Emphas.is Crowdfunding for Photojournalists: From the Series Photojournalism at the Crossroads

Carolyn Drake
Carolyn Drake
The Story of Uyghur
An infant sleeps under a veil in a quiet section of a Uyghur market on the road between Yarkand and Hotan.

Photojournalism at the Crossroads is a new series from LightBox that takes a closer look at how photographers are creatively revisiting traditional ways of image-making while using the latest digital technology to revitalize the genre and reach a wider audience.

Online crowdfunding has proven to be a popular and viable means of financially supporting creative projects. Sites like Kickstarter.com have enabled individuals to appeal directly to an audience and realize a range of ideas that otherwise would have had limited chances of getting off the ground. But there hadn’t been a site for photojournalism until now.

Emphas.is, a recently launched crowdfunding website, is exclusively for project work by photojournalists. Its bold ambition is to create an environment where members of the public can fund projects and connect directly and more meaningfully with photographers in the field. This connectivity also encourages accountability as photographers are asked to provide project updates directly to their supporters.

“We did not want to ask the public for charity and donations towards photographic projects,” said the site’s co-founder Tina Ahrens. “We want to offer the reader something in return.” Ahrens said that Emphas.is is “built on the idea that in today’s media world, things have radically changed. People increasingly seek and rely on direct sources. They want to be able to engage on the issue that they care about.”

This new platform allows people an opportunity to support something they believe in and allows them to bring issues to the attention of a wider audience. The site also builds on the culture of social networks. “People want to be recommended something from someone close to them,” Ahrens said. “They want to decide how deeply they immerse themselves in a story. They want to discuss and shape it.”

Aaron Huey

The Pine Ridge Billboard Project
Agnes Ghost plays with a bow in her front yard in the village of Manderson. Most children spend their days unsupervised and stay up late with the adults that are awake, or they wander the village streets.

Emphas.is launched in March with nine projects, including The Story of Uyghur by Carolyn Drake, which looks at repercussions of China’s policy to develop its Western frontier, Aaron Huey‘s Pine Ridge Billboard Project, which aims to focus attention on the plight of Native American Indians, and Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town by Matt Eich, a story that concentrates on lives in the deep American south.

Matt Eich

Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town
Jabari Wilson (left) sits next to his cousin Quan (center) and mother Ellen in the home he shares with his mother, sister Nikki and her girlfriend Dominique in Greenwood, Miss. Jabari and Nikki both work to support their mother, who suffers from health problems and is unable to work. Quan lost his mother in a car accident as a child and was raised by his grandmother.

Drake’s motivation for being among the first to test the viability of the site’s model is simple: “I just want to raise some money to keep working on my Uyghur project, to know I’m going there with actual funding.” She said that the site will hopefully put her in a position to explore new ideas, have creative flexibility and be in a good position to finish a project. “It would be nice if through this fundraiser I end up making contact with more people who share an interest in Uyghurs or in the themes of my work,” she said. “And I’d like to find new ways to have a dialogue about it.”

Eich said he is positive but realistic about the site. “It certainly won’t be a silver bullet that will fund all projects,” he told the British Journal of Photographers. “But if photographers are thoughtful about how they approach this model, it can offer a significant channel of support for long-term bodies of work.”

With much discussion and anxiety around the survival of photojournalism, Emphas.is offers a real focus for engagement and support. So far, the response has been positive. Within the first few days of the site going live, a total of $15,000 had been pledged. On March 29, Drake’s The Story of Uyghur became the first project to be successfully funded.

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