A Face in the Crowd

by By Chris Wiltz

June 01, 2011 — The Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was founded in 1974 in response to the lack of medical facilities to treat fistulas (holes that can appear on a woman’s bladder as a result of complications during child birth) in African woman. The condition, which has been all but eliminated in the Western world, is fully treatable and preventable, but only when adequate facilities and trained personnel are available.

After connecting with SalaamGarage—an organization partnering with international NGOs to bring professional artists together to produce media projects that create awareness about a variety of global issues—Antoinette Douglas-Hall, a San Francisco-based commercial and editorial photographer, learned about the Hamlin Hospital and wanted to make a difference with her photography.

“I’ve been working so hard for so many years, mostly producing fashion and product work for the ad world. I have enjoyed working with many great people, but the work is commercial in nature and I often found I was really in need of something that could bring me some spiritual replenishment,” Douglas-Hall says. “I’ve always wanted to use my skills in a way to give back, so when I found out about the SalaamGarage project I was so excited to get involved.”

Her plan was to travel with SalaamGarage for 12 days in Ethiopia, photographing the women at the Hamlin Hospital. The photos would be made into an exhibit, then published as a book. The proceeds would go to benefit the hospital.

But there was just one problem: By her estimation, Douglas-Hall needed about $5000 to fund her project—not an extravagant amount of money, but certainly a difficult amount for any individual to raise. Yet today, she has since returned from her trip, published a group book of photography called Hamlin Fistula & SalaamGarage, and is planning exhibitions in San Francisco and London beginning this summer.

How did she do it? The answer lies in a Web 2.0 buzzword that is rapidly growing to a full-fledged phenomenon: crowd funding.

“I did not know just one or two people who could sponsor me to do this project, so crowd funding was the only other option,” Douglas-Hall says via email. While the idea of crowd funding is not new, the approach that Douglas-Hall and many like her are taking is. Thanks to Web sites like Kickstarter (Kickstarter.com), IndieGogo (IndieGoGo.com) and Emphas.is (www.emphas.is), photographers, artists, inventors and practically anyone with a great idea can reach out to the global community to fund their personal projects.

Each of these sites allows users to create a page detailing their project and any other information they’d like to share with the public (including promotional videos, sample photos or other materials). From there, people are free to donate to the project based on a price structure set by the user. In return, the user is required to offer a series of rewards based on the size of the donation (a $5 donation might get you a note of thanks, while a $100 donation might get you a signed print or copy of a book). The rewards are at the user’s discretion, but each crowd funding site has its own approaches and policies toward projects. IndieGogo (the largest open platform in the world) for example, will let users keep any amount of money raised (minus its percentage), while Kickstarter only rewards projects that meet or exceed funding goals.

In a time when so much of the creative process seems dependent on larger corporate interest, decisions made by committee and general compromise of the creative vision, crowd funding represents a democratization of the creative process that has become particularly attractive to photographers of all styles and backgrounds. When Scott Hugh Mitchell, a 21-year-old fashion photographer based in New York City, wanted to create a custom portfolio book to highlight his work, he found the necessary funds via a Kickstarter project—raising well over his $850 goal. “My project has allowed me to show a well branded portfolio when meeting with future clients, and is constantly helping me to expand my business,” Mitchell says.

Photographer Sarah Szwajkos, who has worked with John Paul Caponigro, raised almost double what she asked to fund her personal fine art project Personal Spaces—Photographic Portraits of Private Places. Ernesto Bazan used Kickstarter to raise over $10,000 to self-publish his book Al Campo, profiling the lives of Cuban farmers, created with the help of over 70 of his workshop students. “I’m still in awe for the generous support of many people from different parts of the world. I had given myself three months to raise the funds. I think Kickstarter provides a wonderful way for artists to realize their dreams in a very democratic way,” he says.
 And in a bit of meta-altruism, Laura Brunow Miner, former editor of JPG Magazine and the host of the Phoot Camp photography workshop [PhootCamp.com], used IndieGogo to raise over $7000 to replace a workshop attendee’s equipment and personal items that were stolen after a wedding shoot.

With over $1.5 million pledged to photography projects on Kickstarter alone since its launch in 2009, the temptation may be to think that there is free money floating out there, just waiting for the taking. However Yancey Strickler, the cofounder of Kickstarter, cautions that there is a process. Crowd funding, like any other fund raising, requires a lot of work, and with a site average of success rate of 45 percent, it becomes clear that simply posting your project isn’t a magic bullet to success.

“Personal connection is a really big part of it,” Strickler says. “Eighty percent of our projects have a video to accompany them and we see that the success rate of these is much higher.” Having a video of yourself, explaining your project and who you are, can be vital in making that first step in reaching out to the public. “[As a backer] I want to know who [the creator] is and what about this project speaks to them,” Strickler adds.
Slava Rubin, the cofounder and CEO of IndieGogo, shares this sentiment. “Having a personal and engaging video, not a trailer or a teaser, will help raise 122 percent more money. You want to talk about why you need money, how much you’re raising, what people will see of the project and what they will get out of it.”

Rubin also emphasizes that creators should be proactive in managing their campaigns, using Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and other social networking tools to keep in touch with their audiences, especially their friends and followers. “You need to have an audience that cares, and the first audience that cares is your audience. Nobody will fund your campaign if you’re stuck at zero. So first you get the people who know you the best to start funding you.”

In speaking with photographers who have mounted successful campaigns, many of them agree with these ideas. “I attribute the success of my campaign to casting a wide net by contacting everyone on my mailing and Facebook lists, and to my decision to offer rewards that I thought would be most appealing to possible contributors,” Szwajkos says. “I decided that contributions above $50 would all be eligible to receive original prints of images I’d be printing for this show. The prints increase in size as the contribution tiers increase. In order to respect my collectors, these prints are smaller than my editioned prints, and are not numbered.”
“I think a huge part of using crowd funding and knowing whether or not it’s right for you is whether or not you maintain an active online network,” Miner adds.

IndieGogo also assists in promoting the most active of their campaigns on its Web site, blog and even through major press outlets. “The way you get more promotion through us is by having a more active campaign and having what we call a higher ‘GoGo Factor,’ which is an algorithm showing how active your campaign is. The higher your score, the more we promote you,” Rubin says.

Providing rewards for backers is also important and can represent a delicate balancing act for a campaign creator. Too little reward and there’s no incentive for people to donate; too much reward and you risk undervaluing your work. “You want to offer people rewards and price them fairly,” Strickler says. “These are people who are really taking a chance on you and showing enormous confidence in you.”

But what inspires that enormous confidence? In the wake of the Great Recession, it’s not difficult to cast a cynical eye and wonder why so many people are so eager to donate millions of dollars to help photographers and other strangers accomplish their personal projects.

“Money is the main focus. But if you’re just asking or begging for money you’re definitely not going to be successful,” Rubin says. “People actually fund for one of three reasons: They care about the person, campaign or the actual cause; they desire the perks; they want to participate.” 

Sure there are the perks and rewards (i.e., they may want a print of a photographer’s work and thus choose to donate because of that) and even the idea of simply buying the actual product (i.e, donating to a book project equates to purchasing a copy of that book) but there are hints that there’s something deeper beneath the surface.

 “By getting involved in someone’s work early on, by interacting directly with them through that project, there’s a very different relationship that evolves between a backer and a creator and I think that relationship is what’s drawing people to [crowd funding] and why people are using it so much,” Strickler says. “It’s a unique, shared experience. I give you five bucks and I’m with you now; I’m emotionally invested in what you’re doing.”

Success with crowd funding is very much dependent on emotional engagement, in creating something that your backers can invest in more than financially but also emotionally and on a more personal level. As Ernesto Bazan states, “You need to show all of your heart and soul [in a project].”

Strickler says, “What I like about the photography projects in particular is there’s so many layers of narrative. There’s the story of the subject, the story of that photographer covering that subject and the story of [the photographer] who’s just trying to make their dream come true by doing this thing.”

Empha.is is one of the newer crowd funding sites and is unique in that it solely targets photography projects—particularly those from photojournalists. Karim Ben Khelfia, cofounder and CEO of Emphas.is, believes that creating this emotional engagement is particularly important for photographers, which is why Emphas.is is built with a focus on storytelling. “It’s not just about funding, it’s about creating a community and awareness of who you are and your work.” For Ben Khelfia, a successful and respected photojournalist, crowd funding is a way of creating projects that the public responds more strongly to because of the personal touch and strong, individual point of view. Whereas photojournalistic work can carry a lot of prestige, Ben Khelfia also says that it can also be limited in terms of expressing the photographer’s own point of view and sensibilities—particularly for assignment work.

“We offer something very different to the crowd,” Khelfia says. “We’re here to make the stories that these photographers want to tell happen. You are free to tell the story you want to tell.” Products and projects aside, Emphas.is, Kickstarter, IndieGogo and their ilk offer a transparency between the crowd and creator that has never been enjoyed on such a large scale. Whether it’s a photojournalistic expedition to Yemen or a personal fine art project, the crowd finds themselves with an unprecedented behind-the-scenes glimpse at not only the creative process, but also the photographer himself.

Still, it is important that photographers remain grounded and realistic when starting a crowd funded project. As Mitchell says, “The best advice I can give is to be realistic when setting your goal. Most unfunded goals are set too high without the social networking or crowd behind it to support the project.” 

“For those looking to crowd fund, I would suggest giving lots of thought to the rewards you offer as an incentive, as well as being thoughtful about the funding tiers you choose,” Szwajkos adds via email. “In retrospect, I would have had a tier between $100 and $500, to encourage contributions in that range.”
Strickler encourages creators to set their goal at the minimum they need to fund a project. “On average successfully funded projects raise about 125 percent of their goal. We strongly encourage projects to set a 30-day duration. Longer leads to procrastination. I think momentum is more important than time.”

Laura Brunow Miner also cautions that crowd funding is not necessarily a well that photographers want to draw from at every opportunity. Financial need is only one aspect. “You don’t want to be asking for money when you only kind of need it.” She advises fellow photographers to look at the project as a whole before deciding whether or not to crowd fund. “You have to see if the project is a fit on multiple levels.” Miner is currently working on a book project and believes that aside from raising capital, crowd funding might be a great way to gauge audience interest and demand for the project.

While the consensus among those interviewed is that crowd funding is here to stay, whether or not it is a viable personal option is a decision each photographer will have to make on their own. While the temptation is to look at the platform as an avenue for finding free money the key to success, it seems, lies in an honest love for your subject matter or project and a willingness to share that love with the public.

“When I talk to project creators what I often hear is that the money was the least important thing that they got out of it,” Strickler says. “What they really got out of it was the opportunity that comes from sharing your ideas. Just putting your idea out into the work has an enormous positive impact on that work and on an individual as well.”


Chris Wiltz is the Features Editor of Rangefinder magazine.

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