Larry Towell is one of the most accomplished contemporary photojournalists. Two weeks ago I became a backer of his “Crisis in Afghanistan” project, pledging $25 through Kickstarter. Today was the deadline for Larry to attract backers, and with 143 supporters contributing $14,007, the project exceeded its target and is up and running.
I became a backer because I want to see alternative visions of Afghanistan produced and Larry should be able to use his talents to produce something different. But I also pledged a small amount because I want to see how crowd funding via Kickstarter works from the perspective of a contributor. I’m going to follow Larry’s project through the various stages from now until completion and will periodically report on what, as a minor backer, I can see happening.
The proposal for “Crisis in Afghanistan” has been the subject of some controversy in the last month, with a series of posts on duckrabbit beginning here and here, some heated debate 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 Tomas van Houtryve, who offered his own take here. I’ll touch one some of the points raised in between the heat of these exchanges, but I want to stick to the big picture – what can we learn about crowd funding photojournalism from Larry’s pitch?
Crowd funding is one manifestation of the new possibilities opened up by the disruptive power of the Internet. Because the barriers between producers and consumers have been breached, and because our capacity to create communities has been greatly enhanced, creators can now look in new places for supporters.
Of course, the need to look for new ways to fund projects has been necessitated by the same disruptive power of the Internet. While it is not the sole cause of the revolutions in the media economy, the Internet has hastened the decline of traditional modes of distribution. Instead of bemoaning the loss of long-past certainties, the challenge is how to leverage these new forces to finance new work. In an earlier post on making documentary possible, I outlined the various ways this was happening, and Kickstarter and Emphas.is were two of the examples discussed (see also Phil Coomes’ post on BBC Viewfinder).
Looking at the overall context, what drives the potential of these new approaches to funding is the way the web opens up possibilities to create communities around practices and projects, such that those communities then become sources of support including money. At the heart of this logic is the recognition that ‘free’ is now an essential part of getting paid (as I explain here, ‘free’ remains one of the most wilfully misunderstood concepts of the web 2.0 world, especially in photography circles).
Creating communities is an essential part of the concept of crowd funding. Communities come from engaging potential members, making them participants in the production and circulation of one’s project, rather than just viewing them as donors to call on from time to time. It can be understood as the search for “a thousand true fans” out of the many people who might like your work, and examples of how it works can be studied by reference to the music industry, as I’ve noted in my previous posts.
In this sense, I disagree with the way Daniel Cuthbert cast crowd funding per se as “a virtual begging bowl,” a fancy name for “handing out a cap to the world and begging for them to help you.” And I disagree with the anonymous ‘iamnotasuperstarphotographer’ – author of the duckrabbit posts that took aim at Larry Towell’s project – who repeats the related claim that crowd funding is in essence just “charity.”
Part of the debate around crowd funding comes from judging it as though crowd funding was a singular business model that could offer a sustainable means for financing the global practice of photojournalism. If anyone is claiming that they need to think again. The days of “a business model” that is universally applicable are long gone. Photographers wanting to work in the difficult area of story telling are going to have to – as so often in the past – put together a number of often in-direct revenue streams.
Crowd funding, even in its early Kickstarter forms, can be one of those revenue streams. It will never be the financial answer to a photographer’s every needs. But it is undeniably a source of money to enable new work. For it to be the most effective source, for both the creator and their backers, it needs to be founded on communities created through engagement with the project in question.
Do the early examples of crowd funding follow the concept in theory? Not really. So although it is wrong to see crowd funding per se as nothing more than begging like a charity, Tomas van Houtryve is correct to say, after reviewing some recent proposals, that “photographers need to drop the ‘donate’ or ‘help save me’ vocabulary that sounds like it was lifted from the Red Cross home page, and adopt terms like patronage, participation and guarantee.” Refocusing on the issue of creating communities is the way to do that.
So what about Larry Towell’s “Crisis in Afghanistan” project? Was it more about charity than creating a community?
Much of the projects success came from Larry’s status as a Magnum photographer making a bid backed by Magnum. Previous visits to Afghanistan have been funded by the Magnum Emergency Fund, money pledged from Kickstarter goes through the Magnum Foundation, and Magnum in Motion produced the supporting video appeal. Among the contributors are many famous photographic and media names, so ‘the community’ that rallied behind this project was one already in place and prepared to give. This was, then, more a case of donation than engagement.
Had the pitch for the “Crisis in Afghanistan” come from an unknown photographer I very much doubt if it would have succeeded. I know I certainly wouldn’t have contributed. Here’s why:
If Larry didn’t have a great track record already would a proposal with these unanswered questions have garnered the funding? If a student came to me with a project proposal like Larry’s I would have sent them away to do much more work on both context and logistics. If you aren’t a famous photographer seeking support you need to prepare a much more professional pitch, and must, as David White argued, be more open and transparent about all the elements of their project. Daniel Cuthbert has outlined some of the elements of a professional pitch here.
Above all else, the biggest problem with Larry’s project as presented is we don’t know what the story is, and what details there are about the political context are as unspecified or problematic as the logistics. I think that narrative is one of the key features of good photography, and its something lacking in Larry’s project proposal.
In the video Larry says he wants to offer an “alternative view of Afghanistan,” something “a little different.” Great. Different to what though? The specified list of Afghan victims has been much photographed so what is he going to offer that others haven’t? Being concerned with victims is a starting point, but is the project going to do more than put them on display? How is it going to avoid the romantic clichés that Stephen Mayes spoke about in his 2009 World Press Photo lecture (where he wryly observed that “I have a feeling that there are as many photographers as drug users in the Kabul’s Russian House”). What is the narrative that takes us from the Soviets, to landmines, to heroin, to Obama’s dilemma – all points highlighted in the project video?
And then we come to the political framing of the project. The Kickstarter statement begins with the claim that “for 30 years, Afghanistan has known only civil war.” As Asim Rafiqui pointed out, that is nonsense. “Civil war” presumes no outside intervention, which is obviously not true. In the project video Larry says “Afghan culture is about 5,000 years old and they have been fighting foreign interventions for most of that time.” While that recognises the interventions, the generalisation about thousands of years is equally nonsense, the sort of claim ‘we’ often make about foreign societies, flattening their history onto one miserable dimension. An alternative account of Afghanistan must go beyond that.
It is no longer acceptable for photojournalists to peddle unsupported observations about world issues they want to picture. If you want to produce a book that is part of the contemporary debate over Afghanistan, you have to have some political nouse. That depends on the hard graft of research and analysis, yet, as Ciara Leeming recently observed, too many photographers have forgotten the ‘journalism’ part of their story telling brief. I don’t know what research Larry has done or plans to do, and I can’t tell what his sources are, because the pitch didn’t specify these vital elements. Any professional bid for a reportage project must be based on good research and name the sources of its evidence.
Transparency, openness and engagement are among the essential ways of operating in the web 2.0 world. One controversy over Larry’s Afghanistan project kicked off when Larry’s brusque handling of a potential contributor’s important questions – similar to the ones I have asked above about narrative and politics – were highlighted for “for transparency lovers everywhere.” (I have to note the irony of someone who posts under an anonymous tag, and refuses to make any details about themselves public, calling out a publicly known figure for being opaque. I also have to disclose that I have disagreed regularly with this anonymous poster when he/she has submitted comments to my site).
Although the debate then went off the rails, Larry’s response was poor. David Allen Harvey defended Larry’s “awkwardness” with questions by claiming he “is totally averse to interviews, blogs, all of these things.” If that is the case, then he was a poor candidate for crowd funding, because using social media tools to communicate with supporters so they can participate in the project is essential to making this approach work. Sadly, as Tomas van Houtryve’s assessment of recent projects shows other photographers also fail to make engagement on on-going priority.
Crowd funding offers great potential as one amongst many sources of revenue for photojournalists, but it is not designed to be the solution for a sustainable income. It will be interesting to watch Emphas.is – which has a different structure – when it joins Kickstarter as a platform, along with others like the UK-based WeFund.
To succeed crowd funding needs to be meaningfully connected to communities around a photographer’s practice, and that means a new way of working for many. I will be putting a link to this post on Larry’s Facebook page in the hope of engaging him on some of these issues. I genuinely hope he can produce an effective new project with an alternative vision. In the meantime, I am looking forward to my post card from Larry thanking me for my financial contribution.
UPDATE 13 APRIL 2010: Tomas van Hotryve participated in a live webinar with Karim Ben Khelifa (the CEO of Emphas.is) and Paul Lowe (Course Director of the Masters Programme in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication), on Tuesday February 1, 2011. A recording of this OPEN-i session can be found on Vimeo.