Monday, April 11, 2011

Kickstarting Your Project

By David Willis Published in The Business of Photography
Kickstarting Your Project
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."

Kickstarter uses a format known as the threshold pledge system, with a set goal that donors are asked to reach. The projects are presented on a social media-like page that introduces the general concept with text and a video that generally incorporates photos to describe the project in detail, and also what the project needs from fiduciaries to become fully realized. Kickstarter keeps the funds in escrow via Amazon Payments until the threshold is reached, and if it's not, the investments are returned to the initial investors. Kickstarter funds itself by collecting 5% of the total amount raised, with Amazon taking an extra percentage for housing the funds. An important aspect to Kickstarter's success is that it doesn't claim ownership over projects, though after a project is finished, the respective pages are archived and can't be edited or taken down because they're then used as "successful" projects to effectively illustrate the potential of the site.

Kickstarter isn't a way to raise a budget for your special effects-laden blockbuster movie idea, however. Presenters must pass a screening process in order to post their project, a concept that keeps the projects interesting to the Kickstarter audience and also ensures that projects fall within the overall concept of innovation that the site encourages. These aren't multimillion dollar ideas, either. The majority of projects in the top-10 tier of Kickstarter money producers raised far less than $100,000, and most projected thresholds are within the range of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Projects must also belong to the creative arts sphere, which is limited to art, comics, food, dance, design, fashion, film, games, journalism, music, photography, publishing, technology and theater.

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.
You can fund everything from initial startup costs for short-term or long-term projects to requests for printing costs of full-blown portfolio books. Pledges also can receive more than just the satisfaction of helping an artist in need. One-of-a-kind memorabilia, limited-edition prints, signed books and many other innovative ideas can be brought to the table by the creative team behind the project, but "rewards" are required by the site to engage the investors. While the Kickstarter guidelines explicitly state that charity projects or causes aren't allowed, charity-driven organizations and benevolent projects obviously have a big leg up on Kickstarter. The public at large is much more apt to contribute to a project if they relate to a cause. Granted, and possible because of this very reason, like many charities Kickstarter could be a passing fad, especially as people are forbidden by the site from making money off of their investments. Right now, however, the site is garnering plenty of attention and plenty of dollars.

As of press time, Ludwig is still embroiled in preparations for his Chernobyl project. He was able to almost double his goal of $12,000, with a total sum of $23,316, thanks to more than 400 backers. This still wasn't enough to cover the true costs of the project, however, as he had set a realistic threshold in order to be able to keep the entire amount of funds pledged to him through Kickstarter. Currently, he's raising the rest of the estimated $25,000 that he needs, and once the project has been completed, we'll revisit Ludwig and his important work in the pages of DPP.

To see more of Gerd Ludwig's work, visit Kickstarter can be found at
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