In 2010, photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa was angry. After 12 years spent roaming the world’s most war-ridden regions, he, like everyone in the field, was watching the inexorable melancholy ending of the epic of photojournalism – assignments dwindling by the day, and hopes of earning support for in-depth long-term stories already a regret of the past. Ben Khelifa however, refused to sit back and shed powerless tears over his denied vocation. Along with Tina Ahrens, an established photo editor, he decided to take the matter into his own hands. Thus, Emphas.is sprang to life.
Ahrens and Ben Khelifa were inspired by the rise of crowdfunding sites, where many a photographer gained backing for their projects – not to mention some major actors in the field, like the Magnum Foundation, who successfully sources a substantial fraction of its funds from its curated Kickstarter page. In an interview with Time LightBox, Ahrens interprets the success of such online communities as part of a general trend that pushes people to “increasingly seek and rely on direct sources” – especially in the media – “They want to be able to engage on the issue that they care about.”
Insightful business analysis led the co-founders of Emphas.is to ask: what is it that photojournalism specifically has to offer to the public? They confided their answer to Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab students: “We have a romanticism around our profession. We realized that our work isn’t the end product, but how we got to it. This is what we expect to monetize.” Emphas.is thus came live as a production tool for photographers, giving them the technological and communication means to market their production process. The site aims at creating “a new financial model for photojournalism in the 21st century”, the viability of which is partly insured by the for-profit quality of the operation, which maintains a staff and operating platform.
In practical terms, any photographer may submit a professional-standard story proposal to Emphas.is. Each project is then assessed by three reviewers chosen from a board of 40+ participating professionals, against a set of twelve criteria designed to evaluate the applicant’s portfolio, the story’s relevance and the project’s feasibility. Once a project has been accepted, it is displayed on the sites fundraising page for a period of time set by the photographer, in a process much similar to other crowdfunding sites.
What sets Emphas.is apart is the type of reward offered to backers. When successfully fundraising on the site, photojournalists agree to enter into personalized virtual contact with their backers. For a minimum donation of $10, a backer gets access to a project-specific “making-of” zone. It is up to the photographer to engage with their backers through posts and updates in any medium that they like. At this point, all of Emphas.is’ bets rely on trust – a trust that seems not to have been breached too often, as in 2012, the site launched Emphas.is Publishing, where documentary photographers may publish their own high-quality limited edition photo books through pre-order crowd-financing. An initiative that has already been praised by the New York Times.