Creating our own narratives

BitDepth#965, originally published on December 02, 2014

Photojournalist Rick Smolan explains the evolution of his new project, Inside Tracks at PhotoPlus Expo 2014. Photo by Mark Lyndersay
Photojournalist Rick Smolan explains the evolution of his new project, Inside Tracks at PhotoPlus Expo 2014. Photo by Mark Lyndersay

Whenever I attend a PhotoPlus Expo, I nose around a bit trying to find out what the show’s organisers are pursuing as a theme for the show.  It tends to emerge through the speakers and their choice of subjects most clearly rather than as any clearly articulated statement.

At past expos, video on DSLRs, search engine optimisation and shrinking markets have emerged as headline subjects.

Many of this year’s speakers seemed resigned to the reality that the editorial and documentary market are permanently changed by the new distribution models emerging on the Internet and conversations were focused on how to make the most of the new opportunities.

At a symposium titled “Cross Media Projects: A New Path for Visual Storytellers,” four early movers in the space specifically discussed their experiences in the evolving business of developing image-based stories.

The veteran of the space, the still disturbingly youthful Rick Smolan, discussed the rejuvenation of his 1992 book project, From Alice to Ocean, itself an amplification of an earlier National Geographic story about Robyn Davidson, a young woman who decided to go walkabout in the Australian outback with four camels and a dog.

The new book, Inside Tracks, is now being revamped and embedded with technology in support of a film version of Davidson’s book, Tracks. Image recognition triggers video playback on a smartphone or tablet, linking a reader to related clips from the film.

In many ways, From Alice to Ocean was the smallest of Smolan’s book projects, a precursor to his bookshelf breaking series of Day in the Life books which brought together a star roster of photographers to document seven countries and the state of California, each over the course of 24 hours.

Other speakers included Jessica Dimmock, a young photojournalist and writer and filmmaker Julie Winokur, the wife of photojournalist Ed Kashi who began by expanding his work into a series of documentaries, then began working on her own projects.

Douglas Menuez spent years documenting Steve Jobs and the NeXT project, fascinated by the story of a young technologist, ousted from the company he founded to start again. Menuez was on the verge of taking his story public with Time for a cover story when Jobs, for reasons that remain unclear to the photojournalist, killed the story.

The photographer recalls meeting Steve Jobs in a corridor at NeXT after learning the news and being reassured by him that “the photos would make a great story one day.”

It might well have been one of Jobs’ smaller predictions, but it turned out to be true. Menuez continued his documentation of technology companies, finding doors opening easily for someone who had earned the trust of the mercurial Jobs.

The collection is lodged at Stanford University, who called the photographer to oversee the scanning of the work. As he looked at the images, an idea began to germinate. The result, an edit of 250,000 images later, is Fearless Genius, a gritty black and white document of the seminal years of Silicon Valley between 1980 and 1990.

Menuez has spun the project, which leverages a selection of 7,000 scanned photos, into a lavish book, a web app, a documentary, a television and web series as well as a schools education programme.

All the documentarians were upfront about the challenges of financing their projects.  Julie Winokur remembers saying of an early documentary short, “What do you mean we’re going to give it away?” But such apparent largesse can prove critical in building attention and support for a project and others to follow.

All on the panel agreed that it was important not to mix personal finances with project finances, but most laughed ruefully when Menuez noted that, “but we all do it.”

Menuez has finances as well as his image collection invested in the development of the Fearless Genius project, which had an early boost of $2 million from a private investor to create the digital files needed to move it forward.

All acknowledge the need to pin projects on something current. Fearless Genius has a component that examines today’s technological innovators. Smolan’s Inside Tracks uses cutting edge technology to link to the online videos. Many of Winokur’s projects look at headline issues like ageing and sharp political divides.

None of these creators are waiting for publishers or broadcasters to develop their projects, acknowledging that for passion projects or subjects lying just outside the mainstream of public interest, the only way build an audience is to accept the risks and build the projects. And just maybe, they will come.


Making a great Kickstarter campaign

You are selling a story, not a product

Make a killer video (short and sweet)

Offer killer rewards

Sweeten the rewards with digital goodies

Enlist your friends

Identify “Amplifiers”

Make your updates interesting and worthy of forwarding

With Kickstarter you can build a relationship with your customers

Planning Funding

Budget the entire project, detailing costs for each element.

Project revenues over the project’s life

Research and target sources of funding

Prepare pitch materials