In less than three years, some 500 photographers, independent book publishers, product designers, and other photo-related project creators have turned their dreams into a reality. How? By sourcing money from the crowd in an online incubator called Kickstarter.
Gerd Ludwig’s heart lies deep in the old Soviet Union, which this German-born, Los Angeles-based photographer has chronicled for decades. A 1993 National Geographic assignment first led him to shoot the ruins of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, whose Unit 4 reactor had melted down in April 1986. When the magazine sent him back 20 years after the accident, he discovered residents had returned to Ukrainian villages in the exclusion zone. The mostly elderly returnees “preferred to die on their contaminated soil, rather than from a broken heart in an anonymous city suburb,” he has said.
Seeking to return in 2011, Ludwig found his usual clients interested more in celebrities than in Cher-nobyl. NatGeo was out, having sent him just a few years before. So how would he fund his labor of love?
Enter Kickstarter, “a market-place of ideas” on the Web for art and creative projects. In less than three years, this New York-based startup has helped photographers, filmmakers, musicians, product designers, and other creative types raise more than $100 million, primarily in small amounts. It has fostered more than 500 photo-related projects so far, with some $3 million in pledged funds.
Founded by Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler, and Charles Adler, Kickstarter launched in April 2009—the first company to effectively “crowdsource” funds for the arts. The partners believe that “art isn’t trying to make a buck, it’s trying to find an audience,” Strickler says.
Staffers review each project and uphold certain rules: No charities, no investments, no “send me to photography school” pitches. Projects must create something original, have a beginning and an end, and reward their backers—for instance, with a book, original print, or clever new gadget. The company keeps a 5-percent fee.
The catch? Unlike some of of its competitors, Kickstarter requires you to reach your funding goal to collect any of the pledged money. Otherwise, the funds revert to the backers; a fate that befalls more than half of accepted projects. This risk spurs creators to push family, friends, fans, and followers to participate. And every time a project goes viral, so does Kickstarter; its influence has spread quickly.
Word reached Ludwig, and his initial misgivings gave way to enthusiasm. Raising $23,316 in pledges from 435 backers, he nearly doubled his goal. He used the extra funds to develop an iPad app with photos, videos, and essays from his trips to Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. His biggest hassle? Shipping 60 copies of his 5-pound tome, Broken Empire: After the Fall of the USSR, to backers in more than 20 countries.
Help from Friends
Low on funds but high on ideas, Paul Stewart, founder of Over the Edge Books, wanted to publish a retrospective of Michael Miller’s photos of the West Coast hip-hop scene in the ’90s. He shot album covers for Cypress Hill and Snoop Dogg, and rap luminaries such as Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and Tupac Shakur frequently graced his lens. With his photos came Miller’s insider tales of figures that many teens now idolize. Helming a tiny publishing house, Stewart needed money to start printing the book—so he turned to Kickstarter.
Miller set their goal at $3,000; pledges exceeded twice that amount by mid-December 2011.
Despite the site’s global reach, most support for the project came from his and Miller’s inner circles. “I was shocked how many of the pledges were close personal friends,” Stewart says.
But photojournalist Krisanne Johnson was not surprised. Her social circle raised $10,443 for “I Love You Real Fast,” her series on youth culture in AIDS-ravaged Swaziland; she rewarded 22 of her backers with hanging ornaments handmade by Swazi women. Her friends “heard me talk about this project incessantly for the past six years,” she recalls. When she asked them to support her Kickstarter campaign, they took to the Internet with gusto. Her friends told their friends—and they sold it well.