Had Jacob Riis been born in the age of the Internet he may well have invented crowd funding. As a photographer committed to bring about social change, as Miles Orvell noted in his book American Photography, the late-19th-century photographer used his images to influence public opinion and as an instrument for direct appeal. Riis was a dedicated social documentary photographer; he epitomised the concerned photojournalist committed to a noble cause. Thanks to recent crowd-funding strategies such as those offered by Kickstarter it seems to me that we are finally coming full circle, going back to the very essence of documentary more than one hundred years after photographers like Jacob Riis lay the foundations of the genre.
Launched in 2009 as a web platform for funding personal creative projects, Kickstarter is the original crowd-funding concept. Thanks to Kickstarter photographer Pete Brook has been able to raise nearly $8,000 for his Prison Photography project. A worthwhile cause of universal social appeal, coupled with an intelligent marketing strategy, will allow Brook to develop his project and, like Riis, put pressure through public opinion and raise awareness of the social issues he is concerned with. Pete Brook’s pitch is sophisticated and extremely well conceived. By engaging award-winning photographers he made sure that the web worked for him doing what it does best: creating viral connections, disseminating information. By tapping the collective conscience, that boiling pot full of conflicting feelings about ‘the other’, and offering attractive consumer goods as ‘rewards’ (limited editions prints, signed prints, books on the project, etc…) Brook has enticed 142 people so far to support him financially. Kickstarter projects are only funded if the fundraising target is met. Amazon manages donations but no money exchanges hands until the deadline for raising funds is over. It is only then that Kickstarter and Amazon get their commission – 5% and 3-5% respectively. So simple, so effective. Here in the UK WeFund has been live for nearly 1 year. As the first UK-based crowd-funding platform for creative projects it has had great success and has helped to fund many worthwhile projects.
Earlier this year Empash.is, a specialist photojournalism crowd-funding forum, was launched. As a platform to bring an audience and a source of funding for photojournalists, Emphas.is is a direct-action solution to the financial crisis that photojournalism is facing. Engaged, long-term documentary projects, traditionally difficult to finance, have a new channel for raising funds. Emphas.is deals with donations and takes 15% commission for operational costs if the bid is successful – projects have to reach 100% or more of its fundraising target.
The benefits of crowd-funding platforms for photography projects are pretty obvious. Not only do they provide with a realistic source of financial support but they also open new forums for documentary photography. But most importantly, they are helping to redefine the concept of ‘professional’ photography: professional work reaches its intended audience. Whether that is done for profit or not is not necessarily the issue. For the traditionalists of you reading this and choking as a result of my statement please bear in mind that a great deal of the most inspiring photographic work being done out there, that which truly brings about social change, is actually done on a non-for-profit basis – think about any of the documentary awards such as the W.E.Smith Memorial Fund, or the Alexia Foundation Award.
So far so good. Now that Kickstarter and Emphas.is are in place we wonder how come similar solutions weren’t conceived a decade ago. But is it all truly good though? Or is there a caveat somewhere? I’m concerned that the boundary between that which is of public interest and has universal appeal and that which is comparatively trivial and self-indulgent may be dangerously blurred in crowd-funding. You only have to browse the eclectic range of bids on Kickstarter and WeFund to realise that. But I suppose that web users are savvy enough to tell a genuine bid from a fanciful project. However, what really preoccupies me is what happens to all the visual material generated before and during the crowd-funded projects. Specifically, whether successful documentary bidders, having been funded, may decide to publicise their work on a pro-bono basis. The result would be a surplus of quality and free documentary work. In other words, a panacea for editors.
Which brings me back to the concept of ‘professional’ work. 15 years ago professional and commercial would have gone hand-in-hand. Nowadays that is not the case anymore. Work can be professional even if its non-commercial. The quality of the work that you can see in Emphas.is, the funds it can raise, and the wide audience it reaches out are good evidence of it. I’m not saying that is necessarily good, but it’s an inevitable side effect of the web.
Digital democratised photography and crowd-funding is democratising documentary. It all makes sense to me.