EUGENE RICHARDS AND KICKSTARTER
At my day job, I am the manager of the repair department of a camera shop. I have held this job for approximately two years now. Shortly after I took over the position I decided to reimplement collecting a deposit on repairs prior to any work being done. This was not my idea originally but rather a policy that had not been followed by previous management for whatever reason. To speculate, it was most likely because it becomes one more task in a sometimes tedious process sussing out details. But what I inherited was a department full of camera gear that had not been collected by clients at the end of the repair process. This resulted in the camera shop absorbing a fairly significant loss of revenue in repairs for which work had been done and payment not made. Customers simply decided not to pick up their repaired gear and although we had in our possession their camera equipment, California law does not make it simple for us to recoup losses by simply selling off the gear. We essentially had shelves and shelves of lost money in the form of cameras with which little could be done except watch them depreciate in value. The customer, having vested nothing financially in the repair process had simply weighed the consequence of having their gear versus not and decided that all had been lost. It was easier to leave what was broken behind. Reimplementing the deposit has changed this though. The deposit is usually insignificant, totaling often less than ten percent of the final cost of repair but we have much fewer abandoned repairs as a result. Having to invest financially upfront I have found lessens the occurrence of abandonment. Even though a small fee, that deposit encourages commitment and dissuades flippancy.
Well known and respected photographer Eugene Richards has recently begun a campaign on Kickstarter for a book project titled, Red Ball of Sun Slipping Down. Richards is by all regards a documentary photographer intent on raising social awareness for topics of social concern. Red Ball of Sun Slipping Down is “a timely story, an experiment in bookmaking. But because the book speaks of what for some people are off-putting issues—race, poverty, and aging—I feel obliged to self-publish it.” It is set in the Mississippi Delta of Arkansas, a region of forgotten opportunity and plenty of poverty. It is a broken place in need of repair. In an interview with Time Richards says, “My book is about what it was like back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, a time when cotton, poverty, and racism shaped people’s lives. This is shown in black-and-white photographs that have never been published before. But the book is also about the place now, a place that has been called by some the heart of the south. I’ve interwoven recent color work with the black-and-white photographs and a short story that relates my relationship with an impoverished delta woman, but also addresses my own concerns with aging and mortality.”
The Kickstarter campaign, set to end this Wednesday, is already more than funded. But that is not to say there is no reason if you feel so compelled to contribute, to not donate your money. On the campaign webpage is a breakdown of what opportunities could be had if funded beyond the initial goal. It is hard to say if the campaign was responded to so well because of people’s commitment to The Mississippi Delta or if because behind the project is such a well renowned name in the photographic community. Richards is good at what he does and that is why he is well known. And to add, this isn’t the first time he has self-published a book so again… he knows what he is doing and has exhibited a commitment to his projects and the subjects of his projects. But if Richards was crowdsourcing a project to photograph ballpoint pens because Bic was headed toward bankruptcy, would it get funding? Perhaps so simply because it is Eugene Richards but I’d like to believe that even such a hypothetical campaign like that would fall flat. Not because creative endeavors shouldn’t be supported but because we live in a society that doesn’t ask us to make decisions based upon listening and discourse. The pleadings or consternations, the legitimate concerns, or the passing interests of well known individuals or celebrities, or if the cause has with it a good marketing team, become our mantras… (Make Kony Famous, Make Kony Famous) at least temporarily. The clients at the camera shop at which I work abandon their repairs and we listen to George Clooney on Darfur and quickly decide that yes, Darfur needs our attention because having someone else make that decision for us is easier than deciding if this a commitment worthwhile. There is a wide gap between deciding to repair a camera or not and deciding if fighting genocide should be our concern but the way in which we make those decisions both reflect a certain complacency with our self-centric lives and our concerns become less about the need and more about how can we solve the problem. This leaves us with two options, a savior complex or apathy. Other Kickstarter campaigns addressing issues just as important as race and poverty have most likely been initiated and never fulfilled because whatever hype or aura needed around the cause just wasn’t there. No hype man, no catchy slogans or stickers or bracelets to say you were involved. This is where I believe Kickstarter is not as communal or democratic as they’d like to be. With good causes and campaigns need to be a certain flashiness. They have to have commercial appeal for a product obsessed world. Kickstarter to add is reward based. What I imagine are intended to be most often sincere gestures of appreciation in the form of a gift become the motivation for us to contribute to the campaign. I cannot say that a book by Eugene Richards would not be a nice edition to my bookshelf. There is no information regarding how much the book once published will retail for but a $55 donation gets you a book. That is not too far off a price from how much photobooks normally initially sell anyhow. It is almost more tempting to contribute a lesser amount that does not get me a reward. Wouldn’t that be a more honest contribution? Kickstarter does however I believe promote commitment. Just like that nominal deposit taken up front when we take in repairs at my day job, being invested financially encourages follow through, not just cutting the losses of a broken camera or abandoning our convictions, leaving what is broken behind. Clients often decide, and I sometimes encourage, that because most likely the gear will break again that the repair might not be worth it in the first place. A second repair would put the cost involved above the value of the product. This might be sound financially, but it doesn’t make sense in terms of commitment.
That to us such a commitment does not foster a clear reward does not make sense. Much the same, when we see ourselves as the solution and the social concern cannot be fixed, we give up. But commitment encourages us to be just that, committed despite rationality. Sometimes we should if committed, work to repair the chronically broken.
With all this bemoaning of Kickstarter I have (surprisingly to myself) convinced myself that I should contribute to the campaign. Perhaps it is because I grew up in Mississippi and I know the region Richards has photographed just next door in Arkansas. Perhaps I have decided to do so because I get a copy of the book if I contribute enough. But most likely, it is a combination of those reasons, all under the umbrella that I find myself annoyed by lack of commitment from anyone from the clients at the my job to the Clooney, I mean Darfur supporters, and to myself who likes to cavil rather than commit or abandon rather than repair.