Photo Gigs: Tina Ahrens, co-founder and chief operating officer, Emphas.is

Q&A with Tina Ahrens, co-founder and COO at Emphas.is

LARGER THAN LIFE: Aaron Huey raised $26,431 for the Pine Ridge Billboard Project, the most successful Emphas.is fundraising effort to date. Huey collaborated with artists/activists Shepard Fairey and Ernesto Yerena on a nationwide guerilla poster campaign, using his images from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation to address the issue of Native American treaty rights.

PDNedu: Where did you study and what was your career path after graduation?

Tina Ahrens: I studied Communications and Audio-Visual Production Studies at London Guildhall University in the UK. After graduation I spent a year in Cape Town, South Africa, documenting the country in transition and teaching a photography workshop to locals in one of the townships, the result of which was shown in the Portrait Africa exhibition, a project by the “Haus der Kulturen der Welt” in Berlin. When I got back to Germany, I started working as a photo editor for GEOlino, the children’s edition of GEO. After working at GEO for six years, I was offered the position to work as photo editor in their New York correspondent office. I worked there until the office closed at the end of 2009, at which point I created emphas.is with photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa and tech specialist Fanuel Dewever.

PDNedu: How did you get the idea for Emphas.is? What does the name signify and how did you come up it?

TA: As a photo editor I have seen the decline in the quality of the work that has been assigned in recent years. Often budgets are too low for a photojournalist to really investigate a story and spend the time to really explore an issue. Most of the reporting has become flat. For a few years now photographers have put up their own money to produce in-depth stories, but since the media crisis hit our profession very hard, I don't know many photojournalists who are not struggling to make a living. They simply can't continue to produce stories at their own costs anymore.

It was pretty clear to us at Emphas.is that the old media institutions are not going to recover any time soon, if at all, and that the solution of how to continue to produce in-depth photojournalism has to be found elsewhere. The logical step was to turn directly to the public to ask what they want to see reported, and instead of paying for a magazine with a fixed content, the audience would pay a small contribution towards realizing the production of a feature they would be interested in. So in a sense we wanted to cut out the middlemen, the gatekeepers of our profession. To us, crowdfunding and journalism are a very good match!

When you look at crowdfunding in other areas, it is clear that people are willing to pay for something they value. We are not asking for donations, we are offering the reader/viewer something in return. We firmly believe that people are willing to pay for an experience, for a unique opportunity to join a creation process, to become insiders to the profession and follow the journeys photographers make to bring back their stories.

The name emphas.is struck a note with us, as it highlights the notion that we put the spotlight, the “emphasis”, on certain topics that might not be the ones the media necessarily likes to investigate.

PDNedu: The focus of Emphas.is is to fund photojournalism projects. Do you feel that defining this niche has a particular advantage for the photographers (particularly when compared with crowdsourced fundraising through other sites such as Kickstarter)?

TA: I think it’s important to remember that photojournalism as a form of journalism needs to stick to journalistic ethics as much as any other form of reporting. With emphas.is we wanted to create an environment where that trust is given, where audiences know they can find reliable information. Other crowdfunding sites feature soda drink makers, next to video game sellers and so on. We felt this might not be the best place for journalism if it wants to be taken seriously.

Finding funding for the work is just one part of the mission of emphas.is. We want photographers to build their own crowds in the long run and create engaged global communities around their work, outlasting the fundraising period of just one particular project. We want to create a dialogue between the journalists and the public and bring transparency to the news gathering process. That is why we have created a “making-of zone” for each project where the backers of a project get exclusive access to the photojournalist working on the ground. The photographer will provide his audience with live updates and insights into the work, and the audience can get in touch with the reporter and other backers. So it is much more about community building than mere funding.

In addition, we facilitate partnerships and collaborations on emphas.is. We have built partnerships with magazine and NGOs. A media organization or NGO can secure first publication rights for their territory by paying part of the proposed budget of a project. In a media landscape where budgets are continually shrinking, co-funding a story with the public allows media organizations to do stories that they could otherwise no longer produce. It is also a way for publishers to keep their finger on the pulse of what audiences want to see and be informed about, and a way for NGOs to raise awareness about issues they care about.

PDNedu: How do you select the projects that get backed by Emphas.is?

TA: We have a review board of 40+ photography and journalism professionals in place who judge the validity of a project. Is the project feasible? Does the photographer know what he is talking about? Can he/she get access? Is the budget reasonable, and so on? We assign three reviewers per project, to evaluate the pitch and they have a set list of selection criteria to help them judge. It is the reviewers who decide if a project is put in front of the audience or not.

For the books, we at emphas.is decide if we will accept a book for the emphas.is collection or not. We have only just recently launched the publishing program, and we want to work closely with the photographers throughout the process—funding, pre-press, printing, distribution. We’ve decided that we want to hand pick the projects with which we work.

PDNedu: What percentage of Emphas.is’s projects have been successful in their fundraising efforts to date?

TA: So far 62 percent of the projects get successfully funded, which is a great figure as the average for crowdfunding sites is around 35 percent.

PDNedu: After being accepted for backing, what’s the most important consideration for a photographer?

TA: Campaigning is key. A photographer has to be willing to promote his project pitch during the fundraising period and mobilize his network.

The dynamics of a campaign usually work like this:
To begin, a photographer has to mobilize his or her network and personal contacts to give the project a certain momentum. In addition to getting the funding rolling, one must look to spread the word and create a wide reach for the project pitch. Besides to a personal network, one has to identify like-minded organizations and key influencers who might be able to spread the project pitch. This involves identifying the people who might be susceptible to the project’s cause and finding the best way to reach them. It’s essential to look beyond the photojournalism crowd to get a large enough reach and get the snowball effect rolling.

The funding usually slows down in the middle of the campaign, so it’s important to try and secure partnerships that can help to push the project into the almost funded stage.

Once a project has gathered more than 2/3 of its funding goal, strangers usually come on board. They see that a project is gaining momentum, so they are confident that it is actually happening. If a project does not reach its goal the money is returned to the backers of that project.
If a project is fully funded before the timeline expires, we often see the phenomenon of overfunding. When people see a successful project they want to jump on board and they don’t care if the project has already received enough funds—they want to become part of it. Most of the successfully funded projects have actually overfunded.

Partnerships are great tools to reach a funding goal. We noticed that companies and magazines were quite willing to collaborate/co-fund on Emphas.is. We offer media partners the opportunity to co-fund a project with the public and thus get first publication rights in their territory. It allows magazines to produce stories for less, which is needed due to the tight budgets they have for photography these days, but it also gets them involved back in the production process. We are helping to find these partners for photographers but they also have to work on that front if they want their campaign to be successful.

So, all in all, a photographer has to be willing to invest the time in promoting his or her project and engage with the community throughout the entire fundraising period.

PDNedu: What’s the median amount that people are willing to donate to a project?

TA: The average pledge on enphas.is is $97. So, in general people are quite generous.

PDNedu: Once they engage initially, do backers on Emphas.is tend to fund multiple projects? Do you provide the overall audience of backers with any general Web site or project updates to encourage return visits?

TA: Yes, backers tend to back several projects. We have a return rate of 45 percent among backers. Tomas van Houtryve has already seen this phenomenon with his second crowdfunding project where many of his backers returned, as did Joao Pina who is now doing his third crowdfunding campaign for his long-term project “Shadow of the Condor”.

PDNedu: In your experience, are there specific types of rewards that are most popular with funders?

TA: The tangible returns, such as books, work very well. People feel they are getting a fair return for their money. Signed prints work well, too, as do workshops. The workshops that are offered as rewards are usually one-to-one courses, and offer backers the unique opportunity to learn from an experienced photojournalist.

PDNedu: Which project has received the most funding to date?

TA: Aaron Huey’s Pine Ridge Billboard Project has received the most funds to date. Aaron raised $26, 431 to make his billboard project happen nationwide and create a huge installation in Los Angeles with Shepard Fairey.

The project was a collaborative effort between the American photographer Aaron Huey and the artists and activists Shepard Fairey, designer of the Obama HOPE campaign poster, and Ernesto Yerena. They took the story of the Lakota and other tribes fighting for treaty rights straight to the public in the form of street posters and billboards. Aaron had photographed the Pine Ridge Reserve for many years and had decided he wanted his images to have a real impact. He asked Fairey and Yerena to design posters based on some of his photographs in order to put them up across the country.

What I love about this project is the way in which Aaron used Emphas.is as a way to mobilize people and make them collaborators in the process. He organized a nationwide guerilla poster campaign, where his project backers were invited to wheat paste the treaty rights posters designed by Fairey and Yerena in their city or community. He wanted his message to have the largest possible reach, to make people think about native Indian treaty rights and have people wonder about prisoner of war camps in America on their commute to work.

To me this was a very intelligent and powerful project and it was a great success. People clearly liked this kind of engagement.

PDNedu: Which project has received the widest amount of visibility or audience support?

TA: Patrick Brown’s book Trading to Extinction and Tamara Abdul-Hadi’s “Picture an Arab Man” have gotten the widest exposure.

Patrick had a tough time getting any publisher or magazines interested in his 10-year project about the illegal animal trade in Asia. I had known about his project for a long time and really wanted to make the book happen. So we launched his campaign and he got a lot of support for his project that clearly had a cause and resonated deeply with funders. Once the project took on momentum and got significant funding, he got exposure on many blogs, such as the New York Times Lightbox, which ran a feature on his project. And to our surprise, VICE, who is not usually known for this kind of photojournalism, decided to do a portrait on Patrick. They sent a team to film Patrick in his Bangkok studio and joined him on a trip to China where Patrick was doing the last chapter of his project. Then they showed the documentary on a show called “Picture Perfect”.

From a book that no publisher wanted to touch, by doing his book through crowdfunding, Patrick turned the story around and got a maximum of awareness about the issue of illegal animal trade.

Patrick also managed to get a partner on board for the book, Freeland, an organization dedicated to making the world free of wildlife trafficking and human slavery. Patrick had worked with them before; they facilitated access for part of his project in Asia. For Freeland it was a perfect opportunity to financially support the project and help get the word out about their work.

Tamara’s work about the representation of Arab men was quite controversial, some loved it, some hated it. But the fact that she tackled a touchy subject got her a lot of exposure. She was featured on more than 20 blogs from places such as Russia, Egypt, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Morroco, Sweden, the UK and the US, and she got many comments from her funders.

PDNedu: You mentioned that Emphas.is is now offering funding support to projects by student photographers. Can you share further details about plans for this?

TA: We just launched a new section on Emphas.is, the TALENT section. Birte Kaufmann from the Ostkreuzschule for Photography in Berlin, Germany, is the first student on our site with her project “The Irish Travelers.”

The concept behind TALENTS is for the leading photo schools around the world to select the most promising of their students and for Emphas.is to raise the funds for their first big project. The idea is that budgets are doable and not too huge, in the area of $3,000 to 5000.

We would like to help the new generation out there to get started and to show them new ways in which to function in this profoundly changed new media landscape. This generation can no longer rely on the media to help them finance their work. They have to become quite savvy and build their own audiences. But, if they can  get there, this offers a lot of opportunities and freedom.



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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