Creator Q&A: The Masters

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Photography projects have been very successful on Kickstarter thus far — from Laura Kicey’s trip to Iceland to a Colorado ghost town to a cross-country road trip we’ve seen backers respond strongly. Their success supports a point we tout as being so important on Kickstarter: interesting rewards with a built-in story element. With a photography project, these rewards are just layers of stories: the story of the project, the story of the photographer capturing the image, and the story of the image itself. Many possibilities.

It should be little surprise, then, that the highest-grossing Kickstarter project so far is a photography project. Masters, by George Del Barrio and the Vanderbilt Republic Foundation, has raised $38,000 of its $50,000 goal to date, with five days to go. If funding is successful, the creators will use the money to fly a team to Cambodia and take portraits of the Cambodian “Masters” — the elderly Cambodian musicians whose knowledge, traditions, and history is dying off with them.

“Masters” seeks to preserve that history and those men by preserving and documenting their legacy. We sent George some questions about his project, and our exchange is below. To support this project, follow this link.

Tell us about your project and your background.

Happily. “Masters” is the maiden voyage of the Vanderbilt Republic Foundation, —a pro-bono creative agency that partners with Arts/Culture/Human Justice non-profits to spur the realization of their mission. Right now, we’re allied with Cambodian Living Arts. They work to foster the contemporary expression of traditional Khmer performing arts, repairing the profound cultural damage wrought during the brutal Khmer Rouge years. The CLA connects the few performing arts Masters that survived the genocide with the next generation of students, and this work is crucial: in Cambodia, all arts teaching is done orally, as in ancient times. When a Master dies, their knowledge goes with them, and that knowledge can itself extend backwards in time by centuries.

The CLA has the vision that by the year 2020, the arts can become Cambodia’s international identity (not the killing fields), and this is what really caught our attention. We want to get them there, and in the process, construct a new iconography. One radiant with hope.

We’ll spend a month in Cambodia, shooting the Masters, their students, their art form and the incredible world they inhabit, all using a large-format film-based process and commercial thinking/standards. This approach, partnered with the planned life-sized traveling exhibition, will allow us to fully communicate the vibrancy of their individual stories and the universal truth of the renewal each Master/student embodies. The goal is nothing less than the creation a body of work so powerful that it can contribute to the assembly a new Cambodian reality, and this work will be given to the CLA to further their efforts for the next *decade.*

As for me, I’m a Queens-born portrait photographer by profession, and have a 3.5 year-old son, Benjamin Más. The boy is my power source.

How’s it going so far?

We’ve so far raised more than any project in Kickstarter history. I don’t expect to hold that crown long (especially not with Obama’s designer hanging around here), and Kickstarter is itself still quite young, but it’s a hell of a thing. When we put “Masters” up, back in the beginning of August, the place was mainly a collection of music projects and individual efforts/adventures. A project that sought to effect international change and needed an eye-popping $50,000 to do it was a bit different. Still is, I suppose. But there’s simply no other way we could be in this excellent position, at this point, without Kickstarter. Traditional non-profit fundraising takes too long and is almost wholly reliant on pre-existing contacts. Being able to offer a compelling return on investment while appealing to a broad audience is, in 2009, the only way. And once we clear the lengthy process of obtaining 501(c)(3) status, we’ll be able to offer backers tax breaks in addition to rewards, next time—that’s when things will get very interesting.

What’s been your most popular reward?

That’s a tough one to answer, only because I look at the ratio of rewards reserved against the funding they’ve brought in. We’ve sold 25% of our $1,250+ reward, for example, for serious gain, but that’s only 5 pledges. 43 backers pledged at $75+ to attend our fundraiser, and that was a serious, serious success. But then I look at our brand-new $100 reward — the Fujiroid signed by both myself and the photograph’s subject (guaranteed to be one the Masters) — and we moved *seven* of those in a day without doing a thing to advertise them. My suspicion/hope is that we’ll sell those out. Once folks hear about what’s being offered at that level, they’ll see that the value presented is just off the charts.

What’s your strategy for getting your project funded?

We’ve been keeping our mailing list of 1,200+ informed and involved and been maintaining a steady stream of information throughout all the expected social networking spaces. In addition, we printed up some Kickstarter-specific promo cards, and have been leaving them everywhere. I’ve been posting updates to our backers as frequently as I can manage; they’re practically family. For all the VRF principals, it’s not been possible to have a conversation with any of us that didn’t circle back to the project, and Kickstarter, for two months. And the power of personal relationships is strong. When people look in your eyes and see conviction, they take that belief and spread it confidently on your behalf. We hosted a fundraiser that had all ticket sales go through Kickstarter, and at the event, had booths available for any additional on-site pledges. There’s our advisor, John Gruber, a quiet young man with a penchant for letters. He’s been periodically advocating and directing his audience to us, with great effect.

And, finally there’s the “Friends of Cambodian Living Arts”. They’re so excited by the potential of our project that they’ve recently created a $20,000 challenge grant that’s working *right now* and doubles every dollar pledged on Kickstarter. They’ll match every pledge, and donate up to $20,000 towards the project *only* if we reach $50,000.
But even with all this, there’s no room to let up. We’ve only gotten this far by making a full-time job of Kickstarting.

What will you do with the money?

Every penny goes towards the production expenses for the shoot, in Cambodia. $50,000 represents the unavoidable costs; the total cost of the production is higher, but we’ve secured strategic partnerships that will save us significant sums. Root Brooklyn, for example, is donating *all* the equipment needed for the shoot, for the entire month. That’s a gift worth about $63,000. In this fashion, we’re avoiding every expense we can. But to take a full crew to Cambodia, for a month, prepared to go anywhere required in-country for the shoot, with a full-time translator and local production crew involves some level of inevitable cost. A comparable commercial shoot, for the same length of time, with equivalent deliverables, would be a seven digit production. I say this with no exaggeration. Only a truly cohesive, creative, effective team could pull this off, and I can tell you that the past year has been the most profound team-building exercise of our lives. These days, I tend to think that Matthew, Dwayne and I can do anything.

We’ll use the money to pour our hearts into effecting a lasting change for an entire country.

Any closing thoughts?

This place that we find ourselves in is a testament to the remarkable goodwill, support, advice, attention, and love we’ve received. We’re a miracle of collective creation, and as much as I want us to reach our goal for all the stated reasons, I often find myself thinking about what this project can mean to the people that truly believe in us. 2009 has been rough for everyone, and has hollowed out too many people I adore. Each instance weighs on me. To create something lasting for them amidst the wreckage…it would be a good fate.

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