Kickstarting Your Photo Project: Words to the Wise from Michael Galinsky

In 1989 Michael Galinsky drove across these United States, stopping at shopping malls along the way and shooting about 30 rolls of daylight chromes on a Nikon FG-20 with a crappy 35mm lens. Twenty-four years later he raised $13,282 on Kickstarter to publish the best of these photos in a book. Galinsky exceeded his fundraising goal for Malls Across America (which was picked up by Steidl), and he has successfully financed film projects on Kickstarter as well. (Be sure to check out his current campaign!) We wanted to know the secrets of his crowdfunding success, so we asked if he would let us pick his brains. And you know what? He said yes!

Here’s what he told us:mall-hair

1) Be social

It all started one day when Galinsky happened to post some of his old mall photos on Facebook. People noticed these pictures. They made comments. A friend reposted them on his blog, and then other sites started picking them up. The social network was already in place, and the mall photos went viral. Galinksy knows that crowdfunding is all about socializing and appreciating other people’s work. When he saw how excited people got about those first few pictures, he decided to start planning a Kickstarter campaign right away.

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2) Make sure your photos have internet appeal

Connectedness is crucial, but the photos themselves are of the essence. Even within a well-established network, only certain kinds of images have real potential to go viral. For example, celebrities—especially underground celebrities like the punk bands of David Godlis’s CBGB photos—tend to generate online buzz. Galinsky said of his mall photos:

“Older images have value on the internet in ways they probably didn’t five years ago. When I did those pictures, I had a sense they would mean something later that they didn’t mean at the time.”

While their exact meaning may not be entirely clear, it does seem to be the case that untold legions of people online right now are ravenous for images of the past.

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3) Identify your network

Galinksy’s work was more or less cut out for him by the magic of the internet: the friends and friends-of-friends who spontaneously shared the photos he originally posted on Facebook became the crowd for his Kickstarter campaign. After the launch, he simply went back to the same bloggers and asked them to repost.

Even in the absence of such clear evidence, there are things you can do to find out if a network is ripe for activation. Namely, sit down and think systematically about the nature of your work and find those who are likely to support it. Reach out to individuals and groups who may be interested, tell them about your project, and see how they respond.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “I know plenty of people who are into my work, but my friends don’t have any money,” don’t despair!

You don’t need them to back your project—you just need friends who will share your campaign to help you reach a broader audience.

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4) Study what others have done

Go to Kickstarter and Indiegogo and search for the highest grossing photo projects and see what they did. While there may be  some eternal guiding principles of crowdfunding, Galinsky points out, “It’s always evolving and there are many different aspects to look at.” See what has worked for other photographers, but don’t be too rigid, and don’t be afraid to get creative with the good stuff you’ve already got. For instance, instead of shooting a garden-variety talking-head-explaining-things video for his campaign, Galinsky made a photo-montage punk rock music video using a song by his own band.

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5) Make a real budget

One of the great things about Kickstarter is that if you put in the work to figure out your costs and set a reasonable goal, you can be sure not to lose any money. Galinksy got price quotes to print Malls Across America in China, and he also considered the costs of shipping the edition from the printer and sending individual orders to buyers. He figured out that he only had to presell a couple hundred books to cover his production costs, which he easily did.

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6) Offer various levels of support

Some of the best connected people in your network may be gung-ho in support of your project—but a little short on cash. In order to generate the necessary buzz for a successful campaign, it’s important to provide opportunities for everyone who wants to participate. Galinksy offered single prints and digital PDF downloads at lower prices than that of the entire printed book. You may also want to consider establishing a relationship with a fiscal sponsor so that you’re better positioned to accept large contributions from those with deeper pockets. You can get creative with the perks, too. In addition to material rewards, Galinsky suggests offering one-of-a-kind experiences like photography lessons for supporters.

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7) Do all the groundwork before you launch

Once your campaign is underway, your backers will become your team, sharing your content with the people in their network. At this point you won’t have time to create the updates you’ll need to maintain momentum. So before you launch, you must get your sharable content (text, photos and videos) all ready to go. You’ll have to write text that gives context to the images you’re going to use and gets people excited about the project. If you’re not a great writer, enlist a friend who is. You may find you need to assemble a small team of people to get your campaign materials together. All of this will take time—Galinsky suggests starting at least five months before launch.

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Takeaways from Malls Across America

Crowdfunding is great if you’re socially active online and you’ve got a lot of friends who are into your work. If that’s you, then the next step is to think about whether and where your photos fit into what’s happening on the internet right now. Think about your project, find related work online, and strategize about reaching the people who are likely to support you. Look at various campaigns, see what has worked for other photographers, and plan plan plan! (You might also want to avail yourself of free helpful resources like Indiegogo’s official playbook.) It takes some doing to get everything in place, but as we’ve seen, once you get set up, photos with enough internet appeal will practically sell themselves.

And for a totally different approach to fundraising for photographers … check out Elements of Grant Seeking on the ONWARD blog!