While I cannot quantify this, there are many talented photographers who cannot pursue their vision because they can’t find the needed funding. Photographers with tremendous skill in documenting cultures and events fail to crack the funding nut, perhaps because they find it too awkward to ask people for money. I suffer from that affliction. I would rather walk across a garbage dump barefooted then ask for money. In my view, face-to-face requests are the worst. Thankfully, there seem to be some alternatives that even I could do.
The Business Side
I should start off by saying that there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for money for work you are doing. In sending his disciples out to spread the word, Jesus urged them to accept any support offered “for the laborer is worthy of his wages.” Luke 10:7.
Perhaps way too many people with artistic sensibilities neglect the business side of their craft. But having a well thought out business plan for any undertaking is absolutely indispensable. The lack of such a plan, I believe, is one of the leading causes of failure. And failure helps no one, including those you are trying to help with your project.
Where to Find Money
Often documentary photography lacks an immediate news hook. Without such a hook, media — whether old or new — is not likely to fund the work up front. In some cases, grants might be available from for-profit or nonprofit institutions, but such grants can be time-consuming to obtain and limiting in their terms and conditions.
It’s important to remember that the financial support for a project does not necessarily need to come from the organization that might ultimately publish the work. You might intend to target mass media outlets, or specialized media, but the funding may very well come from people who simply share your belief regarding the need to tell the story.
If your story needs to be told, perhaps because it advances a Christian mission either to aid the subjects of the photography or to give hope and inspiration to the viewers of the photography, I believe there will be others who will share that mission with you. Those people are a potential source of funding. You just need to find them.
Finding Money in the Crowd
So how do you find funding from friends and strangers if you’re like me and are way too self-conscious to walk up to them and ask? A few suggestions can be found in an article entitled “Direct Appeal” by Connor Risch, published in the Photo District News, August, 2010. (Unfortunately, the online version is only available by subscription.) The article itself tells three stories of documentary photographers raising money through novel means.
1. Use Facebook and other social media to make general requests of people you know and beyond. Using Facebook, Jason Florio and Helen Jones raised money to fund their project of photography and audio recordings of oral histories, a multimedia website and book providing a modern account of the people and stories of rural Gambia. Jason and Helen found it useful to create a pdf file that told the story, and to route the contributions through an interested NGO. The article suggests the initiative was used as a fundraiser for the NGO, but the article didn’t go into any detail about how the proceeds were divided between the photography project and the mission of the NGO, which was helping people around the world learn how to grow their own food. Personally, the NGO element would be important to me as a potential contributor as it would make declaring the contribution as a tax-deductible gift much easier, and it also lends credibility to the initiative.
2. Use websites such a kickstarter.com to solicit funding from like-minded people. I have not used kickstarter.com myself, but I understand it is an effective website for seeking funding for photography and art projects in general, including documentary photography. Spot.us performs a similar function, but is more focused on journalism. This mechanism of having websites focus on connecting donors with needs is growing in popularity, and there are some major endeavors out there such as donorschoose.com, which focuses mostly on education. I did a quick search for a similar site that focuses on Christian mission work and did not find one. If any of you can point me toward one, I would be grateful. As with the social media route, this approach requires that you succinctly, clearly and convincingly describe your project. Rachel Sussman, according to the article, used kickstarter.com to raise over $10,000 for her project of documenting the oldest living things in the world.
3. Build your own website to serve as the focal point for fund-raising. Seems simple enough, but it also can be a lot of work. Anyone who starts their own blog knows that people don’t just come knocking on their door electronically simply because the website exists. Photographer Rob Horstra wanted to document the lives of the people in Sochi, Russia, as they prepare to host the Winter Olympics in 2014. That region is a decidedly unglamorous location that will undoubtedly be transformed substantially as the preparations continue. The website was the focus of the fundraising, but the photographer and a fellow writer also produced a hard copy newsletter they distributed at related events where people interested in the story might congregate. The old media fed the new, and potential donors began flocking to the site to see the content as it was updated.
Common Theme: Giving to Get
The highest form of Christian charity is anonymous gifts given without any expectation of credit or praise in return. But alas, not all charity is given that way.
I’m not suggesting that you pander to the vain, but in each of the three scenarios above, the photographers found it helpful to offer gifts in return for contributions. In each case, the photographer adopted a tiered approach where the photographer offered to give more to those who pay more. The primary currency in each case was prints of the work involved. So perhaps look at it more as selling your content in advance of producing it. Gestures that say thank you are a tried and true approach to fund-raising. Getting access to content through a website, or multiple numbers and sizes of prints, are ways to distinguish given amounts.
But the bottom line is, nurture relationships with your donors. Share with them information, progress reports, and opportunities for personal interaction at gallery openings and so forth. People who are interested in your work will be in some measure interested in you. Everybody values human relationships. So give a little bit of yourself.
Jason Florio, who undertook the documentary project in Gambia, after noting his success using Facebook, explained “I was really surprised at the number of people who came forward and got excited about it and were willing to take a hundred bucks out of their pocket.” “Jason added, ‘It definitely put my faith back in humanity.’” I have a slightly different take on it. It strengthens my faith in God.