In 1993, photographer Gerd Ludwig began documenting the consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster while on assignment for National Geographic. “I got involved accidentally [while] covering a story about pollution in the [former] Soviet Union,” he says. “I was struck by the post-apocalyptic feel of the whole zone.” He ended up returning nine times over 20 years to tell the story of a human and environmental catastrophe that continues to reverberate, and he recently published The Long Shadow of Chernobyl, a 252-page tri-lingual book about the disaster. In this video, Ludwig describes the challenge and drama of photographing inside the destroyed nuclear reactor, and what drove him to take great personal risk to tell the story.
It seems like nowadays every photographer is launching a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for a book or to shoot personal work. But how many of those photographers are actually meeting or surpassing their fundraising goals? At the PhotoPlus seminar “Crowd-Funding Your Photography Project,” five panelists shared their thoughts on how to raise money using two crowd-funding platforms, Kickstarter and Emphas.is.
Gerd Ludwig moderated the panel. He used Kickstarter in 2011 to raise funds for his long-term series on Chernobyl, because traditional media outlets weren’t interested in commissioning the work. Ludwig raised over $23,000, which he used to travel to Chernobyl, and publish a book and iPad app of the work.
The panelists were Karim Ben Khelifa, co-founder of Emphas.is; Aaron Huey, a photojournalist who used Emphas.is to raise over $26,000 for a billboard and information campaign surrounding his work on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; Justin Jensen, a photographer who used Kickstarter to raise over $485,000 for his product CineSkates, which are wheels that snap onto the bottom of a Gorilla tripod; and Jon Pack, who used Kickstarter to raise over $65,000 for his photography project “The Olympic City” and the resulting book. Below, some campaign dos and don’ts they learned along the way.
1. Do make a video for your Kickstarter or Emphas.is page, which tells visitors about the project. Ludwig noted that a video provides an opportunity to address your audience personally as well as to give your credentials and background so people feel comfortable investing in your work. Huey added that the video is essentially the elevator pitch for your project, so it’s important to make it as professional as possible. Meanwhile, Ben Khelifa advised photographers to avoid the words “help” and “support” in their videos since Emphas.is sees the relationship as more of an exchange between the photographer and his or her audience.
2. Do create a reward structure that awards every donor regardless of the amount of money they give. Huey said some of his rewards had a dollar value that was worth more than the donation amount, which was a good incentive for people to give. Ludwig noted that he had a reward for every size pocketbook.
3. Don’t only think of rewards that cost money. Ben Khelifa said some of the most successful rewards offered on Emphas.is only cost the photographer time, such as one-on-one photography workshops or portfolio reviews. Ludwig added that every person who donated to his campaign was included on a donors’ list, which is posted at the exhibitions of the work.
4. Do collaborate with the people who donate to your project. Park and his partner, filmmaker Gary Hustwit, agreed to let backers vote on one of the former Olympic hosting cities that would be included in their project. He also noted that when he and Hustwit were traveling to the various cities, backers would sometimes e-mail them with recommendations about where to shoot. Jensen had some backers help with the testing of the initial CineSkates product. He also made additional product lines based on suggestions given by backers.
5. Don’t forget to communicate with backers during and after the campaign. Emphas.is was started because Ben Khelifa believes that people are interested in the experiences of photographers and photojournalists, which is why the “Making of Zone” is such a crucial part of the site. Pack said many people were into “collaborating” on his project, so he would answer e-mails throughout the campaign and then launched a website afterward so donors could stay up to date on the status of the project. He also posts updates on his Facebook page and e-mails backers regularly.
6. Do try to get funds from people outside of your personal and/or professional networks. Huey said he didn’t even ask for money from his personal networks. Instead, he appealed to the street art world, since Shepard Fairey created some of the posters, and to Native American rights groups, because his work focused on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. By identifying influential bloggers in both worlds, he was able to spread the word about his campaign to people who are passionate about these two things. Ludwig noted that you get your backers’ e-mail addresses to contact them about future campaigns, but Ben Khelifa added that this only works if you’re good at communicating during the first campaign (see above).
7. Don’t underestimate shipping costs. One of Ludwig’s rewards was a copy of his book Broken Empire: After the Fall of the USSR. Over 25 percent of the donations at this $100 reward level were from overseas, and it cost him $31 (not including packaging) to ship each book internationally. Jensen also made this mistake, by offering all backers in the U.S. free shipping once the product came out; international backers were charged an extra $20 for shipping. The problem was that shipping overseas ended up costing more than $20 and many backers in the U.S. wanted their products shipped overnight.
8. Don’t assume that all you have to do is launch the campaign and you’re done. All the panelists agreed that crowd funding is very time consuming. Huey even went so far as to say he couldn’t do another crowd-funding campaign anytime soon because the billboard campaign took over his life for two months and he just doesn’t have that kind of time right now. Ludwig noted that his studio manager was a crucial part of his campaign, while Jensen said he ended up hiring a staff of five to help once it looked like they were going to get enough money through Kickstarter to fully launch the product.