Dec 07, 2012

The 2012 budget for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was $146M.   Although this sounds like a lot, as a point of reference, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) invests over $30.9B annually.  I’m not trying to pit science against art (in many ways, I believe they are closely related), but what’s clear is that art and photography are expected to earn their keep through other means.

Sadly, revenue opportunities for photographers in the current market are almost absent.  Stock photography, a mainstay for most photographers, is flooded by microstock agencies selling images for pennies. Even traditional news agencies that have a consistent need for photography have scaled back.  The world of art used to have strong relationships between patrons (the financial backers) and artists.  However, these types of relationships have essentially disappeared, and only more so as the economy continually suffers.

So, what do you do if you want to earn a living as a photographer?

Crowdfunding, for those that don’t know, allows people to donate money to projects with the expectation of getting some prize at the end of it.  For example, if you’re a band making an album with money you raised on Kickstarter, you may give your donors a free CD and/or tickets to one of your concerts.  If you’re a filmmaker, you may give tickets to your opening night and a listing in the credits.  If you’re a photographer, you may give them a print or a free workshop.  Crowdfunding is ideal for the craftsman.  If you make an original and high quality product, there is a built in audience that will listen.  Although it’s unlikely that crowdfunding will restore professional photography to it’s original, pre-internet glory, it certainly provides a mechanism to finance fine art photography projects that would otherwise go unfunded.

Although, I have started companies and raised capital, I’ve never tried to raise money through crowdfunding.  So, take my advice below with a grain of salt.  However, I have watched the space closely and I think one big mistake people make is not treating their projects like a business.

1.  Define your market. Who is it that would like to buy your photographs?  If you do street photography, get your listing posted on street photography blogs.  If you do nature photography, think about people that are interested in conservancy.  Asking your Facebook friends to pitch in is not enough.  Got directly to the people who have a vested interest in what you do.

2.  You are essentially selling pre-ordered products – what is your customer buying? Whether this is a single photograph, photo book, or mention on a blog, all these things have value to the donors.  Don’t go into this thinking that people will “give” you money because they pity the poor starving artist.  At the end of the day, provide a good product to your donors.  By investing in your vision, they’ve earned it.

3.  Think deeply about what it costs you to make those images. What is the cost of travel? Resources like printing paper?  But, more importantly, how much time are you going to spend on this project? Will you be able to make a living on the money you raise?  Will you miss work to get the project done?  That’s lost income. Include it.  Dare I say it, create a budget?

4.  Clearly define how you’ll get this done. Include a timeline, the locations you’ll shoot, the content of those images.  Not only will this help you plan, this will give your “customers” a sense of what they’ll see in the end.

5.  Sell yourself. Ultimately, they are investing in you.  Make it clear why you are THE photographer to invest in.

Here are a couple of examples of great projects that are currently looking for funding:

Alex Coghe – Italy: The Crisis Project

Alex Coghe has spent the last several years living and creating photographs on the streets of Mexico City.  Originally from Italy, he has been watching, from afar, the economic crisis wreek havoc on the world he knows back home.  Now he wants to return to Italy and document, through photography, the transformation that is happening on the streets of his country.  See more about the project here.


95 Lives: A Documentary Film about Helen Levitt

Before street photographers took Manhattan by storm, there was Helen Levitt. An artistic pioneer and the ultimate photographer’s photographer, Levitt lived as a total enigma, determined to dodge the public eye in favor of what she loved most: poker, baseball, and, above all, capturing the city at play. 95 Lives searches for the many, colorful lives of this female pioneer and the formidable contributions she made to 20th century art and to the city that shaped her incredible body of work: New York. See more about the project here.