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Crowd Funding

Crowd funding, donations, begging, spare us a few bob mate, no matter what fancy name you give it, it’s still handing out a cap to the world and begging for them to help you.

I laughed heavily when I read that this could be “..a unique bond between photojournalists and their audience.” Really? unique bond? Has photojournalism seriously stooped so low that they now have to collectively resort to begging using web 2.0 techniques in order to survive?

Don’t get me wrong, I realise that as an industry right now, we are collectively in the shitter when it comes to anyone trying to make a decent living. Papers and publications are paying less every month that goes by. You have collectives that are the talk of the town but in reality not exactly great business models (hey when you don’t have a mortgage, car, rent, family, possessions, 100 US a day is a lot) and more amateurs offering pretty decent content for free, the future isn’t bright.

So one has to ask, is adopting the virtual begging bowl, or the fancier crowd funding, method the only way to go?

Emphas.is launched with much fanfare in the blog’osphere with their statement that

It proposes a unique bond between photojournalists and their audience, and in the process aims to create a new financial model for photojournalism in the 21st century.

A very strong statement, especially when you take into consideration how poor many photographers have been from a business sense. The aim is to give you, the funder, exclusive access to the worlds top photojournalists. Ok great you say, but what do you get out of that? Many tout the Kickstarter method as being the right way to go, and a quick glance of things, it does seem that way. Larry Towell (hardly a new kid on the block) started his online begging campaign and walked away with over $12,000 in a number of weeks.

As a result, 67 funders will receive a nice postcard print, 7 will get a mixtape cd, 3 will get signed copies of his books (ok that’s not bad) and 11 will receive a 11×14 signed collectors print. From Larry’s perspective, not bad considering there are no specific outcomes he has to follow in order to deliver the goods. I’m not picking on Larry per se, he’s just that high-profile enough to be a very good example. Larry’s work has spoken for itself for decades.

As much as many people out there hate them, Mr Duck and Mr Rabbit are a breath of fresh air in this self-congratulatory back-slapping industry. They called bullshit on the approach here and here. Ben summed it up with this quote

Photojournalism in the Kickstarter vehicle is not sustainable when it acts like it deserves charity.

I’m not attacking those who have chosen the Kickstarter method, or indeed Emphas.is but the model itself. It’s not sustainable enough in the long-term. The Internet is a series of fads, from myspace to facebook to twitter and so on. Right now crowd funding is great and i’m sure those who’ve managed to elicit funds from the community are going to use them wisely, but what happens two years from now? Do the public have to fund Larry’s career choices every 6 months? Will I have to buy Tomas a new Leica every year when he fancies going to another communist country?

I think if we are looking at creating a new business model, we need to grow a backbone collectively and start convincing the editors, the publications and indeed anyone who is responsible for purchasing our work that paying a decent amount for the work is the way forward. I bet none of those working at the Guardian, the NYTimes or BBC are on salaries so small, they have to go out and beg friends for money, so why is it ok to expect those creating content for the publications to do the same?

I don’t see any of the big names getting together and saying “enough!” to those blatantly abusing the market right now? Where is James saying “no I’m not working for 100 US a day whilst embedded in some charming hamlet in Afghanistan?”.

The most ironic part of this process is that the same people who often flock to those in need, those begging for help to passers-by are now doing the same thing. They might not be in rags or in dire need of a meal but have become subjects that others should take pictures of and make into story about desperation.

Interesting times ahead, now whilst we are at it, spare us a few bob mate?

Update

After a fantastic discussion with Tomas below, he’s posted a brilliant article with his view on the current offerings. I highly recommend you read that after you’ve read this and the comments below.

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16 Responses to “Crowd Funding”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Daniel Cuthbert and Damian Drohan, Pablo Nieto. Pablo Nieto said: RT @dcuthbert: Crowd Funding: http://t.co/k7duKrW #mapjd #photojournalism [...]

  2. Damian Drohan January 21, 2011

    Daniel, I’d have to say I agree to a large extent, and I think Ben nailed it in his various blog posts on the topic. If Larry Towell has to “use his begging bowl” then we’re kind of in trouble as in industry. Sure the guy in his twenties with no mortgage, car, baby etc can live where he likes and subsist, for the rest of us we either inherit a trust fund or do something else to support the stories we care about. Personally I don’t believe for one second that photojournalism can change the world. Lucky for me, I’m not trying to, just trying to tell a story or two. A round table discussion with advocates of this funding model and other interested parties would make for a lively debate.

  3. Daniel January 21, 2011

    Agreed. The problem is, well from my ivory tower at least, is that we seem to be looking for band-aid recovery approaches rather than long-term ones.

    There is amazing work being produced out there but often at a high cost. I know myself, I have to choose my projects carefully as I do not have an infinite bank balance and at the rate people are buying the work, it’s a big worry (maybe I should shoot flowers or weddings?)

  4. Tomas January 22, 2011

    Daniel,

    This is a new idea, and so I think you are right to ask questions. Is it just a fad like Myspace? Will it be sustainable?

    I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and I think it could break either way. The only way for crowd-funded photojournalism to be sustainable, is if backers want to return and support the same photographer over and over again.

    One option is to be very wise when selecting incentives that are interesting and placed at reasonable price points. When backers feel like they are getting value for their money that they don’t get elsewhere, they’ll participate.

    The other option is to plead and beg for money, hoping that people’s generosity will last.

    We are in the early stages of a new concept, and the first adopters are feeling their way forward. I think the “cyber begging” approach to finding your crowd is the wrong one. I would council photographers that plan to participate in crowd-funding to drop that tone, and instead rework their incentives until they are more attractive.

    The tough thing for the photographer is finding incentives that have a high value to the backers, but aren’t so expensive to produce that they guzzle up the budget of the entire project, leaving no money left to go out and shoot photos.

    However, it can be done. The photographer has a number of tools available to them that increase the value of an incentive to the public without driving up the production costs:

    • Immediacy
    • Exclusivity
    • Personalization

    We all know that listening to a live radio broadcast of a country under attack is far more riveting than reading about in a history book about it 100 years later. That is immediacy. It has value. Why do people line up outside the Apple store when a new iPhone is announced? They want to be the first.

    Why do magazines pay more for a scoop than a recycled story? Exclusivity. It’s the same reasons why popular night clubs have bouncers.

    And while some odd folks may be perfectly happy to eat in McDonalds every day, drive a grey corporate model sedan and order only unisex one-size-fits-all cloths, most people prefer to spend their money on personalized and customized items.

    The quote you lifted from the Emphas.is website says “It proposes a unique bond between photojournalists and their audience.”

    When I read that, I think what is unique about the bond is immediacy, exclusivity and personalization. It’s not for everyone. Most people will continue to get their news and photos impersonally, clicking on whatever pops up on the Yahoo homepage. But Emphas.is is betting that a niche market exists of people that want more, and are willing to pay for it. I agree with them on that point. The only question in my mind is if that niche is big enough to fund a couple photos essays per year, or hundreds.

    Next point, you mentioned me by first name in your blog. And although we’ve never met, you were quite happy to take a pot shot:

    “Will I have to buy Tomas a new Leica every year when he fancies going to another communist country?”

    Can I offer you some advice? If you have a problem with my choice of subjects or the gear I use, try taking it to me personally before tossing it up on your blog wrapped in an air of cynicism and self-righteousness. For the record, I bought two Leicas in my life. One in 1998 and one in 2009. I’m not asking you to pay for them.

    I realize the temptation is there to act irreverent and sarcastic in your blog. That kind of sensationalism is sure to drive up your site traffic. If that is more important to you than making friends and allies within our common industry, so be it. You just lost one.

  5. Daniel January 22, 2011

    Tomas, totally the opposite my good man. I’m not there to drive visitors to my site, that blog is my personal view on this industry. Notice how there’s no advertising, no real reason why anyone should visit the site. Seriously calm down a bit, that statement of mine was not to draw attention to you or your kit, so no need for the vague silly threats of loosing friends, come on!

    I totally agree with you, this approach to ensuring a more sustainable income for what we do is important but right now i’m not seeing enough business sense being put into the approaches. Kickstarter one is flawed, it is more akin to begging over anything else. Flattr is ok but their marketing isn’t working as hardly anyone has heard of it. Micro-funding might be the answer for the meantime but again, how do you ensure people keep on coming back.

    You seem to feel I was taking a pot shot at you, which isn’t really the case. You have been very vocal about your attempts at obtaining funding from other methods, my question was a legitimate one, often I feel with the crowd funding approach is that me, the funder, in a way has to fund the photographer to complete the job.

    Seriously don’t take it as an attack, this is the age-old problem with the web, taking things out of context!

  6. Daniel January 22, 2011

    My other question about Emphas.is is this:

    - When you mention exclusivity, does that mean funders will have access to the work of their choice ahead of the general public?

    Will this work ever be seen by the public or is it a private show of sorts, meant only for those who commission it?

    If so, it’s more akin to what the Murdoch group are experimenting with pay walls, no?

  7. Tomas January 22, 2011

    There is an article in the French language version of PHOTO magazine this month with in interview of Karim. In it he says that once a photo essay is finished it will be available for exclusive viewing by the backers for a period of four days. After that, it is up to the individual photographer to decide what they want to do. They can hand it to their agency, sell it to a magazine, give it away for free on a blog or just keep it to themselves. Emphas.is is only a production platform, and they won’t take any further action to distribute the work. The idea is to cover only the production costs of a reportage, but not the salary or income of the photographer. If the photographer is smart and the story is good, they should be able to earn that part by selling the stories to magazines or websites later.

  8. Daniel January 22, 2011

    Now that to me makes more sense, now I get the exclusivity aspect to the whole approach taken.

    You mention that the funding method is there to cover costs of a reportage, which is great but you can now hopefully see why I mentioned you in my original post.

    Before it wasn’t clear to me what I’d be funding, hence the very innocent and not meant as an attack question of “Will I have to buy Tomas a new Leica every year when he fancies going to another communist country?”

    I think transparency here is key. If this was any other business, the backers would be asking the same questions I have here, what do I get, what am I actually funding and what will the outcome be eventually?

    I look forward to Emphas.is launching, I cannot wait to see how the general public take to this new approach.

  9. Tomas January 22, 2011

    Daniel – You can understand that if you post my name on your blog linked in negative or dubious speculation, it is going to rub me the wrong way. I’ll take your word that it wasn’t meant as a direct attack.

    I try to be as reactive as possible to serious questions about my work or the new funding models that I am experimenting with and often rooting for.

    All too often blogs and online commentary degrade into snarky comments and bad faith attacks, often hidden behind pseudonyms and anonymous avatars. Whenever I can, I try to steer the conversation back in the other direction, toward respectful debate. We can use the internet to trade and test ideas, or we can use it for name calling, rumors and petty disputes. My patience for the later is very limited.

    I think Larry Towell is particularly brave for stepping out of the Magnum bubble, crossing the generational-internet-divide, and taking his pitch straight to the people. He didn’t grow up tweeting and blogging, so he has made some gaffs along the way. However, any person that takes the time to look at his previous work knows that the man is serious, talented and extremely dedicated. With a track record like that, he should be given the benefit of the doubt.

    A more serious problem is young photographers who don’t yet have a track record of accomplishment and credibility behind them. For crowd-funding to become an important element of our industry for the long term, it will have to consistently find backing for young talent and block it for undependable photographers and charlatans.

    Emphas.is is proposing a committee that prescreens proposals to make sure they seem realistic and legitimate before they go public. Transparency with backers is also an important part of the process. However, only after months or years of experience and experimentation will the reliability and trust of crowd-funded reportage become clearer.

    I happen to think that establishing credibility will play a major role in how well crowd-funding works for journalism over the long term. If the results less reliable and less interesting than what you can find for free by trawling through Wikipedia, it obviously won’t last for long.

    If on the other hand, crowd-funded photographers bring back scoops, and offer more depth, honesty and transparency than traditional press publications, than it could thrive. It also could have the secondary function of pushing the press back in the right direction, filling in the gaps in their coverage and showing them where a crowd has formed around a particular topic.

    A crowd of engaged backers will have different interests than either a magazine’s editorial board or their beloved advertisers. That is ultimately the reason I am interested in crowd-funding. That is why I will be giving it a try to cover overlooked and under-reported stories.

  10. Brendan January 24, 2011

    Daniel I can understand your skepticism on all of this crowd-funding and the temptation to view it as an unsustainable model based on charity. There is a kernel of truth in there. But, we’re facing a fundamental problem with the industry right now (one that’s not unique to our industry), which is that with the rise of the internet, there’s an expectation in general that quality content can be had for free online.

    The editors at the Guardian, NYTimes, or BBC are more likely to pay a decent amount for the photojournalism they display when they see an audience that values the work enough to pay for it. The best thing Kickstarter or Emphas.is can do, and which I expect they will do, is expand the audience that is willing to pay for quality photojournalism. When we’re honest and lay bare the costs to produce good work, I think people will respond.

  11. Tomas January 24, 2011

    Daniel,

    Your underlying questions –which are quite valid–got me thinking. This crowdfunding idea has popped out of nowhere very fast, and we don’t know what to expect out of it yet.

    Rather than dismissing the idea of crowdfunding from the get go, we should be building a consensus of best practices to use. I do think that if our profession acts responsibly and gets this right, we will have at our disposal a tool that can rival the old media in terms of power and scope. Let’s not squander that with petty infighting of negativity.

    Anyway, your thoughts helped release a bunch of thoughts that were buzzing around in my head, and I’ve put it down on my blog:

    http://tomasvanhoutryve.wordpress.com/2011/01/23/new-funding-models-part-iv-%E2%80%93-crowdfunding-the-good-the-bad-and-the-awkward/

  12. Daniel January 24, 2011

    Tomas,

    Great idea, one I think has the ability to actually define how this new method of funding could be beneficial to us as photographers.

    As you said in your post, the attempts so far haven’t been good. It’s almost if they’d rushed into it, expecting the gold rush and not really thought about it beyond that.

    I’m very open to helping out where necessary. No negativity, just hopefully an avenue that means we can do what we love and not have to fret about the economics as much as we do now.

  13. Tom January 25, 2011

    Daniel & Tomas,

    I find this a very interesting discussion.
    I’m also trying to get a living of photojournalism. I started two years ago as a Belgian wedding-photojournalist (27)
    I got a lot of work, pays very well.. buy my passion is to make real stories that will touch the crowd and create a movement and/or history.

    Since march 2010 I’m a press photographer for a local newspaper. I still cover some weddings just to pay my plane tickets and to cover expenses during my photo-story trips

    In september 2010 I went to Haiti to cover a multimedia story about aidwork and life in a tentcamp. It was the first time to experience poverty and misery so close. When I came back to Belgium, I edit the photos, audio, video’s day and night and got my first expo.

    I did radio and tv interviews asking for donations.
    At this moment I collected about €18.000.

    I was so suprised of the impact. All the money will be spent to finance several small projects in Haiti. I will still pay my plane by myself next month when I go back, but:
    Last week I a got mail from a local businessclub. They are considering to pay my flight and instead I will put the name of their club into the end of the multimedia story and will make some pictures when they have a “party”

    This all reminds me to a model like kickstarter
    (I just discover is last week on the facebook page of Jan Garup who asked for crow funding websites.)

    I think it will work.. but it needs time!

    my multimedia stories:
    http://www.tompalmaers.be/haiti

    article on dslr newsshooter:
    http://www.dslrnewsshooter.com/2011/01/19/photojournalist-tom-palmaers-films-aid-work-in-haiti-on-a-5dmkii/

  14. [...] spilling over into the Kickstarter comments, some observations from A Photo Editor here and a critique of the concept of crowd funding from Daniel Cuthbert that involved an interesting exchange with [...]

  15. David Campbell January 26, 2011

    Hi Daniel – you are having an important part of the crowd funding debate, and in your related post on what should go into a good pitch (which I agree with). I think it is important to distinguish between the potential of crowd funding in the new media economy, and the way it is currently being put into practice in early examples like Larry Towell’s now successful bid. I disagree with your assessment that all crowd funding is begging for donations, though I do think that the early examples have that tone, principally because they do not appreciate the new ways of working crowd funding both draw on and implies.

    I also have to disagree with your hope that if only the industry got some backbone and negotiated better rates then all these new fangled initiative would not be necessary. That just isn’t going to happen, and not only because photojournalists can’t do collective bargaining — even if they did that attitude is not going to reverse the decades-long decline in the media sector that preceded the Internet, but is now being hastened by the Internet.

    New, creative ways of facing that challenge are needed, because we are not going to return to the past (which might not have been so rosy anyway). Crowd funding is a part of that if done right, though it is about getting support to do projects, not provide a sustainable living. Its purpose and scope needs to be properly understood too.

    I’ve put these and thoughts and more into a critical review of what we can learn from Larry’s project (which I have backed with a small pledge). You can read my post at http://www.david-campbell.org/2011/01/26/learning-from-larry-crowdfunding-photojournalism/

    I look forward to more debate!

  16. [...] of these – and many more – have been recently thrashed out across the web, sometimes with a considerable degree of acrimony. In particular David Campbell’s Learning From [...]

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