Photo-J Crowd Funding Site Emphas.is Launched

Photojournalism crowd funding site Emphas.is has finally launched, providing photographers with another online venue for raising money directly from audiences to support their documentary projects. The Dublin-based site is also offering insurance plans to participating photojournalists under an agreement with Reporters Without Borders and a Canadian insurance company.

Emphas.is uses the crowd funding model used by other successful sites such as  Kickstarter, but unlike those other sites, Emphas.is is dedicated exclusively to photojournalism projects. And it is “not just to fund projects, but to create channels of communication” and bring important issues to public attention, explains co-founder Karim Ben Khelifa, a photojournalist based in Brooklyn.

Photographers whose projects are approved for posting on the site are expected to engage in direct dialog with their backers, “sharing their experiences and insights as the creative process unfolds,” according to the Emphas.is Web site.

“It’s not just about asking for money. It’s also about creating a community of people who are interested in your work,” Ben Khelifa says. “Photojournalists need to realize that they have to give back to their [audiences]. What’s the value if you don’t communicate to them how you move on the ground, and show how a visual piece is constructed?”

Other co-founders of the site include Tina Ahrens, a freelance photo editor and photography consultant and former GEO photo editor; and Fanuel Dewever, an IT specialist who has worked in the past for IBM, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and other firms.

Ben Khelifa says he and Ahrens spearheaded the project because they realized that many good stories were not being published–or even produced in the first place–because of a lack of resources. With an undisclosed amount of start-up funding from “angel investors,” Ben Khelifa says, they were able to launch Emphas.is as a way to help photographers find the resources they need. “We didn’t use crowd funding, but to be honest, that idea was on the table,” Ben Khelifa says.

The insurance plan provides photographers with coverage they can’t easily get on their own at an affordable price. It is available for $10 to $20 per day in most instances, depending on location. Photographers can include the cost in their fundraising budgets.

Visitors to the site can back any project with a minimum donation of $10. Emphas.is keeps 15 percent of the money a photographer raises from donors as a fee for its services.

Ben Khelifa says projects will be subject to review before photographers can post them on Emphas.is to solicit funding. “We want the site to be recognized for the quality journalism it produces,” he explains. A board of three reviewers will screen each proposal to determine whether the idea is coherent, the budget makes sense, and the project is possible in terms of access and logistics.

“If a project is refused, the reviewers will give the photographer a reason,” Ben Khelifa says.

So far, photographers who are soliciting support for projects include Tomas van Houtryve for his ongoing project about 21st century communism, Carolyn Drake for her project about China’s efforts to develop its Western frontier, and Aaron Huey’s project (with Shepard Fairey and Ernesto Yerena) about the fight of the Lakota and other tribes to assert their treaty rights.

Van Houtryve explained via e-mail from the road in China that in his view, the advantages Emphas.is has over other crowd funding sites is its communication platform and its edtiorial board.

“It gives you the chance to have credibilty and transparency — two key elements that I welcome to documentary or journalist ventures,” he said. “Those elements help set it apart from the hodge podge of great, funky and occasionally sub-par stuff that is all lumped together on Kickstarter.”

Van Houtryve has already started updating his donors. “Whenever I have an interesting new experience or anecdote I write it up and try to hook up to the net in the next town. (The next one is about a bizarre Chinese mafia casino.) I’m aiming for quality and insight over sending out a slew of trivial updates.”

He notes that the advantage of fundraising on Kickstarter is “the large public they have already attracted.”

Ben Khelifa acknowledges that one of the biggest challenges for Emphas.is is attracting a critical mass of attention and traffic, so enough people begin donating to support photography projects.

“We have to make it understood by the widest public possible,” he says. One strategy for getting the word out is by partnering with schools and universities that have photojournalism departments, and with special interest groups such as Greenpeace, Amnsety International and Doctors Without Borders.

Asked what will be the measure of success for Emphas.is, Ben Khelifa said, “One photographer on the road is a success. Knowing that people are paying for quality journalism–that is a success.”

But he also says that the numbers are important. If it is to be taken seriously, Emphas.is has to attract enough photographers, and enough donations to make their projects possible.

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