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, emphas.is 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 emphas.is 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.