© MORRIGAN MCCARTHY
Big Sky Country: Alan Winslow pulls to the side of the road to capture the sweeping Idaho landscape while balancing his 110-pound bicycle loaded with supplies.
Armed with little more than a camera, some hand-rolled film, writing implements and camping equipment, Veasey Conway and Daniel Kelley spent this past summer canoeing down the Mississippi and documenting life along the iconic river. But they weren’t alone.
Conway, an aspiring documentary photographer and American studies major at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and Kelley, a junior at Brown University in Ithaca, New York, brought along dozens of sponsors—in spirit, at least. Just before they launched from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, the two students emblazoned the name of each financial backer on the side of their canoe. “It will help us feel like our supporters are doing the trip with us, and when we meet people along the river, we’ll be able to explain to them: These are the people who helped us get this far,” Conway said on the day he and Kelley embarked. “It’ll just be me and my friend in this canoe, but all these people are sort of coming along for the ride.”
For large-scale photography projects, a photographer’s community of friends, family and followers can be an unexpected source of support, both emotional and economic. Fiscal sponsorship contracts, social-networking Web sites, corporate sponsors and online fund-raising facilitators can all help photographers tap into their communities for financial assistance. In effect, photographers already know whom to ask for funding—everyone who knows them and admires their work. The more difficult problem is how to ask.
Before requesting funds from anyone, photographers should carefully plan and articulate the project. To garner support from potential donors, project members must be able to explain what they want to do in their project and why; what they hope to achieve, discover or document; and how, specifically, they will use donated funds.
Photographers Morrigan McCarthy and Alan Winslow, for example, knew they were curious about how Americans perceive the environment and climate change. McCarthy explains, “At the beginning, we just wanted to drive around the country and talk to people.” But before they could seek funding from either organizations or individuals, they had to estimate expenses and formulate their purpose. In the process, their plans evolved into Project Tandem, a large-scale biking, photography and documentary expedition. “It became biking across the country rather than driving because we thought, ‘We better walk the walk if we’re going to talk the talk.’ Neither of us is a bicyclist, but we figured we’d make a go of it and see how far we’d get,” McCarthy says. So how far did they get? They cycled 11,000 miles from Maine to Florida to California and Washington state, then all the way back to New York. According to McCarthy, “It sounds harder than it was.”
To propel themselves along the Mississippi, Conway and Kelley decided early on to raise money through Kickstarter.com, an online platform for project fund-raising featured in this issue’s Project X. Because Kickstarter.com requires that a project reach its fund-raising goal by a set date in order for the funds to be dispersed, Conway and Kelley realized they needed a modest target and a specific deadline. “That’s how we came up with a $2,500 fund-raising goal,” Conway explains. “We tried to find a balance between how much we expected we could raise and what we actually needed for the trip.”
ALL ABOUT THE GAMBIA: Al Haji Tonakara, brother of the chief of Sudowole village, poses with his horse from A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush.PHOTO © JASON FLORIO
The approval and support of a recognizable organization can make all the difference in a photographer’s fund-raising efforts. When photojournalist Jason Florio and his producer and partner, Helen Jones, decided to walk 700 miles through West Africa to create a series of portraits of rural Gambians, London’s Royal Geographical Society awarded Florio an honorary fellowship. The fellowship lent the excursion the name and visibility of a prestigious academic and professional organization. Of course, Florio is an experienced and internationally renowned photographer, but with a little hard work, even novice and student photographers can increase their project’s publicity and authority by pairing with a nonprofit cultural institution.
While formulating the plan for their bike trip, McCarthy and Winslow secured fiscal sponsorship from a nonprofit arts service organization called Fractured Atlas. Charities like Fractured Atlas allow individual projects to adopt their nonprofit status, which helps to facilitate grant applications and to make both individual and corporate donations tax-deductible. McCarthy emphasizes, “Fractured Atlas did so much for us. With them behind us, we were able to apply for grants that we wouldn’t have been eligible for as individuals. Fractured Atlas already has a good reputation, so the granting organizations know that the projects they take on really have their stuff together. Getting fiscal sponsorship is a great way to align yourself with more people who are going to champion your project.”
In arts fund-raising, donors seem to beget donors. The photographers in Project Tandem experienced a sort of snowball effect among their sponsors. “We identified companies that had things that we needed—everything from water bottles to big panniers that carried all our gear. We started small,” McCarthy explains. “The first company we contacted was Klean Kanteen, a relatively small company with a green mission, and we thought maybe they’d want to kick us a couple of water bottles. As soon as they agreed, we were able to contact the next people and say, ‘Klean Kanteen is on board.’ It built like that, so every time we got a yes, it lent a better reputation for the project.”
Florio and Jones decided to donate all funds raised in excess of their trip’s budget to a U.K.-based charity called Gardens for Life, which helps schoolchildren around the world set up gardens in order to learn about self-sufficiency and sustainable food. “Instead of doing it just for ourselves, we wanted to do it for a charity,” Florio said. “Plus, donors enjoyed that aspect of it, that we were going to raise awareness and hopefully some money for a specific cause.”
DISPATCHES FROM THE FIELD: A break in riding provides McCarthy with the opportunity to update the blog and charge camera batteries in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
PHOTO © ALAN WINSLOW
The next step in fund-raising for a long-term project is to reach out to your regular group of contacts: your personal community of friends, family and classmates, along with people who know and follow your work. All the photographers we interviewed for this piece posted their project plans on their social networking sites—Facebook, LinkedIn, and Asmallworld.com—then let their online friends know how they could contribute.
McCarthy and Winslow emphasize the need to combine targeted approaches with blanket e-mails and tweets. Winslow explains, “We built our Web site geared toward every part of the project: what we wanted to do, where we wanted to go, our entire vision. We tackled social media—Facebook and LinkedIn; we started blogging and tweeting. We also called organizations we thought would be willing to donate. We tried to get them excited by showing them what we had done so far and we offered companies a spot for their logo on our Web site.”
Individual donors also deserve incentives. In addition to symbolic participation—donors’ names on the canoe—Conway and Kelley offered project-produced rewards, based on the amount of the contribution. For example, a $50 pledge was rewarded with a signed 8-by-10 black-and-white print from the excursion.
Florio funded his walking expedition in the Gambia primarily through a fine art print pre-sale, a tradition he can trace at least as far back as Edward Sheriff Curtis, the famed photographer of the late 19th-century American West who funded his expeditions through pre-sales. “Instead of just asking people for straight cash,” Florio says, “we’d offer them a print in return, starting at $100 for an 8-by-10 print and then scaling the price up from there.”
The pre-sale price represents a considerable reduction from Florio’s ordinary studio sales. The goal was to engage as many people as possible and to foster a certain sense of involvement in the expedition. Florio observes, “The project gave donors some insight into The Gambia, a country they didn’t know much about. Their investment was in the interaction and exchange of culture with Africa. In the end, they’d get something tangible: the print. It was a bit exciting, as well, since they didn’t quite know what they’d be getting—and neither did I. Buying through the presale was an act of faith on their part; they’re expressing that they like the work I’ve done already and hope I’ll produce something they’d like to hang on their walls in the end.”
Hitting the Road
GETTING IN THE GROOVE: Florio records the music of a flute player from the Fula tribe, the pastorialists of The Gambia.
PHOTO © JASON FLORIO
As soon as the funds are raised, it’s time to get out and start making pictures! While the vision of any large-scale project will grow and evolve as it unfolds, with community-funded projects, the donors become materially involved. Photographers should keep their sponsors updated on the project’s progress, either through a blog or personal, individualized contact, and deliver any promised rewards in a timely manner.
That reciprocity may be the ultimate benefit of community-based fundraising: It is truly a two-way street. Florio noticed that donors seemed “excited to be involved in some way in the expedition. I think they were glad to have a role in our journey.” In the process of sourcing the community for funds, photographers have the opportunity to bolster the meaning of community itself.
LOCAL LEADER IN SITU: Dadi Bah, the chief of Tubba Dabo village, poses for Florio with his radio, after listening to Muslim prayers.PHOTO © JASON FLORIO