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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Kickstarting Your Project

Crowdsourcing as an option for photographers

Gerd Ludwig is no stranger to the pages of Digital Photo Pro, and his history in the world of photography is long and storied. Ludwig was cofounder of Germany’s very first photographer-owned photo studio, VISUM, and he has been published frequently over the years in the highly regarded pages of Stern, Time, Life and other publications. In the early ’90s, he signed on as a contract photographer for National Geographic, a noted position that allowed him to focus his lens on the constant social upheaval in Germany and Eastern Europe. Over 10 years, these images culminated in the release of his book, Broken Empire: After the Fall of the USSR, a retrospective centering on the steady decline of the Soviet Union.

Once upon a time, a photographer with as much clout as Ludwig would have had no problem pitching a dynamic project for funding to National Geographic or many of the other magazines that he has associated with over the years. That level of support from the publishing industry has changed, however, and like many photojournalists, Ludwig has had to adapt his business model to find a new way to continue his work. Photographers, in general, are feeling the pinch of a lousy economy and the turbulence caused by the digital model, but photojournalists, in particular, have seen their funding undercut by newspapers and magazines that lack the resources to outsource work and have had to deal with heightened competition from every local in the area who has access to a digital camera. In the instantaneous age of digital, proximity often trumps talent.

For example, Ludwig has been planning a long-form exploration on the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy, which resulted in an explosion and fire that lasted for 10 days. The aftermath lasted much longer, of course, with substantial health care problems, problematic decontamination efforts and radioactive fallout that spread over many thousands of miles of land. Ludwig had documented the region following the crisis previously, but traditional funding from news sources for photojournalists has slowly dried up over the past decade, and because of the costly safety concerns and the limited amount of daily exposure that Ludwig is allowed, which will prolong his stay in the region in the long run, he needs an inordinate amount of funds to continue his important work documenting the long-term effects of the tragedy. Unable to find the money that he required elsewhere, Ludwig turned his attention to a site called Kickstarter.

Crowdsourcing, also known as crowdsourced capital, isn’t an entirely new business model, but thanks to the Internet, it’s finally a viable one. The general concept is to raise money not from the deep pockets of a single individual or business entity, but rather through smaller pledges from a large group of people that combine cumulatively into a sizable amount. Right now there are only a few crowdsourcing sites, and for photographers and many other artists, Kickstarter is far and above the current champ in terms of popularity and, most importantly, success rate.

“As traditional news outlets struggle financially,” Ludwig notes on the Kickstarter project page for his Chernobyl project petition, “photojournalists must now turn to alternative funding methods for long-term projects close to their heart. While many in the media have turned to celebrity reporting, photographers like myself are convinced that there is both the need and the demand for serious content. Therefore, as the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster approaches, I am asking you and the Kickstarter community for sponsorship to help fund this long-term project... To commemorate the tragedy 25 years later, I plan to return to the reactor and the areas around it to investigate the current state of contamination to the land; to report on the progress of its cleanup; and to examine the health consequences in the fallout regions. I am asking for your support so that this important story will not be forgotten.”


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