Photography: Joao Pina
Documentary photographers are struggling to pitch their stories. Newspapers and magazines are now rarely willing to cover the expenses that photographers run up when they travel to distant parts of the world, and few outlets want to provide space for a photo documentary on Southeast Asian villagers when a thirteen-page spread of a celebrity on the beach would sell so much better. Some dedicated photographers though have managed to find a solution. They’re not just selling the image; they’re selling the photojournalist experience. And they’re selling it directly to the public.
Emphas.is is like Kickstarter for photography. Photographers describe projects, submit a budget and appeal for funding. Supporters can then submit pledges, allowing the project to go ahead if it’s fully funded. In return, those supporters receive a set of rewards that depend on the size of their support. The largest sums, often around $2,000 to $3,000, allow a company to display its logo on the books and material the project produces. For amounts as low as $10 though, supporters receive access to the “making-of zone,” an area on the site on which the photographer posts updates and answers questions from supporters.
For the site’s founders, photo editor Tina Ahrens and photographer Karim Ben Khelifa, that access to the photographers as they work in the field creates a closer and more active involvement in the production process. For the photographers too, it provides an outside perspective, a chance to understand what the audience wants to learn about the stories and locations they’re documenting, and to produce the images they want to see. Tomas van Houtryve, a photographer whose trip to Laos was one of the first to be fully funded on Emphas.is, told the site’s blog that his interaction with his supporters led him to shoot more pictures of daily life that enabled them to understand the country better.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Submit Your Project, Collect the Funds
It’s an approach that’s been remarkably successful. Emphas.is launched in March 2011. By the end of April, projects posted on the site had already raised more than $60,000 from more than 750 supporters. Tomas van Houtryve’s project on 21st Century Communism in Laos raised $10,115 from 143 backers, more than the $8,800 he had asked for. He is now in North Korea shooting a second project, even as he’s collecting the funds.
Getting a project accepted to the site though isn’t easy. The submission guidelines demand short and long pitches, a profile and bio, a selection of images and a video pitch of up to two minutes. Three reviewers then assess each project, judging it on twelve criteria, including the applicant’s experience, knowledge and ability to build a crowd, as well as the significance of the story and the photographer’s body of work.
Photographers then have to collect the funds, an even tougher challenge that relies in part on social media marketing.
Joao Pina, whose two projects on the effects of Operation Condor in Latin America have both been fully funded, first used email to tell people about his idea. Some of those contacts then forwarded his message to their own friends. He also began posting project information on Facebook, asking people on the site to help spread the word. Many of the supporters of his first project also backed its continuation, often with larger pledges. Sergio Ramazzotti a veteran photojournalist who recently started using the site to fund a photo documentary about homosexuality in Afghanistan — a country he’s been visiting for the last eleven years — prefers to use a phone call than a Facebook message. But he too has been drawing on his personal contacts and social networks to bring in donations.
“I’m really not the salesperson kind, so I just tell plain and simple what I plan to do and why I think they should be supporting me, which is tantamount to supporting photojournalism,” he told us by email. “I ask them to imagine what a newsmagazine with 125 completely empty, white pages would look like.”
Photography: Sergio Ramazzotti
Supporters Want Rewards
The rewards offered are also important. Pledges on Emphas.is begin at $10 but most fall between $25 and $50, enough to receive an image. The average pledge is about $90. Although the rewards alone won’t determine whether someone will support a project, they can help to determine the amount someone will spend and the extent to which they’re willing to help it. Steven Duke, the editor of BBC World Service’s One World program, and a supporter of three Emphas.is projects, explains that he wants to be able to point at the photograph he’s using as a screensaver or a photobook on his shelf, and say “I helped fund that project.”
But it’s the project itself that’s key. For Steven Duke it was Tomas van Houtryve’s admission that some of his images of North Korea will be tainted with the “triumphalist propaganda” that pervades the country, a confession of the limits for any journalist, that impressed him. For Neil Osborne’s Return of the Black Turtle project, it was the positive spin on a story about an endangered animal that won his support. And for Nicolas Mingasson’s portrayal of the Arctic, it was the fact that he was taking ethnologists with him as well as his camera. The relationship between the environment and the people who live in it was vital.
“I like that Nicolas’ pictures are of people battling with the weather in harsh landscapes. I like that Thomas’ photos show us landscapes rarely glimpsed. And I like that Neil’s pictures come from the sea,” Duke explained. “That doesn’t mean they have to be exotic environments, but I want to see projects built on an environment and its people – rather than people in an environment.”
There’s no doubt that Emphas.is is fulfilling a need and enabling important stories to be told through photography. Joao Pina notes that he has been unable to win any support from publications or NGOs for his work on Operation Condor, and after six years of investing his own resources and time, his funds are now exhausted. He’s now spending the next couple of months in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, finishing the work that he started in those countries.
But perhaps the biggest benefit isn’t just that photographers are able to complete the projects they want but that photography lovers are able to see photostories and images that would otherwise have remained untold.
“There’s no point shouting at the demise of photojournalism from the sides,” says Steven Duke. “Crowdfunding allows us to get involved – for relatively small amounts – and support photo assignments we believe in. Plus we get to stick two fingers up at those editors who seem keen to swap photojournalism for Brangalina snaps.”