Making documentary possible: How the Internet leads to new funding opportunities


Finding the money to enable new photographic work is one of the most pressing issues practitioners currently face. Editorial paymasters have been in decline for a very long time, forcing those who want to pursue challenging and time-consuming projects to seek other means of support. Now the Internet’s disruption of the media economy has quelled any forlorn hope that there will be a single, universal business model to replace the advertising revenue that enabled – some time ago, in a limited and indirect way – photojournalism and documentary work.

This challenge requires a radical rethinking of how creative practice can be supported. One step is to recognize that because the Internet has solved the problem of distribution by bring the cost effectively to near zero, it’s highly unlikely any business model can hitch itself to a single mode of distribution and succeed. Another step is to understand that leveraging the benefit of the Internet’s capacity for distribution in all these channels requires some content to circulate for free.

In our digital present, as soon as something (like a song or photo) becomes an easily replicable file of bytes, nobody can exercise perfect control over its distribution. And if one cannot exercise this control, then being rewarded for the creative process that arranged those bytes cannot be limited to the sale of those bytes.

Of course, few concepts raise more hackles in the creative world than the idea of ‘free’. At the base of this concern is the misplaced belief that free is itself the business model. Instead, free needs to be understood as an acceptance of the dynamics of digital distribution and the first stage in finding ways to gain rewards from that largely unfettered circulation.

What does this mean in practice? As examples from the music industry (as opposed to the recording business) demonstrate, many artists, both new and established, are already pursuing these strategies. They may or may not replicable in the photographic world, so we cannot say a ‘new business model’ has been discovered and will work for all concerned. Nonetheless, I’ve come across a few examples in recent times of new ways of working that are producing the financial means to foster new creative practice.

  • Stephen Gill publishes his work through his own imprint Nobody Books, and issues both regular versions and limited editions of 100 that sell for £200 or more. This is “versioning” and is driven by the fact that in a world of infinitely reproducible digital copies a sufficient number of people want the non-reproducible in material form and are prepared to pay handsomely for it.
  • Nick Turpin of Nick Turpin Publishing told the British Journal of Photography earlier this year:

“My business model is very specific, I have to make my publications quickly and efficiently, sell them directly to the public through the internet, thereby avoiding the loss of 45 percent of my cover price to distributors and bookshops, and market them using social media such as Twitter, Facebook and my own website. I build a community around the publications allowing, for example, street photographers to submit their work for inclusion in the next Publication magazine. More than 1000 have done so. I hesitated to show too much of my first magazine online, but I actually found that the more I displayed images from it, the more people wanted to buy and own it – the opposite of what I had expected” (emphasis added)

  • Ctien, a Los Angeles-based fine art photographer, has used his web presence to solicit regular sponsorship from his community of admirers. He offers people four contributor levels, asks for monthly subscriptions, and offers various cards and prints in return depending on the amount they pledge. From just 94 fans he has obtained $15,000 per year, which amounts to one third of his living expenses.
  • This approach also works for social documentary. Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen have garnered a lot of attention for their Sochi Project, which is covering the issues in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, and makes some examples of the project public on the web while retaining others for subscribers. Like the previous case, through different supporter levels and their engagement with those who sign up, they have attracted €22,000 in the first year which enabled them to undertake the first stage of the work.

There are also collective funding platforms where the web’s reach enables people to pitch for public support to support their work:

  • Kickstarter is the most notable of these. It has seen 3,000 projects funded (a little less than half those that bid for support) and you currently needs a US bank account to start a project, but anyone with a credit card can give. Projects are only funded when they reach their goal, and most projects are asking for under $10,000 but some raise many times that. The most successful projects are over-subscribed, and the total amount of money raised is available for the proposer. As in the above cases, higher rate pledges are encouraged through versioning. While used for all sorts of proposals other than photography, documentary projects have done well too. A recent example is Amira Al Sharif’s proposal for “Unveiling Misconceptions: A Muslim Woman Documents Lives of American Women Project.” Currently with 208 backers it has raised $8017, and will likely double its goal by the November deadline. Amira was aided in her efforts by the support of Ed Kashi who effectively used Twitter to distribute her plans through various networks (mine amongst them).
  • Starting early next year, will take the crowd-sourcing model of Kickstarter and partly apply it to photojournalism. An introduction to the project is online now, and is preceded by screens that declare “what if you were on Robert Capa’s email list in 1944?…what if Don McCullin was blogging live from Vietnam?…Now imagine if you had sent them there yourself.” Its invitation for supporters to engage with photographers directly is enticing, and given that 3,500 people have already registered their interest, substantial support seems likely. While the funding is open and crowd sourced, the projects on offer are limited and “carefully selected by a board of reviewers composed of industry professionals.” Although depends on the new thinking demanded by social media, and the supporting blog titled its first post “never mind the gatekeepers,” the project does unfortunately turn to some old ideas to introduce its purpose, not least when they claim to have “partly” found “the silver bullet that will cure all that ails the media industry.” Likewise, casting contributors as people “willing to pay a small fee for the privilege of being included” is to potentially rely on an outmoded idea of subscription and diminish the necessary community building aspect of crowd sourced funding. I hope they recast their thinking to more accurately reflect current realities as they go forward with this important initiative, and I hope the gatekeepers on their board of reviewers would be open to a project like Amira Al Sharifs.

These examples pursue a variety of different approaches, but all use the power of the web to connect with supporters and offer them both engagement and reward for their support, often for projects that are yet to be undertaken. Even when material products like books are being produced, all these examples depend on having a web presence and being active in social networks to build a community of supporters. In all of these cases free does not mean giving everything away for nothing; it means creatively using the new media economy for new works.

None of these examples lead to a single, replicable, one-size fits-all business model. Each has its own business model. It’s never been easy funding the good work in photojournalism and documentary. It will continue to be as difficult as it’s ever been. But if we think beyond the confines of the past its possible to see a wider range of tools that can both create and access a larger community to make it possible.

This post is drawn from a lecture I gave at the International Orange Festival, Changsha, China on 23 October 2010.

Photo credit: iskanderbenamor/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


8 Responses to “Making documentary possible: How the Internet leads to new funding opportunities”

  1. International Orange Photo Festival 2010 (Report) « zhuang wubin 庄吴斌

    […] The much-anticipated talks that rolled out at Wanbao Mansion have been highly informative. While talking about his work The Hitcher, English photographer Chris Cokein encountered a boisterous response from members of the audience over his usage of disposable cameras and his desire to photograph the thrash that he saw during those hitchhiking trips—together the portraits that he made of the people who picked him up. D J Clark made a compelling case for multimedia reportage in this wired age but left several questions unanswered when he showed documentary clips that hardly feature still photography. Is that an indirect way of proclaiming the irrelevancy of still photography in the multimedia era? Based on the distribution method that Radiohead adopted for the album In Rainbows, researcher David Campbell introduced the idea of “freemium” as a new model for documentary photographers to fund their long-term projects by first giving away some content on the web for free and then charging a higher premium for other content. Read his presentation here. […]

  2. iamnotasuperstarphotographer

    “None of these examples lead to a single, replicable, one-size fits-all business model.”

    Gill and Turpin highlight possible sustainable business models. Note the focus on good old fashioned discretionary value creation using new media marketing techniques.

    Surely the others are funding models based on charity, giving, good will, getting money up front prior to production have nothing to do with supply & demand/price dynamics/market testing/providing a service/producing goods for sale. They get cash off other photographers and their friends and are NOT business models.

    Is the concept of photographers giving to other photographers going to make the market any bigger than it is already? Charities exist to fill the gaps and provides a service where neither the market or the state can fill the vacuum in provision. I would argue that they are not there to let Photojournalists go off and do their own thing because of the failure to run itself correctly.

    Are Gill and Turpin going to generate enough excess to employ others (one is a model based on limited editions of 100 therefore limited in the amount of profit that can be made given max revenue is 100 x £200. I bet he does other things though to be fair to diversify his income streams). I hope Turpin gets his model right though – good spot!

    The others are just using the web to raise money in order to do their own thing and therefore not a sustainable business model based on merit. Not everyone is going to be able to leverage off Ed Kashi’s social network to get this charitable income (well done to EK, yourself and all concerned though).

    There is a HUGE difference between the two right? One off donations and sustainable income?

    The real business question comes if we call the income they get “start up capital”. What would be the benefit? What is the return on capital that would incentivises more external capital to come in from the outside to keep things going? Where levels of accountability are present when there is neither a product for sale to the public or a service you can charge for? Without that, how do you measure success? Because the photo’s will be pretty?

    I hope I am wrong and that venture capital pours in and investment capital is built up to build a biggie pie to slice up for more people. Photographically though, good luck to those projects.

    What is needed is good old fashioned business thinking in a new technological world…

  3. David Campbell

    @iamnotasuperstarphotographer – yes, there are differences between the examples, but not in the way you frame them. All these examples show how, variously, photographers leverage the virtues of the web to find the money to enable new photographic work. That can be through creating their own, specific business models (Gill and Turpin and Ctien) or by crowd sourcing funds for production (the Sochi project). Kickstarter and are platforms not charities, and it is not a matter of getting just ones friends or fellow photographers to stump up some support — its about creating a community interested in the work, some of whom will financially support it in return for increasing access or reward through versioning. It seems that you have a very traditional, formal and corporate sense of what counts as a business, and it takes the discussion in directions (when you speak of venture capital, investments and returns) that are not at this stage my principal concern. I’m interested in drawing attention to individuals and groups finding diverse ways to fund what they want to do, and seeing how they use the web to achieve that.

  4. iamnotasuperstarphotographer

    I got confused in the conclusion when you said that “None of these examples lead to a single, replicable, one-size fits-all business model. Each has its own business model.” so I thought you were analysing business models in relation to each of your examples. I share your interest in “drawing attention to individuals and groups finding diverse ways to fund what they want to do, and seeing how they use the web to achieve that”.

    I agree with you when you say that I have a very traditional, formal vision of what counts as a business and I specifically choose to use the language of business (or “corporate”) when discussing business issues. So in plain english from Wiki: –

    “A business (also known as company, enterprise, or firm) is a legally recognized organization designed to provide goods, services, or both to consumers or tertiary business in exchange for money”.

    Facebook, Amazon, MySpace, Twitter, Getty Images, eBay, Kickstarter (a commercial venture that takes 5% off all donations/pledges/funding raised) are all businesses in the traditional sense. The BBC in the UK is a public service so is not a business. I see no reason why this fundamental premise changes just because the internet has been invented. The methods of doing business have been radically changed by it because of transformational efficiency gains but this is entirely normal. The invention of steam power had transformational efficiency gains too. The business fundamentals have not changed one single bit have they?

    This understanding is critical the aspiring out there who are looking to build a sustainable future for themselves.

    The photo projects on the Kickstarter platform are the recipients of funds without an exchange with only the promise to deliver. This has a profound implication for standards because producers have get their funding prior to any actual producing and can do whatever they want without accountability.

    Without accountability, you cannot learn, change or evolve as effectively.

    Kickstarter makes no claims to the quality of outcomes at all and only encourages you to report. Amira Al Sharif’s had access to the social network of the established. That is going to be hard to replicate without diminishing people’s generosity.

    Why does it matter? Because businesses are different because have to deliver something that their customers want again and again and again or they fail.

    Give your intended customers what they want in exchange for money and you will get sustained funding – It is that simple. Facebook, Amazon, MySpace, Twitter, Getty Images, eBay, Kickstarter all do it and it is not just about profit.

    Photojournalism is in deep trouble because it has quite simply failed as a business.

    The readers who want to build a sustainable successful funding stream in the future for their photojournalism projects can do that too so I share your interest in drawing attention to “finding diverse ways to fund what they want to do, and seeing how they use the web to achieve that”!!!!

  5. David Campbell

    @iamnotasuperstarphotographer – photojournalism/documentary photography is, in the first instance, a practice not a business. The debate in the last couple of years about how to sustain this creative practice has taken place in terms of ‘business models’, but that refers to the general necessity of funding the practice sufficiently to carry on doing it. That will involve multiple, diverse and often cross-subsidised sources of revenue – much like in the past, though now enabled by the internet. In this context, we are talking about something much broader than your dictionary-defined/Wiki-referenced concept of business. My major disagreement with your comments here is that I think you fail to grasp the dynamics of crowd sourced funding (via the likes of Kickstarter, and through cases like the Sochi project), especially the importance of developing a community of interest around one’s practice, rather than just seeking ‘customers’ for a commodity.

  6. The Back Catalogue: Photojournalism in the new media economy | David Campbell

    […] of doing business and funding work Thinking freely: New business models for the digital economy # Making documentary possible: How the Internet leads to new funding opportunities # Grants for new visual stories: who provides them? # Learning from Larry: what crowd funding […]

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

    […] 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 were two of the […]

  8. International Orange Photo Festival 2010 (Report) | zhuang wubin | 庄吴斌

    […] Based on the distribution method that Radiohead adopted for the album In Rainbows, researcher David Campbell introduced the idea of “freemium” as a new model for documentary photographers to fund their long-term projects by first giving away some content on the web for free and then charging a higher premium for other content. Read his presentation here. […]


Leave a Reply