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Q&A: Why is Emphas.is now turning to its own platform to survive?

Two years after its launch, Emphas.is, the crowd-funding platform for photojournalists, is appealing for donations in a bid to sustain its business model. Olivier Laurent speaks with co-founders Karim Ben Khelifa and Tina Ahrens

“Emphas.is is based on the premise that the audience is still interested in photography – despite what editors might think,” we wrote in early 2011, as the crowd-funding platform for photojournalists was about to launch. At the time, the premise was simple, as co-founder Karim Ben Khelifa told us: “Photographers are storytellers and our audience wants to hear those stories.”

The concept behind Emphas.is has always been simple: a photographer pitches a story, presents a budget, and if he receives the necessary funds, he keeps in touch with his backers with exclusive updates and access to the work. “Photographers will become a channel,” said Khelifa at the time. “They will meet their audience and engage with it.”

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Now, after raising more than $500,000 for photographers, the platform is appealing for funds to survive. We speak with co-founders Ben Khelifa and Tina Ahrens, and ask them why it’s now seeking help.

Olivier Laurent: Emphas.is was launched in early 2011. What has been achieved in these two years?

Karim Ben Khelifa/Tina Ahrens: Emphas.is and the concept that the public would be willing to pay for the production of high-quality visual storytelling was just a theory when we launched the platform two years ago. We saw the social media trend take off and with it the possibilities for us, the visual storytellers, to create communities around the subjects we were experts on.

With this new global reach online thanks to the social networks, journalists can now find people on any continent who share the same values and concerns about the issues the journalists are covering. Crowd-funding the way we set it up offers complete freedom to the creator in the creative process. No editorial line is imposed, no single person has a say over what the project should be or become. We have raised more than $500,000 for photojournalism, multimedia and film projects and have send more than 60 photographers back on the road to cover an important subject. We have published five photography books with Emphas.is with two more being published shortly. We have provided grass roots funding for independent storytelling projects and have created a new communication channel for journalists and their audiences.

The questions for freelancers on Emphas.is is no longer how long can I stay on the ground or how deep can I dive in this story but rather who are the people who care about this issue, who want to see it covered, and how can I engage them and create a meaningful connection with them. Many of the photographers on Emphas.is have thought deeply about the angle of their work and how they can effect change by reaching out directly to their audiences to become partners in their journalistic undertakings.

Today, crowd-funding has become part of the tool people think of when it comes to the funding of personal projects. This is a new phenomenon of the last two years and it has become a new pillar of support alongside grants money and what remains of the funding coming from legacy media.

Olivier Laurent: How has the industry reacted to Emphas.is? And what impact, do you believe, the site has had on the photojournalism market?

Karim Ben Khelifa/Tina Ahrens: We are a lab that concentrates on experimenting with how to create a dialogue with audiences and how to create shared values. As such many in the industry were a bit skeptical at first, I think, how such an experiment could work out. Reactions have been mixed from incredible support even before we launched and since our launch, and people going about their own business unconcerned with how we can all create tools that helps us as a profession to thrive. We set Emphas.is up to help a community and we realised that serving a community is not everybody’s cup of tea, especially in a highly individualistic profession such as photography.

But back in 2009, when we started thinking of Emphas.is, it was clear to us that we had to do something in the face of the pounding media crisis. We saw plenty of freelancers struggling to work on their projects and some of them were on the verge of quitting journalism, just because they could not make ends meet. Yet, we saw their talent and the importance of their stories, so it was not a reflection of their ability or commitment. We thought that a complete re-invention of the relationship between journalists and their audience was needed, and that’s what we built with Emphas.is, a platform and the tools to engage and solicit financial support.

In terms of impact on the photojournalism market, I think more journalists are willing to enter into this new phase now and create a dialogue with and engage the audience. We see a greater degree of openness about projects and less secrecy about future ideas. And we certainly see more collaborations on the platform, private donors, NGOs, media partners and other organisations get jointly behind projects to make them happen and see other organisations less as competition and rivals. The joint support also means that no one has control over the project other than the journalist.

Olivier Laurent: Is Emphas.is enough? Is the industry doing enough to sustain photojournalism?

Karim Ben Khelifa/Tina Ahrens: Emphas.is is clearly not enough to sustain photojournalism alone. But we do believe we have created an important tool that gives photographers an alternative funding channel and outlet. We have many more ideas on what the experience between the audience and the journalists could be like. It is all about experimenting and seeing what works, what fulfills a need for people. There is by no means enough experimentation going on, as everybody is scared to fail and few resources are available to built new tools.

This is ironic in many ways as the interest in photojournalism is extremely high. As an industry, we have let people outside of our industry reap the fruits of our labor. Many aggregators are doing very well, but they do little to sustain the production of independent storytelling. A handful of organisations are doing great work out there to fill the same gap that we worry about, such as The Open Society Institute, The Magnum Foundation, FotoVisura and other smaller organisations.

Olivier Laurent: With this call for donations, are we witnessing the beginning of Emphas.is’ second act or is it a cry for help to survive? Why does Emphas.is need money now?

Karim Ben Khelifa/Tina Ahrens: The call itself is for surviving, we are not today in a position where we can say we are moving to act 2. Yet, if this call is heard and supported, we can start working on the next phase. We need to sustain our operation in the first place and in order to do so, we need to invest in online tools (the experience), in outreach (partnerships) and in our book publishing to attain sustainability. We need more projects on the platform to get sustainable, but to do so we need more staff to handle the outreach, reviewing process, and campaigning for projects to reach their funding goal. Especially for the books there is a lot of logistical work behind the scenes and we just don’t have the manpower to handle it all. So we need an initial investment now to be able to grow to sustainability. Once we are there, we have plenty of ideas for phase 2.

One element of the next phase would be mobile. We want to see journalists updating their audience on a story while they are producing it. In essence people get a “private correspondent” about the topics they care about and get their information straight from the source when they are occurring.

Olivier Laurent: When each project is fully-funded, Emphas.is takes a 15% commission on the money raised, isn’t it enough to sustain your operations?

Karim Ben Khelifa/Tina Ahrens: Of these 15%, 4% go straight to PayPal as we have transaction fees to pay for the pledges. The remaining percents are not enough at this stage to sustain our operations. We would need to have a larger turnover of projects to be able to run just on these fees. The books are a better way for the platform to raise funds, as we act as the publisher and can earn some money on the sales, but the books are very work intensive for us, and we can’t currently handle more books without investing in staff.

What’s interesting and promising is that we, as a niche platform, have a much higher rate of getting projects funded: 72% of the projects on Emphas.is get fully funded as opposed to around 35% on other platforms. So there is a strong argument to be made about having an engaged, specialised audience, even if it’s smaller. The lion share of money in crowdfunding in general comes from gaming and gadget pre-sales, not from photography or journalism. But we believe strongly that it is important to stand for a code of ethics and principles that are so essential to journalism in order for the public to be able to trust the validity of the information delivered. So featuring journalistic projects next to soda makers or video games on a platform is possibly not the best idea.

Olivier Laurent: Have you been able to approach private investors to help Emphas.is? And if not, why has it been difficult to gain support from such organizations?

Karim Ben Khelifa/Tina Ahrens: We had several talks with investors and they were initially interested in the concept and our take on today’s media world. Once they ran their numbers though, they always came back to the bottom line and how to increase return of investment. They came back to us with suggestions like taking a percentage on the future sales journalists would do with the work produced through Emphas.is to impose sponsors on projects regardless of alignment of values. These were red areas for us that touch the care values we stand for.

The business world doesn’t really care about the ethics of journalism, they care about the profit margins and exit strategies. We were certainly not a good fit for those kinds of investors. We are since looking for partners that believe in creating shared values and that understand that investing in those new relations is the way to go. The public is one of those partners as our community clearly gets what we are doing.

Olivier Laurent: What can the industry do to help?

Karim Ben Khelifa/Tina Ahrens: We built a tool to help our community, for fellow storytellers to be able to produce their work. Our problem now is one of volume. We have proven the idea to work, but how to increase the amounts of stories on the platform while providing the same support? We need to adapt our infrastructure to make that work and for that we need funds for the platform itself. We need people, who care about photojournalism and its longevity, to lend us a helping hand to get to a sustainable level, so that we can continue bringing important stories to light. As Tomas van Houtryve so nicely put it: “This is the only platform 100% dedicated to helping the photojournalism community. When the media significantly reduced photo assignments, these folks put in a huge amount of effort to build a system that keeps photographers covering important stories. In two years, they’ve enabled the creation of more in-depth stories and books than most of the major media companies. They didn’t do it with dozens of well-paid staff in a Manhattan skyscraper. They did it with a handful of people working late nights on a shoestring budget. They did it by painstakingly pulling together a community of backers, reviewers and top-level photographers. We hear a lot of folks complaining about the ‘death of photojournalism,’ but very few who turn fresh ideas into reality. The Emphas.is team has delivered, and now they need your help to turn their fragile start-up into a sustainable company. Make a pledge now, and safeguard this essential lifeline for photojournalism.”