Learning from Larry: what crowd funding photojournalism means and how to do it better

January 26, 2011 · by David Campbell · media economy, photography, politics

LT KS Learning from Larry: what crowd funding photojournalism means and how to do it better

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?

Understanding crowd funding in theory

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.

What about recent examples of crowd funding photojournalism?

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:

  • Support is requested for a fifth trip to Afghanistan since 2008, but there is little detail about the work done on the four previous trips. When were the trips undertaken? With whom and how? What topics were covered? How many images were produced? What is the size of the best edit from this work?
  • There is little detail about what remains to be done. According to the project statement “your support will enable me to finish shooting, and to interview landmine victims, male and female drug addicts, political detainees in Puli-Charki prison, ex-Russian soldiers, and veterans.” Isn’t that a lot to do in “four to five weeks”? Are contacts in place or yet to be made? What is the narrative that these characters are part of?
  • There is no budget. All the statement says is “Afghanistan is a very expensive country in which to work, due to the need to hire professional fixers, interpreters, and drivers, and your support will help to cover these costs.” Why $12,000 then? How does that break down? What is the contingency if costs exceed this budget? What happens to the money raised over and above the original target?
  • There is little detail on the outcomes. Funding “will result in a book of photographs and text,” and the video flicks through a book dummy that looks pretty substantial. What is the text going to say? Who is the publisher? When will it be out? How will it be promoted so it’s part of the political debate?

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.

The problem of narrative and politics in “Crisis in Afghanistan”

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.

The need to engage

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.


Want to know more? Webinar on Emphas.is and crowd funding:

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.

29 Responses to “Learning from Larry: what crowd funding photojournalism means and how to do it better”

  1. As always, very good post David.

    Maybe I was a little harsh on crowd funding at first, but that was based on the attempts we’ve seen so far and as Tomas pointed out, they were rather bad with their approach.

    I hope this could be a new way for this industry to earn funds for the projects we do, god knows it can’t get any worse.

  2. Great post!

    I agree that this type of financing probably will not be the main income for the photojournalists of the future. But we cannot guess the result of the crowd funding when 10 years ago nobody thought this was an option. Time tells everything.

  3. Thanks for the comments Daniel and Julio. ‘Crowd funding’ covers many possible strategies if you take the broad view and focus on creating a community that can then support work in multiple ways. As Joerg Colberg pointed out – and as I mentioned briefly in my earlier, related post – something like like The Sochi Project offers a better example than what we have seen so far through the collective platforms like Kickstarter. It’s early days, and we can learn from these early trials, which are successful financially. I agree that the future course of these strategies is unknown, but even the best are not going to be a magic answer to all that ails the media industries. However, as sources of project funding they offer great potential, and if photographers think about creating a community to engage with around their projects then something exciting can happen for all concerned.

  4. Great post but I have a question?

    You mention that photographers should be transparent and open with what they plan to do with the money that people pledge

    But what if, between the travel expenses and the equipment hire they planned on paying themself a fee?
    Would that make you more or less likely to pledge or would that depend on what you got for your investment?

    • That’s a good question Andrew. One issue would be whether collective crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter permit such personal payments. Speaking personally, I do not think that it would be appropriate to see crowd funding (in the examples we are discussing here) as a mechanism to generate a fee or day-rate. It would make me less likely to give. I appreciate that all of us who are at least in part free lance have to think about where the personal income is coming from. But I have argued that crowd funding is but once source of revenue, and it is designed at its best to make new work possible. I don’t think a fee should be a part of that. But I’m open to some counter arguments. And certainly if that route was taken then transparency would be absolutely essential. Misuse of funds for personal reasons would seriously damage this concept.

  5. David, you obviously did choose to invest more money then the amount needed to get a handshake from Larry, coz you’re expecting a postcard at least. Not yet to expect an email though, as the tool of the trade Juerg Colberg is proposing in these cases.
    Which should actually kick of the question, for whom -which audience- these projects are made for. Publication of a book or blogging about it does not really find a relevant audience – or does it? So the little crowd, the backer, are those preferred target markets, to which the photog then has to mass-personalize a message (e-mail that is) to make them pay? Or is the photographer in reality sent by the public interest he tries to generate and does not have to give back to the backer but rather to this wider audience? Should the backer not invest in the general idea to make other people aware of an issue and not so much in the personal give back from the executer of the idea?
    But then, see above, what will happen afterwards? Who is gonna see the photographs? The masses, ordinary people like you and me? Or just the ‘community’? It’s not only the money which is missing for projects like this, it’s also the power of the media, which is not there to deliver the message. Who is going to pay for that?

    Mmh, for me, we have to discuss still a lot…
    A pleasure to talk with you and sharing on your platform here,

    • Thanks for the comment Thomas. Very good questions. I would hope that photographers who are crowd funded would look for the best audience possible. Of course, that beg’s the question of what is ‘best’. There is more to be thought and said about community in this regard, but I do think best can mean ‘most appropriate’ (or, as you say ‘relevant’) as well as ‘mass’ or ‘widest’. What I mean is that a small, influential audience might be more significant than one that is statistically larger. It would certainly have to be beyond the initial community that supported the work, though it would be important to think about how engaging that community would be part of the dissemination strategy. Beyond that its hard to argue in the general – we would have to consider particular cases.

  6. iamnotasuperstarphotographer January 27, 2011 at 1:26 am

    Irony noted. You were not the first to comment. I take people’s point and I am no longer posting on the other blog as doing that anonymously raises this issue. I have stated my reasons for staying anonymous on that blog and I shall not be changing that position any time soon.

    I have experienced and seen enough explicit and milder forms of racism, cultural elites and seen enough sexism so as not to let what I say to be dismissed because of who I am. That is my chosen position. Look at the sheer lack of diversity inside these agencies/foundations that stand for representing minority voices. This is a hypocrisy that I cannot understand. You have done some great work researching representations of the suffering, probably done more research than most in fact so clearly this does not apply to you in anyway shape or form.

    The barriers to entry in this industry are brutal enough economically but unless I shoot like the establishment, look like the establishment and worship the structure of the establishment, there is no space for someone wanting to look past stereotypical visual expressions of colonial culture let alone work in that environment. I am not going to belittle those who suffer in a foriegn land and call myself a hero when lets face it, they are shot for sale. Last years WPP award winners said so much.

    You produced a multimedia piece of work looking at Urban migration and the Hokou system in China. If you look at that and TVH’s “Mao Incorporated” (you will be sharing a platform with him on Open-I I think), you will see a massive difference in ideology between yourself and this agency photographer. One piece is an examination of an important contemporary social issue, the other is cheap stereotyping from the viewpoint of western cultural elite poking fun at the fanatical few pretending it is symbolic of something greater just to grab some pretty beautiful images (although his study of Maoists in Nepal is in another league). Talk about finding the “story” you are looking for. The fact he is an amazing taker of beautiful images is no excuse for me.

    I have always found it more comforting to be a member of the public. I work for no photo agency, I am not a photographer and I am not trying to be a photographer so I am staying anonymous on the comments sections. That is my adjustment to show respect to those criticisms of my anonymity.

    I see no reason why who I am makes a blind bit of difference to the logic of what is said. Take away the apparent irony of my anonymity and logic of what I said still stands. I am not an agency, I am not a Foundation vehicle to channel more funds into a decaying industry, I am not asking for funding from the public and I am not promising to give you feedback if you donate to further important debate. I still believe that I am within my rights as a member of the public and potential donator to ask for transparency and who I am makes not a single bit of difference to anybody unless they are seeking to make things personal.

    The day all that changes then I will be happy to contribute with my real name yet until then, I will ask you not to reveal who I am. You can just ask me not to debate.

    I remarked way back in October on your blog that Kickstarter and crowd funding was open to abuse from photojournalists. That “give me the grant and let me do what I want” mentality is everywhere. KJ’s “I Love You Real Fast” Kickstarter page does not even contain a “thank you” after she got her funding let alone any sign of an update.

    I have not seen any of the work that has been funded by Kickstarter so far during this first generation of projects that have been funded but thinking about it, what is the incentive because after all, they have got their funding anyway. They might as well explore their own internal intellectual photographic processes at their leisure because their funders have already parted with their cash. There is no receipt, no money back and no recourse if you are dissatisfied with the results. There is just no incentive to deliver other than professional pride and photographers being what they are, they will be passionate about going through the process more than the outcome. It is like that theory that appealling to passionate nationalism will drive up productivity standards in the old Soviet bloc. It just did not work on mass because there were no incentives to really push those boundaries so those who worked their socks off were brought down by those who did not see any incentive to do the same. That is the big risk of Kickstarter – that the average is brought down by the lack of proper incentives to perform and the public get bored of giving in a time of financial scarcity.

    I explicitly praised Kickstarter and did a relative comparison to the most successful project on there to show how Kickstarter can work to deliver a product in the hands of those who pledged versus the token gifts given out by photojournalists looking for funding – that to me is a form of charity as nearly all of the benfits of this transaction go to the photographer. You even linked to it yourself.

    Unless you create value, you cannot get sustainability and that is what everyone is looking for.

    I do not see why my anonymity makes any difference to the problem I highlighted before on your blog and evident in the behaviours being witnessed so far.

    The users of Kickstarter have no obligation to be transparent of course… but what a great idea if they were right!!!???

    • @iamnotasuperstarphotographer – It’s your right to decide whether you are anonymous or not. Equally, its the right of those who you want to engage to decide whether debating with someone who insists on anonymity can be productive. But let’s be clear – this has absolutely nothing to do with personal identity. It is about where are coming from publicly and professionally.

      I take my lead on this from Jay Rosen’s discussion of the importance of transparency for journalists:

      In your bid to be trusted, don’t take the View From Nowhere; instead, tell people where you’re coming from. Treating people as a public means refusing to float “above” them. Instead of claiming that you have no view, no stake, no perspective, no (sorry for the academic term) situated self, try to level with the users and let them know where you are coming from. As David Weinberger puts it. “transparency is the new objectivity.” You may find that trust is easier to negotiate if you don’t claim the View from Nowhere, but instead tell them where you’re coming from.

      That’s what I want from journalists. That’s what I try to practice myself on this site, where all my writings and experience are there for people to judge one way or another as they consider the posts. And that’s what I expect from anyone who wants to engage ideas here. You’ve made your unchanging commitment to anonymity clear. Given that, these are the reasons for this being our final exchange here.

  7. Great article David. And Very timely.

    @Iamnot If you were as bad at photography as you are at writing comments (sometimes) then maybe that’s why you didn’t get on in the industry?

    David is right it was hypercritical of duckrabbit to have someone blogging about transparency who themselves were anonymous. We asked you to not write negatively about individuals for this very reason, but you broke the agreement. End of story.

    You continue to make massive and often quite offensive generalizations. Here are two:

    ‘photographers being what they are, they will be passionate about going through the process more than the outcome.’

    ‘unless I shoot like the establishment, look like the establishment and worship the structure of the establishment, there is no space for someone wanting to look past stereotypical visual expressions of colonial culture let alone work in that environment.’

    Seems to me you are just as guilty as those you attack of stereotyping. Can we now just focus on what’s written in the post not trying to drag it off into a off subject analysis about Thomas’ work? This should be a debate about crowdfunding and I think you should respect that.

    My only point to add here is that I think the wider economic picture should be examined.

    I get the feeling that some of these sets of pictures will end up as photo-galleries in on-line newspapers. Infact in many cases this is probably their best bet of a wide audience. Will the newspapers pay? Often not. In putting money into these projects could we also be inadvertently subsiding Murdoch or the New York Times?

  8. Very interesting points David. I agree very much with your statement that photojournalism is about the narrative. However I’m not sure Larry is missing the narrative, I just think his way of working is to create the narrative and make sense of things as he goes along, so he simply have a hard time answering questions beforehand. Now you can argue that disclosing very little of what you are doing is not a good approach when asking for money in many cases, but I see no difference between this and traditional assignments. Some photographers have a position where magazines trust them to come back with great stuff, and ask very few questions, and some have a position where they are asked in detail what they plan to deliver.

  9. Bjarke; thanks for the thoughts. You could be right, and it would be interesting to hear Larry’s thoughts on that. The thing about narrative, though, is that it’s not something you find ‘on the ground’ or ‘as you go along’. I appreciate that in photographic practice people don’t know the final shape of the story until they are done, but in terms of the overall narrative of a political and war story, that is something that is highly constructed and dependent on research and understanding.

  10. Hi David,

    Very insightful commentary from you and the rest of the posters. I am not established like Magnum shooters are. I’m a regional guy, with regional costs. But just a few days ago decided to try to crowd source my own project, “Glamor Gone–The Decline of the Airline Career.”


    I noticed that within hours of my project’s introduction post on Lightstalkers.org (a photojournalism community), Ashley Gilbertson’s recent project was posted for the community. He’s asking for $15,000 to shoot seventeen more pictures to complete his project.

    Now, Ashley does great work, but I have to wonder if the new model for crowd sourcing is actually covering production costs or providing someone a living for the Larry Towell’s and Ashley Gilbertson’s. It seems to me that Kickstarter is a method of covering production costs upfront, in anticipation of selling the story to media outlets later.

    Then again, I’m a nobody shooter.

    Keep up the insight, please.

    David Manning.

    • Hi David – thanks for the comment and I’m glad the debate is fruitful for you. As I’ve said in response to others, there are big distinctions between how crowd funding works in theory and in practice. And if a photographer is already established with a big and deserved reputation (like Larry Towell and Ashley Gilbertson), then raising funds is necessarily going to be easier because they already have a community of support in place. I doubt, though, they are financing personal income through these appeals, but if more detailed budgets were available then that conclusion would be even more secure.

      You do yourself a disservice with the claim you are a “nobody shooter” however! Your project is a great topic and deserves to happen. I would say, though, that some of the points I made re Larry’s actual proposal on Kickstarter apply to yours too. The final paragraph of your pitch doesn’t really specify much details by way of budget, logistics, and outcomes, and I would want to know more before handing over cash. Along with some more about your background and prior work, that might enhance your prospects. Even though you are not asking for much, I think the same principles apply to everybody. Indeed, I would make the same points about Ashley Gilbertson’s pitch – I don’t think the final two paragraphs of his Kickstarter project page are sufficient.

      Good luck with the project and keep us posted on the outcome.

  11. Hello David

    First, I commend you on an excellent site. Your work here is important. You are taking on the most important issues of our journalistic day in an ever changing business and work ethic landscape.

    You referred in your article to a comment I had made on Larry Towell’s “awkwardness” with social media. You suggested that this is unfortunate given the mandate these days for anyone seeking what you call “crowd funding”. You also say that if Larry were not “famous” his funding would most likely not have worked given both of these premises.

    Obviously the “awkwardness” with social media was not a problem because Larry went over the top of his Kickstarter goal and is still going. This is of course because Larry is “famous”. David could we please trade out the word “famous” for simply “dedicated” or “committed” or “talented” ? Famous implies a shallowness that I just do not think applies to Larry. I am sure you would agree.

    Larry is succeeding now in my opinion simply because the folks donating have decided on his past credibility as a pure photographer with integrity and talent that he will do what he says he will do. His ability to “write a proposal” is his work. Doesn’t work that way in academia I know. Yet does work that way in the real world when real people are putting their funds where they best see fit. Individuals not institutions. Not committee approval. Just gut reactions to a talented photographer whose book on Afghanistan will surely be a classic and who will influence greatly the young who might yes at this point have to write a better proposal than Larry…

    By all accounts Larry has stood amidst heavy fire in Palestine and braved Salvador fire fights and risks his life very day in Afghanistan in the cause of social justice. Of all the so called “famous war photographers” I know, and I think I might just know them all, Larry Towell is the least likely one to be seeking “fame” and if he were not “awkward” with the social media then we probably would not be having this discussion.

    I plan to do an article for Burn about this very topic. I would love for you to be either a guest writer or at least significant commentator. Or, we can simply bounce back and forth on this one because it is important.

    I must say I was a bit surprised that controversy is popping up about crowd funding and the Magnum Foundation grants. For me the so called “crowd funding” is so much better than taking the advertising dollars we always took from magazines who were supported by cigarette ads, whiskey ads, military recruitment ads, Exxon, Enron, etc etc…

    For those of us who helped to create funding for emerging photographers we could only see a positive side to it. An alternative energy source if you will. Yet one must always be ready to explain motives and methods. None of us are beyond reproach.

    Yet seeing all of this through different eyes is always important. We all tend to work with blinders in one way or another. So the sort of discourse you create here David is of great value to all of us. I fully defend both you and Larry. I feel you are both seeking the moral high ground.

    Full disclosure of intent is an imperative for anyone seeking to report the events of the day and have any credibility with an informed readership. Most particularly for those seeking funds from private donors to report these events and cultural evolutions.

    I do hope to continue discussion with you and your readership on this and other topics. Please join us also on Burn if you have time. The internet has given us a new life. Responsible and educated writers like you will help to shape the net into a world beyond what we ever had in print.

    Again, thank you for this space and for the time you put into it.

    Cheers, David

    • Hi David – welcome to the site and the engagement. I appreciate your comments which show considerable common ground on the need to debate and explore issues like crowd funding.

      By ‘famous’ I certainly meant to indicate Larry’s credibility and talent rather than imply any undeserved celebrity. As the opening of the post noted, he is one of the most accomplished photojournalists of our time.

      When we are looking at crowd funding as a model for generating support and revenue for particular projects, I am keen to try and discuss the concept at its most general (putting it in context by understanding the dynamics in theory) and then recent examples of it at work. I think the concept in theory requires a good grasp of social media and a commitment to using it, so as to establish a community around the project from which support can then be drawn. For photographers just starting out, or those who don’t have the established credibility or reputation of Larry, this is essential.

      In that sense, I don’t think Larry’s success in funding the project via Kickstarter is actually a model for emerging photographers to follow. Here I take a slightly different view to you, or at least emphasize a different point. Larry’s success was based on his past credibility, as you rightly say, and his “proposal” was his past work. Being established he already had the community of potential support in place.

      Having raised more than he asked for, we can say his “‘awkwardness’ with social media was not a problem. But – I think that would be the wrong lesson for emerging photographers to take from this case. Equally, emerging photographers would be mistaken to think that past work alone can substitutes for a detailed proposal, budget etc.

      I still think Larry would have been better off addressing some of the questions explored in the post about the details of the project, amongst which the issues of narrative and political context are for me the most important. But if a photographer hasn’t reached Larry’s heights, then I believe they must offer comprehensive and transparent proposals to succeed with crowd funding.

      I’m sure we’re on the same page in that sense. And I agree totally that crowd funding is an exciting opportunity to make new work possible and, done properly, to extend the reach and impact of that work. Given the many dimensions to this thing that has been named “crowd funding” the debate is essential in working through what it actually means in practice and how it can best be done for all concerned. I’m looking forward to working with you on extending that discussion, both here and on Burn.

  12. Enjoying your site David.

    On the anonyms posting point – I disagree with almost all IAMNOT says, with the exception of this one. I appreciate you are striving for transparency for the reasons you mention but in real terms supposing I was named ‘Terry P’ for example. Would it really make a difference if I adopted that monocle? I mean it would offer no real insight into who I was? What would THAT transparency actually equate to? Surely no more than a gesture?
    Lest we forget there is a history of anonymous commenting within the British media and from a philosophical standpoint there are numerous arguments in support of anonymity (see for example Barthes’ Death of the Author which amongst other things states “To give a text an Author” and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it “is to impose a limit on that text.”

    I’ve been following the Larry T post on Duckrabbit and am glad the discussion ended up evolving in to a mature debate around ‘Crowd Funding’ rather that Larry. Briefly though, am surprised the furore around his KS fund raising endeavour. Having watched his video, read the comments (including his responses) and with the knowledge of his prior work when as DAH mentions he has put his neck on the line on more than one occasion I think he has enough in the locker to be trusted to do the biz. He may be a private man who likes to work things out in his own head and relies on that to fuel and stimulate his creative thinking. If that were the case (it may not be) I think we should respect it.

    Anyway, the one point I wanted to add around crowd funding is that whilst it seems a good thing overall I’m uncomfortable with the presumption/expectation that the financial appeal is also an appeal for ideas in that the photographer is in some way obliged/expected to take onboard peoples queries and suggestions (even though they may be good ones). I think this is dangerous territory to be getting in to. We surely need to trust the photographer’s vision and respect that the creative process is a personal interpretation which lives and dies by its own qualities. The best work after all surely comes from this artistic core inside of people that is off limit to everyone but the individual?


    • @falling soldier As you say, I’ve made my reasons for operating with a policy of transparency clear in the comments reply above and I won’t repeat them here, except to say its not a question of personal identity, but of public and professional identity. Your moniker, whatever it might be, wouldn’t add or change anything. But I think that people who want to debate at length on the web, which is intrinsically an open environment built on links, should provide links to something that casts light on where they are coming from. I don’t have a policy that bars anonymous comments, at least to this point, which is why yours and the majority of IAMNOTs have been accepted. In the latter case, I just felt, after many iterations on various posts, the substance of the debate was no longer productive. I came to the conclusion that I was not going to offer more of my web space to someone who didn’t share the ethos of this site. Far from transparency via links imposing a limit on interpretations, I view it as essential for an open and developing conversation in which all aspects can be explored.

      On your crowd funding points, my general response is this – when people make public appeals for money, then being a “private man” (no matter who the individual) is an insufficient reason for not providing details on all aspects of the project. If emerging photographers thought all the had to do was put out the call, justify it by saying “trust me”, and then offer little feedback to contributors, then we will not take crowd funding very far. I am NOT saying that was Larry’s intention or plan, but I disagree with your remark that if Larry operated that way we should just respect it. Of course we can respect that in principle, but once you cross into the public domain and ask for money, then the calculus changes in my view.

      I also find myself in disagreement with some of your final point. I don’t think anyone has suggested that because a photographer raises money publicly they are obliged or expected to take on substantive ideas from supporters. I do think, though, that building a community around ones work from which you can then generate financial support involves real engagement, otherwise it does become the simple charity that others baulked at. Why wouldn’t a story teller want to learn from others who were committed to supporting their work?

      Here its interesting to see that again you return to the “private” and the need for “trust”. If a photographer wants to be private and rely on trust they surely can. In the absence of a well established track record I doubt that’s going to fly with most prospective contributors once you make a public pitch. Thinking about the principle of crowd funding, I feel that once you cross the threshold into the public and call for support, the playing field changes and members of your community deserve more than a one-way relationship.

      Following that, I am also at odds with your final statement that “the best work after all surely comes from this artistic core inside of people that is off limit to everyone but the individual.” I can appreciate the need for creative autonomy and expression. But in the realm of documentary and photojournalism the idea that one individual could know all there was to know about their topic strikes me as seriously flawed. Given that you began by invoking Barthes’ “death of the author” it seems perplexing to end up talking about the self-contained artistic soul that is unknowable to others.

  13. David Campbell,

    Thank you for this. Very timely, comprehensive and well thought.

    I think you are absolutely right in calling for transparency and clarity up front. I had a few thoughts to add–a sketched outline for a best practices template, or how it could and maybe should go.

    The principal difference between crowd funding and client commissioned work is that the client work comes with a clear set of expectations externally imposed on the photographer. For the crowd funded project, or at least for the crowd funded portion of a project, the media maker is capable of designing those expectations and goals her or him self.

    The crowd then effectively gathers around them in support, creating a partnership that carries the work forward. The measure of the project’s success will start with the crowd building support financially, but will not be fully realized until the terms of the project as they are communicated in the proposal are realized as a result of the funding. It is the closing of that loop that will increase the overall viability of crowd funding as a resource. The more clear those terms are upfront, the more likely the project will be perceived of as a success.

    A crowd funding proposal should read like the business proposal that it is, with clear explanations of what is to be achieved, why it is important (which includes the issues you address in the section titled ‘The problem of narrative and politics in “Crisis in Afghanistan”’), how it will be achieved, and how its success in terms of crowd contributions will be measured.

    Budgets should be clear and accurate. The expected outcome of the project should be easily understood and quantifiable for accountability purposes. There should be a kind of crowd funding accountability in the same way one would be accountable to an investor or to a client.

    Work that has the potential of generating future revenue down the road (exhibitions, book sales, etc) could clarify to funders up front how it will integrate or carry forward the initial investment. Best practices for projects that receive significant financial returns could include a portion of those revenues to be paid forward to fund another project(s), up to the amount initial investors put forward. ie. 10% of financial returns will be set aside until the initial investment is paid forward. Financial success then can fuel more innovative work.

    Some introductory ideas to consider.

  14. I don’t honestly see what all the fuss is about. I don’t actually believe there is any cause for debate. 95% of photographers are struggling for money most always will. Photojournalists are becoming thinner on the ground, those with permanent contracts are as rare as decent winning photos in the World’s Press Photo Awards. Give money to a cause you want support, no strings, just the love of the medium. Nuff said.

    • Andrew – sure, if you are happy with idea of crowd funding as charity, and you can get people to throw their money into the hat of a photographer passing it around, then I guess there is no need to think beyond that.

      But…I doubt that strategy is going to work for the bulk of emerging photographers. If they look at the various Kickstarter appeals of Magnum photographers and think they are models to follow they are going to have a hard time. I want people to be able to attract ongoing support for their work for all the reasons you mention. The likes of Larry Towell and Bruce Gilden are succeeding with the appeals because they already have a community of support in place. All power to them, but I believe its essential to understand the dynamics of a successful pitch if you want to go down this road. That’s why analysis and debate is important.

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Campbell, Daniel Cuthbert, Adrineh Macaan, Tomas van Houtryve, ceyiz makal and others. ceyiz makal said: RT @davidc7: Learning from Larry: what crowd funding photojournalism means and how to do it better http://is.gd/pvEov1 [...]

  2. [...] di crowd funding. Ovvero, i soldi te li dà la gente comune. Un interessante articolo di David Campbell, uno dei più attenti osservatori nel campo della fotografia/giornalismo, ha analizzato [...]

  3. [...] about this started with the Magnum photographer Larry Towell’s crowd-funded project on David Campbell’s blog here. To give a fair chance to everybody asking for support, there should probably be some more [...]

  4. [...] a high level of buzz. It’s been encouraging to see some critical analysis from the likes of David Campbell, Tomas van Hourtryve and a few others.  The skeptic in me thought that most of commentary on [...]

  5. [...] Crowd funding is growing as a means to support creative projects. Back in January I discussed the theory and practice of crowd funding through a critique of Larry Towell’s ‘Crisis in Afghanistan’ project, followed by an update [...]

  6. [...] and dialogue around ideas and information rather than just appeals or material inducements; In the debate about crowd funding photojournalism I have emphasized how having a community is a prec…. Those who have raised funds have either been already well-known (which means they have had a [...]

  7. [...] my original post reviewing Larry’s Kickstarter-funded project on Afghanistan I said I would periodically report, from the [...]

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