Crowdfunding for better or worse

Some of what shows up in my e-mail box makes me feel like I am getting old fast (or at least becoming old-school in my thinking.) A couple recent e-mails triggered this reaction again, but something in me pushed back and made me say to myself, “…maybe I am right and the change swirling around me is wrong.” Since this whole internal tug-of-war involved photography, it seemed like a natural topic for a blog entry.

Two photographers who I know sent me (nearly simultaneously,) web based appeals to support the publication of their books of photography. They are both practicing what is called “crowd-funding,” to raise the money to print and publish their books. Because their projects are quite different, it made sense to me that they were going through different organizations, though their goals are largely the same.

One went through “Kickstarter” http://www.kickstarter.com/ which describes itself as “…a new way to fund creative projects… powered by a unique all-or-nothing funding method where projects must be fully-funded or no money changes hands… the largest funding platform for creative projects in the world.”

The other photographer is working with “Emphas.is,” http://emphas.is/ where they describe their process as “…photojournalists pitch their projects directly to the public… who gets to decide whether a story is worth doing. In return the public is invited along on the journey. Photojournalists agree to enter into a direct dialogue with their backers, sharing their experiences and insights as the creative process unfolds.”

One phrase on the Emphas.is site worried me, where they wrote “…to secure funding outside of the mainstream media.” I am all for the explosion in new media channels that has come with the Internet. It has been a great boon to many under-represented communities that now have a voice, via the Internet. I certainly think that in the case of TV, for example, we are better off with more options than just the big three networks of my childhood. On the other hand, the main-stream media supported a more common culture of information, the kind that is largely missing in this day of narrow-casting, where each of us only consumes news (and commentary) that matches our interests.

The thing is that I am conflicted. I believe in the work of these two photographers, who are trying to get their work published. And, crowd sourcing looks like a great idea. People who believe in something pay for it. This is doubly so in the case of photography books, which seem to get harder to publish each year.

On the other hand, my instinct is to wonder and worry about the long-term consequences of crowd-funding. On the other hand, I have long believed in the value of gate-keepers, like editors (and publishers.) I have previously blogged about the importance of editors, who can step back from a body of work and evaluate it critically in ways that the photographer/ creator simply cannot. That ability to look at work clearly and on behalf of the book-buying public is what makes a great publisher. In crowd-funding and self publishing I worry that this same critical perspective is being lost.

On the one hand these are both good projects, worthy of your (and my) support. The two projects are:

David Freese’s project, “From Bering to Baja,” will be a book of images made over the last ten years exploring the west coast of North America from the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea to the tip of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. As he notes, “It is a precious and stunning part of our environment.” Read more about that at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1323252315/the-west-coast-from-bering-to-baja

Gmb Akash’s project, “Survivors,” is the result of10 years photographing in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Pakistan, and Bhutan. The work explores “…the invincibility of the human spirit to survive against all odds… those who live at the lowest rank on the economic ladder are the true survivors… deprived of even the basic necessities of life, they manage to live each day with a smile on their faces.” Akash writes “When born in a poor country like mine people acquire the natural ability to fight against the odds… But more than just depicting their lives, my project also aims to help them. I have engaged in specific projects for certain groups: targeting one slum/brothel/rehabilitation centre and providing help for their long-term improvement. 25% of the selling price of the book will go directly to help run those ongoing attempts. “ Read more about at: http://emphas.is/web/guest/discoverprojects?projectID=314

What worries me is that these books, by these photographers are, in essence being self-published. That idea, self publishing, always worried me, because that means the all important marketing of the book will fall on the same photographers who likely have burnt themselves out on all the marketing they had to do in order to get the crowd-funding. Are they ready to start marketing again to promote the actual, finished book? What does my experience tell me about these two projects in particular and crowd-funding in general?

The most successful photographers are those who are the best marketers, which is true in any business. I worry that certain photographers who are not great self- promoters will get lost in the shuffle. Old school publishing released a lot of junk, but good publishers also found work that was important, which was sometimes made by individuals who were not marketing experts. With crowd-funding, which is driven by self promotion, I worry that some of the best work will never get “out there.”

Anyone crowd-funding any kind of photography project needs to look past the small world of photography to find supporters who are interested in the subject matter (or maybe interested in the photographers themselves.) Photographers are notoriously “thrifty,” doubly so as digital imaging technology sucks up more and more money with the release of each new generation of technology.

These are two fine, smart photographers so they will do well, as they should. I encourage you to support them, as I have. I also suggest you spread the word to your friends, especially beyond the “photo” world.

My fear is for the less thoughtful and accomplished photographers, those who have good work and want to get it out there but may fail in the process, even with crowd-funding. There is an old saying among lawyers that I think applies in this case. It goes something like “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.“ To twist that a bit, “A photographer who edits and publishes his or her own work may also have a fool for a client.”

2 responses to “Crowdfunding for better or worse”

  1. An article in Wired described kinckstarter.com & empas.is as part of the new wave of crowdsourcing.

    Not to quiblble, but I believe the premise of Kickstarter is to get initial funding but it is considering an investment, with a chance that investments will be paid off — suggesting publication or some other means of garnering funds — in contrast to the more contributory nature of Emphas.is.

    I concur, as you note, the line between self-publishing and edited publication is getting fuzzier. You are certainly correct that you see the edited publication as having a higher standard. But is there another side? That is, that as publishers become more picky, that many areas of photography may be left out. Self-publishing, or some variation on that, allows freedom to show kinds/types/areas of photography that may not otherwise be shown.

    Another thought, It appears to me that major marketing efforts may be necessary for either professionally edited books or self-published.

    Thanks for starting the dialogue that has been going on in my head since a first read your piece.

  2. It’s strange but just a few days back I was thinking the same exact thing when I supported two different photographers(one of them GMB Akash) through different crowd funding projects. I agree that Photographers who are not good at selling their projects through such avenues will have a very hard time in this constantly changing landscape of social media. With so many projects out there and some of them being similar. There is a good chance that some well deserved ones will be overlooked.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *