Emphas.is builds community of support for quality photojournalism

Claire Billet wants to create a documentary portraying life in Shahi, a small village in Eastern Afghanistan. Justin Maxon wants to capture the impact of violence in Chester, Pa. And four female photographers want to give voice to rape victims in Congo.

All of these photojournalists have stories they'd like to tell, but don't have the financial means to do so. Hoping to seek support from the public, they pitched their projects to Emphas.is, a crowdfunding site for photojournalism.

The idea behind the 7-week-old site is to give photojournalists the chance to pursue projects they may not otherwise be able to, and then build a community around these projects. Karim Ben Khelifa, CEO and cofounder of Emphas.is, started the site because he saw opportunities drying up for photojournalists, particularly freelancers.

Looking for quality journalism, variety

Of the 28 projects that photojournalists have pitched to Emphas.is, 10 have been accepted and four have met their fundraising goals. The site's projects have generated more than $65,000 altogether. Emphas.is keeps 15 percent of the money raised from each project for operational costs, while the rest goes toward funding the photographers' work.

Members of Emphas.is' board of reviewers look at the project proposals, taking into consideration the photographers' previous work, and whether their idea and budget seem reasonable. They also look for variety. "We're trying to make the stories that are told capture different interest groups so we can expand faster," Ben Khelifa said by phone, noting that many of the proposals come from freelancers.

Freelance photojournalist Justin Maxon is trying to raise $8,050 for a project aimed at combating violence in Chester, Pa. He's raised $165 from seven backers in a week, with 54 days remaining to raise the rest.

Maxon has been promoting his project on social networks and reaching out to organizations that support victims of violence in hopes that they'll help fund the project and spread the word about it. If he doesn't meet his fundraising goal, all of the money he raises will be returned to backers -- a policy for all Emphas.is projects.

Maxon started photographing the residents of Chester three years ago as an intern at the Associated Press in Philadelphia. Now, he wants to take portraits of those who have lost a friend or loved one to violence and organize a peace rally in the community. For Maxon, the project is an opportunity to connect with the community in ways that he hasn't been able to.

"I've witnessed a tremendous amount of tragedy in Chester, and have felt like a helpless bystander with a camera, never seeing any examples of how my work was tangibly benefiting the community," Maxon said. "Attending journalism school, I was told to never become too involved in the lives of people I document. I'm done hiding in this safety net of journalistic apathy and passivity."

Will people pay for quality photojournalism?

Emphas.is' success will be determined in large part by people's willingness to fund quality photojournalism. Photography has long been used to prompt people to give money. Think about all the charities that use photos of sick children and families on their websites and fliers to help potential donors visualize pain, loss and the hope for survival.

Other crowdfunding sites, such as Kickstarter and Spot.us, have seen reasonable success with photojournalism projects. Kickstarter cofounder Yancey Strickler said the photography projects, many of which have been pitched by photojournalists, have generated more than $1.5 million in fundraising. Altogether, Kickstarter projects have generated about $50 million since the site launched two years ago today. The site gets an estimated 250 project proposals per day and accepts about 60 percent of them, Strickler said.

About 10 percent of the projects on Spot.us -- a crowdfunding site for journalists -- have come from photojournalists. Spot.us Founder David Cohn said some photographers have successfully funded photo essay projects, and others have partnered with reporters to tell multimedia stories.

Unlike Emphas.is and Kickstarter, Spot.us allows people to continue a project even if it doesn't meet its fundraising goal by the deadline. Cohn said that if people decide to continue, Spot.us sets an editorial deadline and keeps fundraising on their behalf until they've turned in their story or until the fundraising goal is met.

About 55 percent of Spot.us projects and 45 percent of Kickstarter projects receive full funding. So far, about 40 percent of Emphas.is' projects have been fully funded.

Some Emphas.is projects are still far from their fundraising goals with only a week or so to go. Freelance photojournalists Sarah Elliott, Agnes Dherbeys, Benedicte Kurzen and Ying Ang need to raise $23,755 by next Thursday to meet their fundraising goal.

So far, they've have raised $5,345. The goal of their collaborative project, "Besieged," is to call attention to the systematic rape in Eastern Congo. The women each have different roles in the project, which include documenting the relationships between mothers and their children who were born of rape.

Ang said she believes that for crowdfunding to work, people pitching projects have to show how their projects will be different from what's already been done.

"By taking into account the dynamic qualities of four very different photographers working together to increase the depth and scope of the subject matter ... we are hoping to make something unprecedented. The biggest challenge is placing that appeal into the belief and trust of our audience," Ang said via email. "It really is a matter of faith and how far that faith is willing to go in terms of giving photographers an opportunity to make the work that they really care about but can't get the money to do."

If the group doesn't meet its goal, she said, they'll continue to appeal for fundraising independent of Emphas.is.

Sean Elliot, president of the National Press Photographers Association, said he thinks the site has potential to benefit a lot of photojournalists.

"Given what looks like some real strong early success, I think the model shows a lot of promise," he said via email. "Since funding from almost any traditional sources has all but dried-up, any sign of promise has to be good."

Offering a behind-the-scenes look at photojournalists' work

Four Emphas.is projects have met their goals, including one about race and class disparity in Baptist Town, a neighborhood in Greenwood, Miss. Matt Eich of Luceo Images ended up with 102 backers who contributed $5,540 -- $340 more than his original goal. "This is something I would be doing out of my pocket if I didn't have anyone else funding it," Eich said by phone.

Like others who have fully funded projects on Emphas.is, he'll offer incentives to backers along the way depending on how much they've donated. Those who donated $10 will get a postcard from the project, while those who donated $1,000 or more will get an archival print and a box of work prints.

While in Baptist Town, he plans to post raw video clips and photos on the Web page for his Emphas.is project. Backers get exclusive access to the content there and can visit the space to leave comments and stay updated on photographers' progress.

"You can start to build relationships with people when you give them intimate access to your work," Eich said, noting that he hopes to build a community around his work. "I'm going to take people with me to Mississippi in ways that I've never done with other people. It's a little daunting, to be honest, but I'm going to give them their money's worth."

Given the money that people have contributed so far, Ben Khelifa said he's hopeful about the site's ability to pique people's interest in photojournalism and start a conversation around it.

"It is for me a sign that people are interested, and that's a start," he said. "I think the success of the site will be measured by the stories we tell. The more stories we tell, the more successful we'll be. Once you've got a story funded and you've got a community around that story, you're sharing interests and making things happen."

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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