Photographer Amy Toensing is a frequent contributor to National Geographic, but even reaching that pinnacle of professional recognition doesn’t mean she’s able to do whatever projects she wants.
“I consider myself an artist and I have work that I need to do to stay sane. I need to make sure that I’m doing my work,” she says. As we all know so well, even working for major publications doesn’t mean money to fund personal projects. So Amy is taking her first steps to crowdfunding her next personal project.
She’ll photograph the lives of urban refugee children in Africa, some of the most vulnerable people in an already disturbingly disadvantaged population of Africans driven from their homes by war, persecution, famine, or disease. It’s an attempt to draw attention back to the plight of refugees.
Amy has shared what she’s learned about using Kickstarter, encouraging other photographers to step up and declare their work worth other people’s money. In her case, she’s asking for $10,000 from supporters. The travel, accommodations, and security guards for her time in the dangerous slums of Nairobi are projected to cost $6,000. The rest will go to printing, framing, and presenting the work as an exhibit.
To get started, Amy and her assistant read all the tips Kickstarter offers for building a successful campaign. Not all of them sounded like great ideas.
Like many photographers, she’s used to being behind the camera. “I find that having to be the public face is really intimidating,” Amy said. She appears in the video Kickstarter suggests as a key promotional tool, and does the voiceover for it too. But she doesn’t talk on camera, allowing her images to slide past, supporting her credentials and experience.
When she found out about the suggestion to have a pledge party to kick off the campaign, complete with laptops for people to make pledges on-site, as well as pledges on paper that supporters would fund later, Amy thought, “that sounds dorky.” But it worked. During the party, nearly two dozen people pledged over $500 on Kickstarter, and more attendees pledged another $1500 – reaching 20 percent of her total in just a few hours. “It was more than I ever expected it to be,” Amy admits.
In the two days after the kickoff party, she sent out an email blast to family and friends, as well as a note to 2700-plus Facebook friends. “You really need to stand in front and say, ‘Hey! This is important, and I’m going to go do it, and here’s why,’” she said. It reflects a trend in the industry, where especially freelancers “have to take on a persona now,” and have a brand. “You can’t just do the work.”
Now she’s working to keep up the momentum, seeking a balance between being visible enough that people step up and support the project, and updating so frequently as to be obnoxious.
Those are some good tips for making the most of Kickstarter, but first you need a project idea. In this case, it was from an old contact she’d known a decade ago, when working on a project documenting Somali refugees who resettled in Maine. She met Cheryl Hamilton, who was coordinating the resettlement. They stayed in touch, and about a year ago began talking about collaborating on a project.
Cheryl works for a humanitarian agency called RefugePoint, which focuses on finding the most vulnerable people in refugee populations – like orphaned children or members of minority groups – and relocating them to safer homes.
RefugePoint doesn’t have a lot of money, and spends most of what it does have on actually aiding needy individuals and families. Rather than trying to convince RefugePoint to pay her for the project, Amy decided to make funding the photo project another campaign. (She’ll coordinate with RefugePoint on in-country security and other logistics.)
“There was a bit of independence to it that way,” she said – letting her find her own way without having a client dictating a shot list. It allows “a very dedicated visual storytelling approach,” and also helps boost the profile of RefugePoint. It also affords her the freedom to find a more journalistic story and perhaps produce or sell that upon her return.
In asking for money up front, though, Amy knows she’s putting pressure on herself. Rather than just going, doing a story, and getting it published, “there’s a whole community in it” with her. “Just by the process of raising the money we’re getting people involved,” Amy said. “It’s very engaged. It’s not just a story on a piece of paper.”
And that’s where she realized she had to modify the Kickstarter idea. Not just seeking funding for her expenses, Amy is also asking for help paying for the creation of an exhibit. “It had to be something tangible that’s going to come of it.”
She also had to turn on her “marketing brain,” to think up attractive rewards for Kickstarter contributors. Initially she thought of offering prints of images from the project. But she amended that slightly because she realized there might be people who are fans, who know her work, and might be considering buying a print. So the offers include a choice: either an image from the project itself, or one from her existing portfolio. (There’s also a limited number of “photographer’s special” rewards – a portfolio review by Amy.)
And lastly, she needed to be conscious of the fact that this project may start now, but will likely never end. Fundraising attracts attention and helps people get involved in refugee resettlement; the exhibit continues that effort; and RefugePoint will build on her work. “It’s really the beginning of something,” Amy said.
If you want to participate – and/or thank Amy for her suggestions – visit her Kickstarter project:
About Amy Toensing
Amy Toensing, an American photojournalist committed to telling stories with sensitivity and depth, is known for her intimate essays about the lives of ordinary people.
Toensing has been a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine for over a decade and recently completed her thirteenth feature story for them. She has covered cultures around the world including the last the cave dwelling tribe of Papua New Guinea, the Maori of New Zealand and the Kingdom of Tonga. She has also covered issues such as the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and Muslim women living in Western culture. For the last 3 years she has been documenting Aboriginal Australia.
Toensing’s work has been exhibited throughout the world and recognized with numerous awards, included an exhibit at the 2012 Visa Pour L’image, Festival of the Photograph in Perpignan France. Her work has also appeared in Smithsonian, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time Magazine, and National Geographic Traveler. A photograph she took in the Australian outback was chosen as one of National Geographic magazine’s all time 50 Best Photos.
Toensing began her professional career in 1994 as a staff photographer at her hometown paper, The Valley News, in New Hampshire. She then worked for The New York Times, Washington D.C. bureau covering the White House and Capitol Hill during the Clinton administration. In 1998, Toensing left D.C. to receive her Master’s Degree from the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University.In addition to her photojournalism work, Toensing is committed to teaching photography to kids and young adults in underserved communities. This includes working with the non-profit organization VisionWorkshops on numerous projects including teaching Somali and Sudanese refugees in Maine and Burmese refugees in Baltimore photography. Last year she traveled to Islamabad to teach young Pakistanis photojournalism and cover their own communities.