, it will offer new proof of the importance of in-depth visual journalism, and show that dedicated individuals are ready to stand up and support it.

Crowd-funding on is all or nothing: if we don’t reach the $8800 goal by April 5th, all contributions are returned to backers’ accounts.


Since this project campaign launched 24 days ago, it has gathered considerable interest in the press and on blogs, with mentions in The New York Times, The British Journal of Photography, Wired RAW File, A Photo Editor, Photo District News, Photoshelter, Eclats de guerre, and  Rapporteurs Photo. We’ve got some serious momentum behind us, and the finish line is now only days away.

If you haven’t already done so, please add your contribution to the project and join in spreading the news.

After the War, the Bombs

As cruise missiles and air strikes rain down on Libya today, it is worth looking back at the legacy of previous American military bombing campaigns. Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has bombed at least 25 countries.

Of all of them, no country’s population was hit as hard as that of Laos. The entire war in Laos was carried out in secret, without congressional approval and far away from TV cameras. Only the CIA and the Laotian people knew what was happening between 1964 and 1973, when U.S. warplanes dropped over two million tons of bombs on the landlocked nation, which amounted to more than two tons per person, based on the population at that time.

As part of my project which is being supported by backers, I just spent several days photographing one of the most heavily bombed areas in human history. Four decades later, the bombs are still around. Munitions that didn’t explode on impact continue to detonate and claim lives of civilians in Laos today. Scraps of war junk have become fixtures in a grim landscape.

As I am traveling through Laos, I am sending out exclusive updates from the field to project supporters. If you would like to get involved in this project and receive the updates, the minimum contribution is $10. Books, prints and other rewards are available for larger contributions. Every bit helps, and I need your support to spread the news to others to make this project a success. The deadline for participation is April 5th.

Please visit the project page on to get involved:

(Once registered, you can access more images and the latest updates from Laos by clicking on the “Making Of Zone” tab.)

Get in on the ground floor. Become an early participant in my 21st Century Communism project

Update – March 8, 2011: The website has been launched and early participation is now finished. The links in this post have been updated to take you directly to my proposal on

In advance of the official launch of, my crowd-funding proposal about 21st Century Communism is now open for early participation.

The first round of backers started pouring in last night. A warm thanks to Susan Glen, Kevin Moloney, Franck Joucla Castillo, Craig Ferguson, Danielle Alberti, Stephanie Davis, Ashley Gilbertson, and Mira Kamdar for being at the front of the line!

To join them, visit the proposal page on my website and then fill out the early participation form. Please note, early participants will not be charged anything at this time. When the platform becomes fully operational, you will be contacted to follow through on your commitment. Check out the video and project synopsis below.

21st Century Communism: Laos | support this project

Project synopsis

For the past seven years, I’ve been documenting the last communist holdouts around the world. Surprisingly, communism is not dead. Several communist governments have endured and evolved in unexpected ways. Even today, the ideology lies at the heart of several contemporary conflicts and human rights abuses. Such is the case in Laos, which never fully recovered from the war in neighboring Vietnam.

I first traveled to Laos in 2007, and though my visit was brief, it was extremely intense and troubling. I photographed CIA-trained ethnic Hmong guerrillas who have been living in hiding since 1975, when the United States pulled out. They live in the jungle, constantly in fear of attacks by the Laotian army.

Although the story had an impact in the media – with three photos printed on the front page of The New York Times – I was not able to stay in Laos long enough to put the situation in broader context.

Behind the rare headlines, what is really happening in Laos? How has communism survived against the tides of history? In addition to the tragic story of the Hmong opposition, how have the scars of war shaped the current situation?

With your participation, I’ll return to document contemporary Laos, the final step in my series on 21st century communism. Together, here is what we can create:

1) An in-depth photo essay from Laos
The finished essay will be submitted to traditional outlets for publication. It will also be distributed in innovative ways to maximize impact and scope. Read below.

2) A mini-edition book that will be sent to prime backers, human rights groups, NGOs, and influential policy makers.
The mini-book will showcase the Laos photo essay with depth and permanence. For every 10 mini-books ordered by backers, I will send one free copy to an influential policy-maker or organization connected to Laos.

3) A multimedia feature in VII The Magazine
I will reach out to the wider public with a multimedia feature in partnership with VII The Magazine, which syndicates photo features to, Lens Culture and other sites.

4) A new form of behind-the-scenes collaboration
I’ll send you exclusive updates from the field and share my insights and experiences as the creative process unfolds. Backers will be able to help select which photos make the final edit. They will also be able to vote on the list of organizations and policy-makers to be sent mini-books.


My project budget is $8800 USD. Funds contributed to this project will go toward reporting and publishing costs. These include airfare, local transport, food, lodging, translation, visa fees, printing and shipping costs. The VII Photo Agency will cover multimedia production costs. The budget does not include any personal renumeration.


Since 2004, my series on global communism has entailed 25 separate trips. Seven were financed upfront by the following publications: TIME, The New York Times, Newsweek, VSD, Le Figaro Magazine, La Vie and the International Herald Tribune. Two trips were paid for with a $20,000 grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. The rest were paid for out of my own pocket.

I passionately believe in the importance of this work. I’m even willing to pay my own way back to Laos alone if needed. But with your help, we can ensure this underreported story will be told and distributed in a powerful way. I urge you to get involved and add your support.

View the Project View the Project

New funding models, Part V – Crowdfunding, The Good, The Bad and The Awkward

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.

• I Love You Real Fast by Krisanne Johnson

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.

Postcard © Krisanne Johnson

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

• • •


• Crisis in Afghanistan by Larry Towell

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.

Larry Towell's Kickstarter budget


• 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

• • •


• The Long Shadow of Chernobyl by Gerd Ludwig

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.

Project © Gerd Ludwig


• 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.

• DSLR Kit for a Filmmaker by Ian Hedley-Wakefield

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.

An object of desire, with no backers.

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.

Satire sums it up. Fictional cover of 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 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.


Keep watching this blog. I’ll be pitching my own crowdfunding project via in the weeks ahead…


[Also, if you want to learn more, I will participate in a live webinar with Karim Ben Khelifa, the CEO of, 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.


New funding models, Part IV – Interview on, 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.

• • •

‘People are willing to change the way they consume and pay for news’

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.

Relatives of veterans of the CIA Secret War in their hidden village in Laos. © Tomas Van Houtryve 2007

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.”

[Read about the North Korea adventure here on Van Houtryve’s blog]

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, 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.

© Tomas van Houtryve

North Korea: Secrets and Lies photo essay

“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 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, 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 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

“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 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.”

[Read more about the Hmong story here on Van Houtryve’s blog]

“For 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; 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)

Flattr this

Read: New funding models Part I, Part II and Part III.

New funding models, Part III – VII The Magazine and One Month with Flattr

In my two previous posts [Part I, Part II], I’ve mentioned Flattr and as new platforms that could allow individual photographers to gather funding from outside of the traditional print journalism model. Photo agencies and collectives bring a different set of resources and possibilities into play. The managing director of the VII Photo agency, Stephen Mayes, has put a lot of thought into how to reach new audiences and how to harness the talent and credibility that he sees as key assets at VII. He recently launched VII The Magazine, an initiative to simultaneously give more editorial control to photographers and develop a new commercial model. He explains his thinking in the following video, from the “Sortir du Cadre” interview series. Of particular interest is his vision of the concepts of crossmedia and transmedia.

My first feature for VII The Magazine went live yesterday, a news piece from the floods in Pakistan titled “Storm in the Swat Valley.” It was edited by Scott Thode.

VII The Magazine

I’ve also added this Swat feature to my Flattr account, and you can show support by clicking the button:

Flattr this

Speaking of which, it has now been one month since I started using Flattr. The results are in:

From Aug. 6 to Sept. 6 2010, I received 33 Flattrs on the North Korea photo essay that I initially posted for testing. That turned into 17.26 Euros, for an average of 0.52 Euros per Flattr. Over the same period, the NK photo essay had 1175 page views. If I am doing the math correctly, that means that I had one Flattr for every 36 page views.

In addition to the North Korea photo essay that I originally posted, I also added Flattr buttons to my blog, a photo essay from China and a few other pages. None of those got as many Flattrs, nor as many page views as the North Korea essay that I had actively promoted, but taken together it gave me an additional 18 Flattrs and another 5.74 Euros in revenue. Grand total after the first month: 23.00 Euros. Below is a screen capture of my Flattr revenue report:

Since Flattr is still in public beta, the crowd that has signed up remains fairly limited. Most of those registered seem to be from Germany, Sweden, and the computer programing world—basically from the first circle of word-of-mouth and viral marketing coming from the creators of Flattr. If a larger audience of photography enthusiasts joins, the number of Flattrs per page view should start rising.

To that end, I have been reaching out to a number of photography blogs and online magazines to start integrating Flattr buttons onto their sites. Over the past few years, a tendency has grown amongst bloggers to copy and paste my photos onto their own sites. In the beginning I found this rather annoying, especially when people did this without bothering to ask. Now it has become so commonplace that is increasingly difficult to challenge. Rather than trying to fight this copying frenzy (like the record companies a few years back), I am now making it a policy to ask personal blogs and non-commercial sites which feature my photos to integrate my Flattr button next to the photos. (All that is required is to paste in two lines of code.) So far, the people that I have reached out to have been generous and responsive. In addition to drawing more photo enthusiasts toward Flattr, it is an easy way for them to give back to the people whose content they are posting. A big thanks goes out to the first adopters:

• Rob at
• Jim at
• Matt at
• Trent at
• Tewfic at
• Keith at
• Dave at


Looking into the future, one can imagine a combination of, VII The Magazine and Flattr replacing the traditional print media cycle of funding, publishing and compensating the photographer. In the short term, this could very soon offer an alternative to a single magazine assignment for a freelance photographer like myself. A few years into the future, these platforms could conceivably grow enough to replace several assignments per year. In my case, I can’t yet envision it replacing all my clients, but as new innovations come to maturity and young photographers who have never worked for the traditional print media hit the scene, a new breed of publicly-backed photographers is likely to emerge. Adding their perspective and working style to our ranks could offer a welcome jolt of energy and diversity to the craft.

*UPDATE – Sept. 20, 2010:’s RAW File has picked up the story about new funding models and is featuring my experiments with Flattr and more news from Karim about on their blog.

*UPDATE – Nov. 16, 2010: Digital Photo Pro interviews Scott Thode and Stephen Mayes about VII The Magazine.

*UPDATE – Dec. 27, 2010: posted an in-depth interview with me about experimenting with social funding models and my plans for a project pitch on their platform.

New funding models, Part II – Introducing EMPHAS.IS

A few months back, my colleagues Karim Ben Khelifa and Tina Ahrens shared with me one of the smartest concepts for alternative funding that I have seen yet. If it works, it has the potential to shape the future of photojournalism. They are calling their new platform, and it is based on crowd funding, but with a few twists that make it different from anything else currently available. is working with a board of reviewers composed of top level photo industry professionals to select proposals before they go public. They are also offering unique incentives to people that choose to back photographers. is expected to launch at the beginning of 2011, but the preview website went live today with an impressive list of endorsements from the directors of VII, Magnum, Visa pour l’Image, photo editors at TIME and Newsweek and many photographers (including yours truly).

*UPDATE – Sept. 13, 2010: Harvard University’s Neiman Journalism Lab just posted an article with more details about how will work. The founders have also added an Facebook page where you can keep track of developments.

Testing new funding models for photojournalism, Part I

As most people know, an increasing number of news organizations are abandoning in-depth reporting in favor of entertainment and celebrity stories. At the same time, the few media that remain dedicated to serious journalism are weakened by dwindling circulation numbers, a loss in advertising revenue and an awkward transition from print to web.

Over the past several years, most photojournalists have experimented with new ways of sharing their pictures with the world. Whether through their own individual websites or free online sites like Lensculture, Foto8, and BlueEyes, there are now more ways than ever to display and share visual journalism. As a consequence, it is now quite easy to find quality photojournalism without ever picking up a newspaper or magazine. Unfortunately, not nearly as much innovation has taken place to fund these photo stories as has taken place to display them. Aside from obtaining a grant (or taking on a side job), there are very few ways to replace the funding that major news organizations once provided to cover conflict, foreign affairs and investigative stories.

If one takes a look outside the narrow field of photojournalism, it is clear that other realms have developed alternative funding models. In broadcasting, we find that NPR and PBS rely mainly on donations from their listeners and viewers. Kiva is an excellent micro-lending site that links entrepreneurs in developing countries with lenders. In 2007, the band Radiohead released music and listeners could name their own price. relies on crowdfunding to pay for local news reporting in northern California.

It is high time that photojournalists also experiment with alternative funding models. Over the coming months, I will be testing a variety of methods and sharing the results here.

As a first step, I am participating in the beta testing of a new social micro-payment called Flattr. If you register with Flattr, you choose to pay a small monthly fee. You decide the amount yourself, and at the end of the month the fee is divided up between all the pages you choose “flatter.” Click below for a quick video explanation:

Since the platform is still in testing, you need an invitation to register.* (You can now register here.)

*UPDATE – Aug. 12, 2010: Flattr just went public, and anyone can now register without an invite.




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