Photography: Lizzy Oppenheimer
Gerd Ludwig is now in the exclusion zone around the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the accident that spread radiation across Europe, the National Geographic photographer and author of Broken Empire: After the Fall of the USSR is documenting the safety work that continues at the plant, the residents who have been trickling back into the zone, and the contaminated environment it contains. This time though, he’s not working on a commission from a mainstream publication. He’s backed directly by the public. Using Kickstarter to win funding pledges, the professional photojournalist has raised more than $23,000, double his goal for the site and just shy of the $25,000 he believes he’ll need for the two-week shoot. It’s an approach that many photographers, both professional and amateur, are now using to fund their personal projects.
Kickstarter allows businesses and artists to pitch an idea to the public. In return for pledges that can range from a few dollars to a few thousand, contributors are promised set rewards. For a business with a creative product idea, like a watch strap for an iPod Nano, those rewards usually take the form of discounted early orders or limited editions. For Gerd Ludwig, the benefits include a name on a donor list, signed images and books, and even an hour-long portfolio review at his Los Angeles studio or via Skype.
Creators describe their project, upload a video pitch and set a financial goal and deadline. That’s where things start to get tricky. Kickstarter only collects the pledges if the entire goal is met. While that ensures that companies and artists aren’t left struggling to satisfy contributors with funds that are too small to allow them to succeed, it also means that if they set a goal that’s too high, they’ll end up with no funding at all. The site does, however, allow projects to be overfunded, encouraging project creators to ask only for the bare minimum they’ll need while still hoping to raise more.
Setting the Rewards
Calculating that budget is one of the first challenges that photographers will have to overcome to be successful with Kickstarter. A bigger challenge though is figuring out rewards that are tempting, affordable and valuable enough to contribute towards the goal.
“This might have been the hardest part of the process and the part that went through the most revisions,” says Lex Machina, whose Graphoscope project, a kind of steampunk portrait book, has exceeded its $2,000 goal with two weeks to spare. “I tried to imagine as a backer what would sound like a good deal for my dollar and still be within the limits of what I as a creator could realistically deliver.”
Lex’s project received backing from 64 people, two of whom donated at least $200 and one gave at least $275. Half of those backers though were people that Lex already knew or had worked with professionally. Only between 10 and 25 percent were unfamiliar with her work, suggesting that marketing through established networks is one important way of raising pledges. All of Lex Machina’s marketing was done online through a “sizable” network of well-connected friends and colleagues.
Photography: Lex Machina
Lizzy Oppenheimer, who has so far raised just over half of the $10,000 she needs to produce a photobook documenting America’s disappearing roadside stops, also began by emailing her friends and family, and linking to Facebook, a step that she believes necessary to give a project an initial funding boost.
Much of her marketing though has came from the interested generated in the media. Her project has been highlighted on National Public Radio, in the Santa Fe Pulse, and in a number of other magazines and blogs. In contrast to Lex Machins, she knows very few of her backers, many of whom are encountering her work for the first time, have contacted her to support her work and have shared their memories of roadside stops during their own childhood trips.
“The most wonderful thing about creating this Kickstarter Campaign for me has not been the pledges but rather the votes of confidence in my work,” she says. “It seems that I am not crazy for believing that rest stops are a vital part of our cultural history, a vital aspect of Americana. Knowing that so many people believe this work is valid and important is the greatest gift.”
Kickstarter Tests Photography Ideas
That’s one of the biggest benefits of Kickstarter. The service, which takes 5 percent of a project’s funds as a fee, doesn’t just raise money. It also tests the viability of a creative idea. Gerd Ludwig’s project has won pledges because the subject of the shoot struck a chord with people concerned about nuclear power and the environmental damage it can cause. Lex Machina’s work is popular with people interested in steampunk, a small niche with a big following. Lizzy Oppenheimer’s love of a disappearing American cultural experience is shared by enough other people who took road trips with their families to push her project towards meeting its goal.
Kickstarter then can work for projects that already have potential audiences who empathize with the idea. Photographers looking to raise funds for ideas that are meaningful to them but to few others though are more likely to struggle, and the site’s all-or-nothing policy means that project creators can find themselves with no funds at all for their work.
Lex Machina indicated that if Kickstarter hadn’t come through she would have been “pretty discouraged,” probably wouldn’t have produced a book but would definitely have tried again later with a refined campaign. Lizzy Oppenheimer too mentioned that even if she doesn’t receive the funds she needs, she’ll look for another way to continue the project — as long as the rest stops are still there for her to photograph.
And Gerd Ludwig, despite not quite meeting his complete budget, is already in Chernobyl, taking pictures, commemorating the accident and documenting the disaster on behalf of a public that cares enough about it to send him there.