© Tomas van Houtryve/VII

Tomas van Houtryve, whose “Behind the Curtains” photo essay has won this year’s World Understanding Award at POYi, completed the eight-year project with the help of money he raised through the crowd-funding site Emphas.is. We don’t know if this is the first crowd-funded project to win a major award, but we’re pretty sure it won’t be the last, given the scarcity of   support for documentary photography at magazines, and the growing popularity of crowd-funding to underwrite long-term photography projects.

Van Houtryve is currently using Emphas.is again in hopes of raising enough money to turn his recent work on North Korea into a book and exhibition.

When we asked him why he turned to crowd-funding for “Behind the Curtains,” he explained that he began “Behind the Curtains” in 2004, covering Nepal’s Maoist revolution. “It was certainly a challenge to keep the project going at full force when the 2008 U.S. economic crisis hit, followed by the global media and advertising crisis in the following years,” he says. In 2010, he won POYi Photographer of the Year – Freelance award. Still, he says, “I had to keep looking for new revenue streams, switching from mainly magazines to grants and eventually to crowd-funding.

“It started to feel pretty acrobatic to have to constantly think about shifting and reinventing business models while keeping my focus on the project.”

In March 2011, he began looking for funding on his own site and on Emphas.is.  “My proposal was to finish my 21st century communism project by taking a final trip to Laos.

“The funds were used to pay for my Laos travel expenses and to print and ship the various backer rewards (prints, mini-books, postcards). I also send extra mini books to NGOs and policy makers working on Laos-related issues. That project was a lot of work, but I ended up receiving more funding that I asked for, $10115 pledged for the $8800 goal.

“I went back to Emphas.is  again this year because I couldn’t find a magazine to pay for the second part of my new project on North Korea’s borders. The first part of the project was paid for with a grant from the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund. Even right after the recent death of Kim Jong Il, no magazine would agree to cover my travel expenses to Korea. It was the biggest story in the world at the time, and I have a lot of experience in the region, so I was amazed the magazine wouldn’t step up. So I turned back to the online community of people who had helped me in Laos. A lot of them decided to support me a second time. I’ve also attracted some new backers this time around.

“I would like my North Korean Borders project to turn into an exhibition and a book, but it is too early too tell exactly which form it will take. I’ll need more time and distance to evaluate the quality of the work and decide how much more I need to shoot before I move into the post production phase.”

With 10 days left before the fundraising deadline, van Houtryve says, The Borderline project is about 75 percent funded, and he hopes his POYi win will help attract new supporters.

Related Articles:

Yuri Kozyrev Wins POYi’s 2011 Freelance Photographer of the Year

PDN Pulse: Tips for Successful Fundraising from Kickstarter

Picture Story: Chairman Mao, Tourist Trap (by Tomas Van Houtryve)


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