Crowd Funding Photojournalism

Date
14th Mar 2013

© Jacob Maentz

With photojournalism’s constantly shifting funding paradigm, crowd funding is gaining traction as a way to gain notoriety and redefine audience engagement. The medium provides opportunity for photojournalists to break the barriers posed by the changing financial model of traditional publication routes and in doing so, engage their audience in a more personalised, interactive fashion. 

The concept is simple, and certainly not a new one. Crowd funding platforms allow anyone with an idea to publicise their concept, generate communal interest and amass small contributions from willing donors. Between an abundance of small monetary gifts and the power of social sharing, project concepts are able to increase their audiences and finances. It is fundraising in the digital age.

Sites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and CrowdRise pave the way for projects of all types; alongside these are new platforms emerging daily that target seemingly every region, industry and personality type. Even a handful of Sony World Photography Award winners and finalists have had their projects funded by engaged viewers. 2012 Arts & Culture Winner Rob Hornstra and 2013 finalists Robin Hammond and Klaus Thymann are just a few of photographers whose campaigns have been successful on the varying platforms.

But with an ever-increasing number of users seeking to gain notoriety and success through crowd funding, how does one find success and differentiate his or her project from among the masses? While the answer is not purely black and white, most photographers agree a successful campaign is rooted in a clearly defined, feasible project and a targeted audience.

Documentary photographer Peter DiCampo found the key mobiliser for the success of his long-term project, Life Without Lights, was incentivised contribution.

© Peter DiCampo

© Peter DiCampo

While DiCampo found his energy poverty photography project an ideal fit for corporate, NGO and UN funding, he says the pathways to actually receiving such funds involved extremely prolonged processes. As 2012 was a landmark year for sustainability, DiCampo realised a time-sensitive and reward-driven campaign was the hook.  He offered sponsorship credit throughout the many exhibitions he had in store for the upcoming year to donors who gave over a particular amount. By giving a clear message, incentive and deadline to organisations that had already expressed interest in the project, the Kickstarter platform pushed funders to action in a manageable way.  Moreover, by only asking for a small contribution - as opposed to a personalised grant funding the entire project - DiCampo found contributors more willing to help out.

“The key to making this whole thing work was the reward structure,” he says.  “But for me, I had a very specific reward that appealed to a very specific type of donor that I knew that this would work.”

In the end, about one third of the final funding came from the development world, one third from the photography world and one third from friends and family. 

Freelance photographer Jacob Maentz likewise found success on Kickstarter funding his project, Katutubong Filipino Project. Finding grants for photography projects limited, he turned his eye to the social sphere.

© Jacob Maentz
© Jacob Maentz 

Katutubong Filipino Project ultimately raised over $11,000 – but not without major effort and determination. “It took two months for the campaign and it was basically a full time job,” Maentz says. “It’s a time consuming endeavour and takes a lot of work and energy.”

To bring his project to fruition, Maentz reached out through personal letters and emails to related groups and organisations, rotary clubs, online communities with similar interests. He also used the opportunity to maximise his social media presence. “You have to take the extra time to communicate with your audience one-on-one,” he says, “which in the end I believe builds a stronger and more loyal audience.” 

“I know a lot of people think that random people will back your project, but the reality is you have to work hard to reach out and get your project funded,” he says. “The work is up to you if you want to see it successful,” he says.

Most often, crowd funding campaigns turn to current social and professional networks and those of friends, but outside of such spheres, few willing project backers organically arrive on photojournalism projects.

 “How long can we pass the hat to each other?” DiCampo asks. “People have to be very active in looking outside the photography world. I’m not sure how long we can sustainably support each other’s projects without also looking elsewhere.”

“There have been times where I’m really excited about looking at someone’s proposal and I’ve not been so impressed, and it has me not wanting to give money,” he says. “The key thing is: is it a project they can actually accomplish?”

© Peter DiCampo
© Peter DiCampo

Wheras DiCampo and Maentz successully honed in on their niches, not all photojournalists find funding quite so swiftly. With most platforms requiring the full funding goal be met before releasing donations to the project creators, many fall short of actualising their goals. Further, the structure of most crowd funding websites exclusively promote viral and promising campaigns - not emerging ones. Photographers who lack the network and wherewithal to catapult a campaign to a level of recognition might never share their messages beyond close friends and family. Currently, photography projects on Kickstarter have only a 36% success rate.

Another question facing photographers who gravitate toward the new financial model is the potential to be crowded out. With the accessibility of crowd funding open to anyone with an idea and computer access, how does one differentiate him or herself as a worthwhile investment?

Emphas.is looks to answer these concerns, and at two years old, it is receiving promising results. Emphas.is is an online platform exclusive to photojournalists that grants visual storytellers the opportunity to connect with their audience in a way unlike any other current platform.

All photographers featured on the site are curated by the site’s review board and offer contributors a special glance behind the scenes into how the stories are made.

“The niche looks very similar but the dynamic is very different,” says Emphas.is founder Karim Ben Khelifa (Twitter: @at_emphasis and @kbenk) . Forty percent of visits to Emphas.is start with the homepage, whereas most other crowd funding websites only attract users to particular projects. Visitors access the platform itself with the intention of engaging with the photographers not only financially, but through a longer term relationships.  The carefully selected projects featured on the site grant their photographers greater visibility through a trusted host.

“I think it just started out of frustration,” Khelifa says. After years of work on the ground, he says the growing financial restrictions laid upon him by mainstream publications left him feeling cheated. Khelifa says he felt the reduced time reporting meant his inability to produce his best work, and thus a weaker product for the commissioning magazine and its readers.

At the same time, Khelifa noticed most of his audience was increasingly interested in his experiences behind the lens. Coupled with the social media boom, he set out to form a platform that would allow storytellers to go straight to the public to find a new way of bringing projects to fruition.

Emphas.is then takes goes one step further: it provides opportunities to connect newspapers and magazines to photographers to lend another outlet for the journalists’ stories. While the publications may not fund entire projects directly, the site’s administrators work to bring its photographers increased awareness and media coverage to projects.

“You have a mixture of NGOs that give you money, media that give you money, and obviously 60-70% of the community fund it,” Khelifa says. By selecting a limited number of visual journalism projects each year, the site ensures high quality production and visibility to all its visitors.

“We’re not an agent, so if anyone comes to us who is interested in your work, we may propose it to you,” he says. “But it’s not up to us to make the deal. We facilitate. We become not an agent but we can act in your name and try to get more cash for you.”

Once a project is fully funded through the site, its backers are given access to the "Making Of Zone", where users can see a behind-the-scenes look at the operations behind the photo projects, in addition to their own personally chosen incentives - some of which even include personal workshops with the photographers.

Thus far, Emphas.is has funded nearly 60 percent of its projects. 

What are your thoughts on crowd funded photography ventures? And what avenues do you find hold the greatest potential for success? Join the conversation in the comments below.

 



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