By Heather Graulich
A funny thing happens when you ask photojournalists if crowdsourcing could be a real savior to the industry, a way of bankrolling their work and widening their audience in a time of vanishing editorial staff jobs and shrinking freelance budgets.
First they say, no way. But then…well, hm.
Crowdsourcing – the common term for a large group of people individually giving small amounts of money to a specific project or goal via online networking – has surged dramatically in the past few years, with more than 400 crowdsourcing platforms available on the web today. The most popular sites, such as Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Indiegogo, are now generating millions of dollars in funding for everything from medical bills for cancer patients to dance shows and new product design.
Empahs.is, in particular, focuses on photojournalism, while Kickstarter covers a broader range of creative projects including theater and comics. But photo projects have been funded on all these sites, and more, making the field as a whole an intriguing resource for visual artists.
Photojournalists have reservations, though, about the idea that crowdsourcing has long-term viability as a safety net for their craft, but they are welcoming it as a tool for sharing special projects that might not otherwise get off the ground.
Appealing to a larger funding pool
“It’s another way of finding people to invest in a project you’re interested in and think other people might be interested in, and rather than finding one donor - like a (non-governmental organization) or gallery or corporation - you’re going to a larger pool,” says longtime Newsweek photographer Gary Knight, who has had three successfully-funded projects on Kickstarter. “It enables a lot of people to collaborate with you.”
Knight, based in Cambridge, MA and director of the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice at Tufts University’s Institute for Global Leadership, most recently joined with writer Peter Maass and Marine Lt. Tim McLaughlin, an Iraq war veteran, to mount a gallery show of McLaughlin’s wartime diary entries.
The project, called Invasion: War Diaries from Iraq, went live on Kickstarter on Feb. 4. Its $15,000 goal – to cover the costs of making prints, mounting them, staffing the gallery space and other needs – was reached in a few weeks. They plan to open the exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center in mid-March.
Amy Toensing’s first and only project on Kickstarter reached its goal of $10,000 in seven days, even though she has yet to set foot in Nairobi, where she intends to take most of her photos.
“I really didn’t expect that at all, I’m kind of blown away,” says Toensing, a regular contributor to National Geographic and former New York Times Washington bureau photographer, now living in New York. Her project, In The Shadows: Urban Refugee Children in Africa, now has over $12,000 and can continue to earn funding until March 15.
Toensing will use the money to travel to Kenya in May, spend several weeks shooting, and finally mount a virtual and live exhibit in conjunction with the non-profit refugee relief group RefugePoint.
“I feel overwhelmed and inspired,” says Toensing. “ The one thing I felt immediately is that I have a community behind me and that’s really powerful. Usually you go on assignments and it’s just you and your editor and it can be lonely. But now I have all these people saying, ‘We’re behind you.’ It gives people a stake in the process and the product.”
Justin Kazmark, a spokesman for the Brooklyn-based Kickstarter, says that stake in the process is a huge part of what sets crowdsourcing apart from typical funding sources for creative work.
“What Kickstarter brings is an opportunity for creative people and storytellers to assert their creative independence and bring the audience along for the journey,” says Kazmark. “It’s a more meaningful entry point to the story behind the project. It allows for creators of all stripes to experiment and take risks, because you’re going directly to your audience. You can stay more true to your initial vision without going through a publisher or other traditional avenues of funding.”
Since the website’s inception in 2009, Kickstarter has hosted about 2,800 photography projects, with a success rate for funding at about 37 percent, or just over 1,000 projects. Of the successful projects, most raised between $1,000 and $9,999 (nearly 700 of them), totaling more than $5.5 million.
Still, the majority of photography campaigns launched on Kickstarter are unsuccessful. That’s what Michael Hanson expects with his project, Chattahoochee: Who Owns Water?.
Hanson, a Seattle-based travel photographer with work published in National Geographic, Outside and others, plans to canoe the length of the Chattahoochee River with his brother, David, in March. Their film and still images will become a multimedia project on overuse, drought and other threats to the muddy river that runs past their boyhood home in Georgia.
On Feb. 6, they set a Kickstarter goal of $18,000 to cover expenses, but by their deadline (March 9), they were short by more than $4,000. As with all Kickstarter projects, it’s an all-or-nothing game – hit your goal by the self-imposed deadline or forfeit all the pledges.
Hanson says he and David will take the trip and create the film regardless, hopefully selling it later to recoup costs.
“We’ve been self-funded all sorts of projects for seven years, but we were really reluctant to do Kickstarter, because we didn’t want to ask our friends for money,” says Hanson. “But you sort of have to get the word out, to make it spread to the wider reaches of the Internet. Our amount raised is pretty low but that’s also probably our reluctance to push it on people.”
Kazmark of Kickstarter agrees. Successful crowdsourcing campaigns have several things in common, the most important being strong networking.
“It takes tremendous courage to launch a project and it takes some work to inspire people to get behind your story,” says Kazmark.
Neil Ever Osborne, a specialist in conservation photography based in Canada, successfully raised over $11,000 in about two months for his project on Emphas.is, Return of the Black Turtle.
He says partnering with Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, a marine scientist, effectively doubled the networking potential for the project.
“I believe our backers also had a strong affinity for the narrative of the Grupo Tortuguero – a grass roots organization changing the conservation landscape in Mexico,” says Osborne, who is also a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers. “Their story is truly a positive one and in a realm where we typically only see and hear negativity in the media, I think backers found this refreshing. The one thing that is clear to me is that crowdfunding begins and ends with your close colleagues and friends.”
Choosing the best platform
Though there is no “right” or “wrong” crowdsourcing platform for photojournalists, anyone wishing to launch a project has a number of considerations before choosing one.
Kickstarter’s larger audience may appeal for some, while Emphas.is’ photography niche and exacting standards would work for others. (While Kickstarter must approve projects before they launch, photographers seeking to use Emphas.is not only have to pass the review of a photo advisory board, but must prove they have “a commitment to and understanding of the issues he or she proposes to address,” among other requirements.)
Other factors include fees and rules. Kickstarter and Emphas.is both have an all-or-nothing format that requires projects to be fully funded before any pledged money changes hands, while GoFundMe and Indiegogo allow projects to keep whatever amount is raised and have flexible scheduling for project completion.
Emphas.is charges 15 percent for its services; Kickstarter and GoFundMe 5 percent, and Indiegogo 9 percent, although it gives back 4 percent if the total goal amount is reached.
Crowdsourcing Best Practices
Kickstarter’s Kazmark gives a “best practices” list for anyone planning to try crowdsourcing:
- Back someone else’s work first: “ Get a sense of what it feels like to be a supporter and then think through your own project.”
- Make a video: “Get on camera and clearly articulate what you hope to accomplish and how your supporters can play a role.”
- Put real care into rewards: “Craft compelling rewards that focus on drawing your backers into the creative process. It gives people a closer view of the work, and they find tremendous value in that.” Rewards can be anything from prints and photo books to live chats from the field with supporters. Toensing plans to conduct Skype chats with backers and Knight, Maass and McLaughlin will be having lunch with select backers who pledged at least $1,000. Just be sure to factor the costs of rewards into your campaign; photographer Melissa McDaniel, who successfully used Kickstarter to publish a book about shelter dogs, says pricing her rewards to cover international shipments of prints and books helped her campaign, as she was able to gather funds globally.
- Don’t be shy: Get the word out about your campaign. Use social media avenues like twitter, Facebook, etc., but don’t forget the power of personal emails to friends, family, and like-minded groups and agencies. Make sure your emails and personal webpage have links to your crowdsourcing project, too. Involve your personal contacts in getting the word out. Most crowdsourcing websites include widgets that allow you to link the project directly to social media and other accounts. Many photographers with successful campaigns have worked in conjunction with non-profits and other agencies with an interest in their subject matter. McDaniel, for instance, was able to tap into support from pit bull rescue groups. Toensing’s partnership with RefugePoint and Osborne’s affiliation with the International League of Conservation Photographers are other examples of the “exponential effect” that helps with crowdsourcing.
- Remember that funding the project is just the beginning: “As the project progresses, it’s important to update your backers and give them a look at the process. Creators can post updates and backers can subscribe to email updates, as well.” Once a project is successfully funded on Empahs.is, for example, the website switches the page over to “making of zone” where backers can stay up-to-date on the project’s progress.
Knight’s and Toensing’s successful campaigns followed many of these practices. Support for “Invasion” came not just from Knight’s and Maass’ journalism networks but also the military network of Lt. McLaughlin.
Toensing’s partnership with RefugePoint gave her not only the credibility of a non-profit but a way to mobilize people around the project from the very beginning – RefugePoint’s communication officer Cheryl Hamilton had known Toensing since they studied together at the Salt Institute in Portland, Maine. The night Toensing’s campaign went live, a launch party was hosted at Salt, complete with raffles for prints of Toensing’s work and computers available for partygoers to make pledges to “In the Shadows.” Over $1,000 was earned that first night.
McDaniel, who specializes in books about rescued and misunderstood dogs, successfully raised over $19,000 on Kickstarter in order to publish her book about pit bulls. She recently started a new campaign on Indiegogo for her next book, about puppy mills, largely because of Indiegogo’s more flexible rules.
“Indiegogo will let you set the campaign to be all or nothing, or to be whatever is raised,” says McDaniel. “This is good and bad. You need to make sure you have a plan in place to raise the extra amount even if the campaign doesn't reach its goal.”
Industry safety net?
As for the idea that crowdsourcing could be a viable safety net for journalism, Knight and Toensing both have reservations. Besides the obvious “cringe factor” that photographers struggle with in asking their friends and colleagues for money, there are larger ethical concerns, as well.
“I don’t think crowdsourcing is a replacement for publications,” says Knight. “I don’t think you can rely on the crowd for the production of journalism. What you’re saying is, the only kind of journalism that will be funded is what’s committed to before it happens. It’s not the function of the journalist to respond to the market. You don’t want to expose journalism to the vagaries of the supply and demand economy.”
“For crowdsourcing, for me, it had to be a project that was bigger than myself,” says Toensing. “It had to have a humanitarian angle. Other projects that had less social significance I would have felt less comfortable. But that’s just for me.”
She is skeptical photographers could make a living crowdsourcing their work, but it's a good source if you have the right combination of a compelling project and a solid community of supporters who will get behind your idea and who trust who you are as a content maker.
Kazmark sees crowdsourcing as more of a complement to the “overall ecosystem” of photojournalism.
“I don’t think it can uproot traditional media,” he says. “It allows for greater voices to be heard. But is it viable to use Kickstarter as a platform to fund project after project? Yes, one hundred percent. You can because there’s always a value exchange between creators and backers. Your biggest fans will continue to support your work throughout your career. It’s not a donation so there’s no donor fatigue. You’re creating an economy around your work and how to reward your audiences personally.”
- Invasion: War Diaries from Iraq -- Peter Maass and Marine Lt. Tim McLaughlin
- The Shadows: Urban Refugee Children in Africa -- Amy Toensing
- Chattahoochee: Who Owns Water? -- Michael and David Hanson
- Return of the Black Turtle -- Neil Ever Osborne
- Puppy Mill Survivors -- Melissa McDaniel