Categories
photography politics

Who’s afraid of home? Photojournalism’s foreign fixation

The US presidential election began this week. Although polling day is still 18 months away, yesterdays Republican candidates’ debate in New Hampshire marks the start of the race.

As ever, the economy, jobs, healthcare and education will be key issues, with more people worried about these than war. In Britain, along with immigration and multiculturalism, the picture is pretty much the same, which is not surprising given we face an ideological government savaging public services.

Which got me wondering – what does photojournalism contribute to these debates? Beyond the daily campaign picture and stock political portrait, what stories are we seeing from photojournalists and documentary photographers that engage these issues? My sense is not much, and certainly not enough.

Photojournalism has long been fixated on the foreign. Check out the web sites of major agencies like Magnum, VII, Panos and Noor and you will see that in the featured stories domestic concerns are a minority interest (though LUCEO is perhaps an exception to this). I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the ‘Features and essays’ in Mikko Takkunen’s excellent Photojournalism Links, and over the last month foreign stories outnumber domestic ones by a ratio of 3:1. All this confirms Stephen Mayes 2009 statement that photojournalism is now more romantic – meaning “heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious or idealized” – than functional, and supports Asim Rafiqui’s claim that we face a “strange silence of the conscience” whereby the “hollowing out” of our societies is under-recorded.

Of course, all generalizations are dangerous (even this one). What counts as ‘home’ is linked in part to personal identity, so, given the preponderance of American and European photographers in the industry, I’m thinking of the minority world as ‘home’ and the majority world as ‘foreign’.

It is also the case that in a globalized and interdependent world, the distinction between ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ is far from clear-cut. Many stories cut across borders. Even war is not something that occurs only beyond the water’s edge. When Nina Berman, Edmund Clark and Ashley Gilbertson show the impact of conflict on the home front, it is not easy to locate their work on one side or other of the international boundary.

There are also a number photographers working in domestic space on social issues. Recent examples from the UK include Liz Hingley’s ‘Under Gods’, Liz Lock and Mishka Henner’s Borderland and Hinterland, George Georgiou’s Curry and Chips, my multimedia partner Peter Fryer’s work in South Shields, and of course Amber/Side’s long history of documenting the north east of England. On emphas.is (although still a minority) the recent US-based projects of Matt Eich, Aaron Huey and Justin Maxton would count as domestic. The ongoing projects of Anthony Suau and Matt Black (highlighted by Asim Rafiqui) are impressive, and no doubt readers can (and should) add others.

And yet so much more is needed. It’s best illustrated by one of my all-time favourite multimedia pieces, Evan Vucci’s 2009 story “Faces of the Uninsured.” It tells the story of working Americans who cannot afford health care and must travel long distances to access the services of Remote Area Medical, an NGO that once focused on aid to “the Third World” but now concentrates on the US (17 of their 21 missions in 2011 are in America). Vucci’s story is an under-stated but shocking presentation of a domestic issue.

Given that the Republicans scorn Obama’s modest health care reforms as ‘socialism’ there is ample reason for a humanist tradition of photography to engage this issue alone. Initiatives like Facing Change: Documenting America and American Poverty.org show promising signs of movement on other related concerns. I’m not suggesting people walk away from the important international stories. But surely there are more than enough visual storytellers for many lenses to be turned towards home.

Photo credit: A discarded kitchen appliances sits in one of many fields surrounding the Hattersley Estate. Copyright Liz Lock & Mishka Henner, 2006.

Categories
media economy photography

Crowd funding photojournalism: how is it going?

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 on my experience as a contributor. Here I want to provide a review of how crowd funding is currently working for photography and photojournalism, with an analysis of Kickstarter and a look at emphas.is.

There are a number of new crowd funding sites, such as WeFund in the UK, and Norwegian-based New Jelly, though they have few if any photography projects. In contrast, IndieGoGo, which was established in 2008, and says it has raised millions of dollars for over 20,000 campaigns, across 173 countries,” has more than 100 photography pitches. However, only four have been successful (see here, here, here and here), raising a total of US$15,000 between them.

Kickstarter by numbers

In photography circles it is Kickstarter that is best known. Founded in April 2009, contributors have stumped up more than $35 million in the last two years, and the money is coming in at the rate of $1 million/week. In a review this February, GigaOm detailed the figures:

  • more than 600,000 supporters come to the site
  • 5,000 projects have been funded and 2,500 are currently pitching
  • 250-300 proposals are submitted daily, though Kickstarter rejects 45% of these because they do not meet the requirements

I’ve done my own analysis of successful photography projects on Kickstarter between 17 June 2009 and 17 April 2011. These include much more than photojournalism. Here are the numbers:

  • 284 projects
  • $1,295,803 raised in total
  • Average of $4,563/project

The amounts funded range from $25 to $50,000, with the latter for a non-photographic part of Zana Briski’s “Reverence” project. Briski’s large total is very much an outlier, as the average/project above suggests. Of the 284 projects, there were only 19 that bid for and raised between $10–20,000, only three in the $20–30,000 bracket, another three in the $30–40,000 range, with Briski’s the single one beyond that.

Significantly, many of the best known photojournalism projects – by Ashley Gilbertson, Bruce Gilden, Krisanne Johnson, Gerd Ludwig (who raised twice what he asked for), and Larry Towell – are in the $10,000+ category of success.

This has encouraged the Magnum Emergency Fund to set up its own Kickstarter page. The MEF states that “funds raised will be used to cover actual costs and a per diem.” The latter is a controversial point. Are these platforms a way to make a living, or do they provide project expenses only? I’m firmly of the view that it should be expenses only. If by per diem the MEF means a personal fee from crowd funding, that would be unacceptable in my view. If by per diem they mean travel and subsistence costs, that would be legitimate. The doubt around this arises from the fact that most if not all of these pitches remain opaque as to their detailed budget. More transparent accounting is still needed to clarify issues like this.

The promise of emphas.is

Emphas.is is the crowd funding platform focused on visual journalism, and after launching in early March with a few understandable teething problems, it has just seen more than $40,000 raised to fully fund four of its nine opening projects. Of the remaining five, one should succeed, one has failed, and three are precariously placed. That’s not a bad start – though the platform will need to react faster once projects are funded. As I write, Matt Eich’s project has been fully funded for a few days yet remains in pole position as the site’s ‘featured project’.

Aside from its focus, Emphas.is differs from Kickstarter in two important respects. First, it has a board of reviewers that determine which pitches are accepted for the site. With a likely 55:45 funding success rate on the first batch, the review process is no guarantee of success (not that it was intended to be).

The second difference is that as a platform emphas.is both enables and encourages community engagement through its “Making of Zone” where backers get project updates. While this rewards contributors, it also helps the projects. As Tomas Van Houtryve, whose project was fully funded, notes:

Backers have started to pose relevant questions. As my project proposal has made its way through social networks and attracted support from strangers, I’ve made some really fruitful new connections. In addition to generous funding contributions, several individuals have stepped forward with key contacts and very precise and helpful advice. I have already managed to make stronger photos due to their input. This is a pleasant shift over the lone-wolf existence.

What can we conclude so far?

I think the performance of Kickstarter and the promise of emphas.is give us some pointers to crowd funding photojournalism:

  • Successful bids require careful preparation, and the likes of Frank Chimero have good advice on how to make an effective pitch.
  • While the macro-level figures are impressive, the most likely level of project funding is in the US$5,000 – $15,000 range
  • Achieving above $10,000 requires a previously established professional reputation and an active community of support to call on
  • Even with that community of potential support, generating support requires considerable planning and effort, pursuing connections, publicity and pledges. As Rene Clement told PDN recently, “Don’t think money will pour in. You have to work really hard for it.”

Above all else, turning crowd funding into a sustainable source of project revenue for photojournalism requires those how have recently been funded to deliver on their promises. If backers are engaged and see their support enable projects that would otherwise not have happened, then continuing assistance could be forthcoming.

Update 23 April/5 May

The British Journal of Photography (4 May 2011) has a good report on crowd funding with some UK examples.

They discuss three UK-based crowd funding sites I had not previously heard of: CrowdfunderSponsume and WeDidThis. Sponsume is interesting because it has a ’50 per cent’ rule – if pitches get backing for half the total they ask for they can keep the money pledged. Most other sites require the target to be reached in full before funding is made available.

The report also discusses two ‘DIY’ crowd funded projects – the well-known Sochi Project, and the less known appeal by Andy Sewell, in which he has raised over £6,000 for a book by pre-selling a limited edition version.

The most important observation in this BJP report comes towards the end:

With crowdfunding there is a notable correlation between the size of the project leader’s online social network and the amount of money raised – the bigger the network, the greater the chance of reaching the target.

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