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Christoph Bangert shot

this photo of soldiers from


Dagger Company (4th
Infantry Division) firing
mortar rounds toward
positions in the Koren-
© Christoph Bangert

gal Valley, Afghanistan.


Bangert is using public
support via Emphas.is
to fund his project
documenting the fight
over Kandahar Province.

62 americanphotomag.com may/june 2011


Emphas.is Added
A 21st-century funding model for photographers promotes vital new
photojournalism by appealing to the audience, not the outlets by michelle Bogre

july/august 2011 americanphotomag.com 63


Emphas.is

O
n March 8, Tomas van Houtryve wasn’t
sure he’d have the money to return to “rather than to get photojournalism funded in an era when
outlets are drying up and assignments are scarce.

feed viewers
Laos. Without funding, his ambitious seven- Beyond making individual projects possible, it aims
year project documenting the last surviving holdouts to build a community of engaged donors who are
of the Communist movement would lie incomplete. interested both in global issues and in supporting
He’d been to North Korea, Cuba, China and Viet-
nam repeatedly. Laos was his last stop. There he
stories, quality journalism. “We wanted to create a platform
where photographers would be able to commu-
planned to photograph the remaining CIA-trained
Hmong guerrillas living in hiding since 1975, when we let nicate directly with backers,” says Karim Ben
Khelifa, an award-winning New York City–based
the U.S. left Vietnam. But he was having trouble
coming up with the $8,800 he needed for expenses. the public photojournalist who cofounded Emphas.is with his
partner, Tina Ahrens, formerly the senior photo

decide what
By March 10, van Houtryve was considerably editor with GEO magazine, and Fanuel Dewever,
more optimistic. That was the day Emphas.is, a an Internet business consultant.
new crowdfunding website for photographers, “We thought about how or why people consume
launched. His project was one of the first nine
featured, and in its first 24 hours online, it had they want media and realized that the younger audiences do
it through social networking sites,” Ahrens says.
received $1,985, almost a quarter of the funds he
needed. By April 4, 127 backers had donated more
than $8,800 and van Houtryve set out for South-
to see.” As you’d expect from a concept born in the age of
social media, interactivity and personal involve-
ment are key components. “Rather than just feed
east Asia to make them proud. viewers stories, we let the public decide what they
There are several other crowdfunding sites want to see funded and covered. People still care
(the most famous is Kickstarter), but where most about news. We just need to give them a platform
others represent a variety of project types across where they can be involved.”
all forms of media, Emphas.is has a singular vision: The activity on Emphas.is in the first few weeks

© Tomas van Houtryve; Opposite: © Guillaume Herbaut

64 americanphotomag.com may/june 2011


Left: A van Houtryve photo
seems to support Ahrens’ conviction. In the site’s and issues that interest them. To maintain quality,
from Laos of relatives of
first month, donations totaled $45,000 across the reviewers from a panel of more than 40 interna- veterans of the CIA Secret
nine featured projects, including Matt Eich’s Sin & tional photo-industry and journalism professionals War as they gather in a
Salvation in Baptist Town, about the inheritance of rate each project according to a set of 13 crite- Hmong village. The Hmong
slavery and its ongoing impact on the current gen- ria, including photo quality, realistic budget and fought alongside the CIA,
eration; Guillaume Herbaut’s La Montaña, covering photographer’s experience. Once they’re vetted, and as a result are now
one of the most violent regions in Mexico; Carolyn projects are placed on the site to live or die. Fund- disenfranchised, forced to
live secretly in the jungle.
Drake’s The Story of Uyghur, focusing on changes ing is an all-or-nothing proposition: If a project
Above: A municipal jail
in the cultural landscape of the Uyghurs, a Turkic fails to raise its stated funding goal by its deadline,
in the town of Ayutla, in
Muslim people in Western China; and Aaron Huey’s Emphas.is refunds the donors’ money. “The public Guerrero, Mexico, shot by
collaboration with artist Shepard Fairey and Er- is the gatekeeper,” Ben Khelifa says. “If a project Guillaume Herbaut. These
nesto Yerena, The Pine Ridge Billboard Project, which fails, it’s either because it wasn’t pitched well or it five indigenous-rights activ-
sheds light on the Lakota and other tribes’ contin- just isn’t interesting enough to the community.” ists were accused of mur-
ued fight for treaty rights (see sidebar on page 66). The photographers’ offerings are tiered. For $10, der. Their arrest is believed
The raison d’être for Emphas.is is freedom: backers get access to a “making-of zone” while the to have been politically
motivated.
freedom for photographers to tell their stories project is running. There, photographers provide
without interference from editors, and freedom updates via tweets, blog posts, photographs and
for the public to fund the projects, photographers videos as the creative process unfolds. Higher do-

may/june 2011 americanphotomag.com 65


Emphas.is

nation levels confer greater rewards, which are set


by the photographer. So far they’ve ranged from
signed copies of photo books to invites to screen-
ings and exhibits. Once a project is finished, all its
backers get an exclusive four-day viewing before
it’s released to the public. Photographers retain
copyright and all usage rights, though interested
media outlets can acquire first-publication rights
in their markets by funding up to 50 percent of
a project (this donation goes exclusively toward
expenses and does not include publication fees).
Letting the public follow the creative process in
real time distinguishes Emphas.is from both tradi-
tional funding models and crowdfunding sites like
Kickstarter. Naturally, it favors photographers who
are literate in social media and at home with self-
promotion. “This model is not for everyone,” Ben
Khelifa notes. “At least at first, it will work best for
the most media savvy—those who are comfortable
blogging and posting in feedback forums.”
Ahrens believes their approach will help restore
transparency and integrity to journalism. “We are
offering a glimpse of the raw process of how news
is created,” Ahrens says. “In the past, readers saw
only the final polished piece. Here they see how
photographers get the story, or how they make
decisions. It also will make photographers more

the power of the poster

From top: © Agnes Dherbeys; © Aaron Huey; Poster: © Shepard Fairey; Opposite, from top: © Matt Eich; © Carolyn Drake
Aaron Huey leverages Emphas.is to extend the reach and bluntness of his message

Left: Shepard Fairey’s


poster interpretation of
one of Aaron Huey’s
affecting portraits from
the Pine Ridge Reserva-
tion. Huey hopes this kind
of iconography will shine
more light on the issues
the Lakota face than
newspaper or magazine
articles can.

For 40 years, Pine Ridge Reservation has been one of the poorest areas in the United States, with
an infant mortality rate three times the national average and a male life expectancy of about 48
years (close to that of Afghanistan and Somalia). Aaron Huey has spent the past six years taking
photos there. “People were giving me something that I had a responsibility to share,” he says.
And share he has. His images have told the story of the Lakota in the pages of Details, The
Fader, Harper’s and the New York Times blog Lens. He’s wary, however, of “stories that skim the
surface of statistics, only talking only about gangs, poverty and violence.”
So he’s cutting out the middleman (and most of the words). Huey’s Emphas.is project will fund
the production of thousands of posters featuring his impactful collaborations with street artists
Shepard Fairey (of Obama “Hope” poster fame) and Ernesto Yerena. “I can be more brutally
honest [than magazines],” Huey says, “using loaded language like ‘genocide’ and ‘prisoner of
war camps’ to describe the reservation system.” The posters funded and produced through
Emphas.is will be hung on billboards, buses and buildings across the country to raise awareness
and point people toward honorthetreaties.org, a Huey-authored advocacy site.

66 americanphotomag.com may/june 2011


accountable as journalists, because they can’t
blame their editors anymore.”
The site’s founders expect the new platform will
engage younger, more naturally tech-savvy audi-
ences because it serves up journalism the way they
want it: 24/7 and participatory. Ben Khelifa feels
this approach also has the potential to add a previ-
ously unavailable dimension to the historical re-
cord. “Years from now,” he says, “you will be able to
go back and see what was happening behind a news
event, what the photographers were thinking.”
It’s hard to see a downside to this latest form
of photographic funding. Emphas.is isn’t so much
an alternative to the media as its latest mutation,
one with a high transparency factor and an eye
toward archiving. Now it’s up to the public to put
their money where their eyeballs are and fund
some worthy projects.
The featured photographers don’t seem both-
ered by the model’s inherent uncertainty. “I am not
Clockwise from top left: worried about the public choosing,” says Herbaut,
A march during the presiden- who’s represented by the Institute for Artist Man-
tial campaign in East Timor, by agement. “It’s the same problem we’ve always had
Agnes Dherbeys. Dialia Wooten when we have to find a producer from the press.”
walking home from church
Adds Drake, “I don’t think the general public is less
in Greenwood, Mississippi,
by Matt Eich. Uyghur women
able than an editor to make a smart decision. Hope-
working in a garment shop in fully what emerges with crowdfunding will chal-
Kashgar, by Carolyn Drake. lenge traditional publishing and vice versa.” AP

may/june 2011 americanphotomag.com 67