Tomas Van Houtryve Tries Alternative Funding Methods

- - The Future

Photojournalist Tomas Van Houtryve has been testing alternative funding methods for his photography projects and I asked if he would give us a report on how it’s working out for him. His latest project is called “21st Century Communism” and he’s using Emphas.is to fund it (here). Here’s what he had to say:

I realize there are a lot of gripping and important events unfolding around the world at the moment, but I want to share my first experiences on the beta version of Emphas.is. A few weeks ago I put up my project pitch, and then I hit the road for Laos.

It’s a bit like being a test pilot for an exotic new aircraft: I can feel the huge potential and the power of the platform, but I’ve also had to adapt and cope as the site engineers have worked through fixing the early technical glitches.

I had been eyeing Emphas.is and other alternative funding models for months, and I really wanted to be one of the first photographers to give it a try. Based on the launch dates that they initially announced, I cleared my schedule for several weeks to dedicate to fundraising, followed by a trip to Laos timed with key events on the ground. Unfortunately, the official launch of Emphas.is was pushed back as the developers raced to finish the site. Days of delays turned into weeks, and eventually I risked missing the events in Laos if I kept my plans on hold for the launch.

Running out of time and options, I decided to post an early call for support on my own website. I put up a project synopsis and video on my site and sent out a flurry of emails and Facebook postings. Within 3 days, $1935 worth of pledges from supporters rolled in. It was far short of the total $8800 budget that I still need to finance the project, but I had enough to book my plane ticket for Laos.

Then, just one day before I got on the plane, the Emphas.is beta site finally went live. For the first 24 hours there were reports that people were having trouble registering. Regardless, I crossed my fingers that it would start working smoothly, packed my bags and headed for the airport. The area I was heading to in Laos was extremely remote. In addition to an 11 hour flight, it took another 12 hours by night bus and then two full days on a riverboat before I finally got to a town with an internet connection.

Thankfully, when I logged on I saw that contributions were starting to add up on my project page. I quickly sent out my first exclusive update to the project backers, with details about crossing the border into Laos and photographing a shady Chinese casino in the Golden Triangle.

Then, it was back on the road to photograph Hmong villages in the mountainous hinterlands.

Now, I’ve finally made it to a major city with a solid internet connection. I’m just past half way through the time limit for my funding drive, and I’ve got 60 backers onboard contributing roughly 40% of the total budget.

For any folks that want to give Emphas.is a try, I would certainly not recommend such a tightly compressed schedule where I have to juggle shooting, fundraising and a withering travel schedule all at the same time. Its been very intense keeping all the elements on track.

On a positive note, the great thing is that there is something very intuitive about using the Emphas.is model, now that everything is finally up and running. Backers have started to pose relevant questions in the “Making Of Zone” where I post my updates and comments. As my project proposal has made its way through social networks and attracted support from strangers, I’ve made some really interesting and fruitful new connections. In addition to generous funding contributions, several individuals have stepped forward with key contacts and very precise and helpful advice for my subject. I have already managed to make stronger photos due to their input. This is a pleasant shift over the lone-wolf existence that I’ve experienced on many of my previous documentary photo trips. I now have got a crowd of very supportive people behind me, and it is clear that they have a stake in the project’s success. It’s very inspiring.

Emphas.is isn’t a magic bullet that will solve every problem plaguing visual journalism, but I think it is turning out to be a good model for long-term documentary projects.

All the best,
Tomas

There Are 12 Comments On This Article.

  1. Harold Breiner

    Kickstarter is a good model but Emphas.is seems to have been build on the idea of a community, of exchange and real-time communication, all of this to produce quality journalism.

  2. Really great insight into raising money to fund your projects…I particularly like the lone wolf reference and the input you’ve gotten from supporters. I look forward to seeing how your project unfolds…good luck!

  3. So to summarize: People who get free money like getting free money.

    Thanks, good to know.

    More seriously, it’s a culturally interesting concept: Instead of selling your grift upfront to an editor, you sell it on an ongoing basis to people who presumably get some sort of emotional return out of being involved with it. In terms of models, it’s more like televangelism than anything else.

    Sometime I’d be interested in hearing from some of the people who are putting money into the emphas.is cookie jar. What do they feel they get out of it? Is anyone ever disappointed?

  4. Sounds like “charity” given a jazzed up name! With skint so call photographers squeezing desperately to get money out of people pockets! Just for their own gain! He says he paid for his own flight! He should be paying for everything rather than asking others to pay for his own assignments or jolly trips!

    Tomas work hard like the rest of us, if need be earn money doing other jobs ie restaurants, shopping mall and fund everything yourself! Rather than lowering yourself & pleading others to pay for your interest! You’re a grown man! Fend for yourself!