Photographers Doing it for Themselves, but at What Cost?

In the new economy and media landscape, there are a lot of cant's. Photographers can't wait for funding, can't expect a traditional media outlet to publish their work, can't rely on portfolio viewings to lead to work. They are expected to be constantly blogging, tweeting, tumblring, producing online magazines, creating iPad apps and tapping their social networks for funding. The thinking is that your increased online presence will generate money for you because you will be part of the conversation and on the radar of the people who are hiring. Or, that people will pay you directly to consume your work in the form of a self-published book or magazine. But at what cost?

Too Many Hats Syndrome

Today the British Journal of Photography posted a story titled "Do it Yourself". BJP talks about Rob Hornstra's Sochi Project, a massive undertaking chronicling the area where the next Winter Olympics will be held. Since no media outlets would pay to do something on such a grand scale, Hornstra was left to fund the project himself.

But as Hornstra points out, “You’re not just a photographer any more, you’re an entire company,” he says. “You handle the marketing, the sales, budgeting. You handle everything. You have to make people aware of the story."

How do all of these new demands on photographers affect the actual photography? Are you a good marketer? Do you enjoy trying to get people to buy ad space on your site? If you are undertaking a large project, it will probably involve a team of people. Do you want to spend your time project managing the endeavor? If you do, that is fab, but if you don't, don't feel the pressure just because it is what everyone is doing. Better to do one thing really well than to do 20 things half-ass.

Time Suck Effect

Recently, Manjari Sharma's Shower Series ended up on lots of blogs, which led to an ad job shooting faucets. Sharma was interviewed about the project and the gig it led to, and one thing she mentions in most interviews is that she reads all of the photo blogs in order to stay current. I commend her, as that is practically a full-time job. It's great to have the pulse of the industry and to know what your colleagues are working on. And I love that her project got blogged about so much and that led to a commercial job. It's what we all want for the industry.

But I worry that there is too much pressure and emphasis put on being part of the blogversation. If you find that you are spending more time staying current on photo blogs than actually shooting, coming up with new project ideas, editing work or collaborating with colleagues, then it's time to reevaluate how valuable all the blogging is.

Maybe I Should Shoot More Like...

You also want to be wary of having your style influenced. Just because everyone is blogging about hazy, barren seascapes this week or abandoned schoolhouses or whatever doesn't mean that you should do that or that doing so will lead to internet fame and glory.

As they say on Project Runway, stay true to who you are as an artist. Have a point of view. Don't muddle that view with too many outside influences.

There is something to be said for unplugging, literally and figuratively.

And Now for some Good News...

I love photo essays. I started my career pitching stories to magazines back in the days when editors would actually say yes and the story would appear a few weeks later in print. I think there is nothing like the power of a large-scale photo project to tell a story. I firmly believe that regular people who don't care a thing about photojournalism can have their minds expanded and their views changed by seeing an amazing photo essay.

I love that there are so many new avenues for photography. I just hope they reach a wider audience beyond those who a) love photography or b) are interested in the issues being covered by photojournalists. The power of traditional media lies in its reach.

I also love that blogs, online magazines and other self-publishing avenues have allowed photographers to research other people's work more efficiently. Now there are no excuses for doing a project that has been done to death already.

Get online and see if your idea is original. Then get offline and go shoot. And don't forget to tweet about what you ate for lunch that day.

Read more about crowdfunding: I recently wrote about how Erin Siegal used Kickstarter to fund her project. PDN's August cover story about Jason Florio talked at length about crowdfunding and the many outlets photographers can pursue. Tomas van Houtryve recently posted about beta testing flattr.

Get some self-publishing inspiration: VII has launched the VII Magazine in order to be a media outlet as well as content creator. Former GEO editor Tina Ahrens and acclaimed photojournalist Karim ben Khalifa launched, an online portal for photojournalism that will use crowdfunding and micropayment to sustain itself. Magnum's David Alan Harvey has turned burn magazine into a portal for student work, workshops, contests, and more.

Goodbye magazines, hello crowd funding?

Long gone are the days when photographers could pitch a great story idea to a magazine and get a guarantee or a nice long assignment. It does still happen, especially with unique ideas that are topical, timely or controversial, but it's the exception to the rule. Crowd sourcing, and specifically "crowd funding", could be the new model to getting those stories produced. Photographers, journalists, artists and other creatives are tapping the buying power of their social networks to make their projects a reality. Through web sites like and, photographers pitch their stories to the world, raise money and hit the road.

Journalist Erin Siegal has raised over $3,000 to cover her expenses in Guatemala as she completes a two year long investigative journalism piece on corruption in the adoption industry.

Photographer Zoe Strauss has raised $4,000 to do a series on how the BP oil spill is affecting people in The Gulf.

Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler have raised over $16,000 to turn their project on South Africans and their bikes into a photo book.

The great thing about this is you instantly have a built in network of people who care about your story. All those small donations add up and those people will follow your progress, tweet about it and post about it to Facebook. It's like having hundreds of people doing PR for you.

Another big plus is that once you are done with the story, you can take it to book publishers, magazines, gallerists and art buyers and show them, in a concrete way, just how dedicated you are to your craft. Telling someone you have a great project idea is one thing, showing them is another.

Lastly, putting your ideas together and preparing them for one of these funding sites will force you to really think through your project. You might just find, through a lack donations, that it's not the great idea you originally thought it was.

UPDATE: PDN just posted a very informative interview with Yancey Strickler, co-founder of the crowd-funding Web site Kickstarter. It include tips on why some projects exceed their fundraising goals while others don't bring in any money.