TOMAS VAN HOUTRYVE: ‘People are willing to change the way they consume and pay for news’
In part IV of our series of interviews with photojournalists, TOMAS VAN HOUTRYVE talks about sneaking into North Korea, the relative advantages of working outside the mainstream news, and how to break out of your little photo cave on the internet.
I first met Tomas Van Houtryve on a bus in Guantanamo Bay at the beginning of 2002. We were among the first batch of reporters allowed to visit Gitmo as part of a not so successful attempt by the US Marines to convince world opinion that the prisoners there were being treated fairly.
Gitmo was Van Houtryve’s beat as a staff photographer with the AP bureau in Puerto Rico. I’m afraid I’m partly responsible for convincing him to quit his job and become a freelance photographer. These were exciting times––there was a war going on in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq was just around the corner. Puerto Rico seemed like a dead end for a photojournalist in 2002.
But although Van Houtryve did quit his job with the AP he didn’t follow the pack to Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, he decided to concentrate on that most forgotten of all wars: the Maoist rebellion in Nepal. It seemed like a strange choice at the time, and there were times when he must have cursed the people who talked him into going freelance.
Eventually though the hard work in the shadows paid off. His Nepal work earned Van Houtryve the Visa Pour l’Image Young Photographer’s Award and the Bayeux Prize for War Correspondents. In 2010 he was named POYI Photographer of the Year and he was asked to join the prestigious VII Network. Along the way he also turned out to be a talented writer.
The Nepal work gradually developed into an ambitious project to document the remaining communist regimes in the world. It included a crazy trip to North Korea for which Van Houtryve went to great lengths to change his identity on the internet, grew a moustache, developed a foreign accent, and acquired a second passport from a small inoffensive European country––all so he could enter North Korea as part of one of the so-called “friendship brigades.”
Read about the North Korea adventure here on Van Houtryve’s blog.
We spoke to Van Houtryve in Paris, where he lives.
Has working on stories outside the mainstream helped you prepare for the new media environment?
Has the effect been mainly financial or has it also reduced your ability to get the story out there?
You’ve given this a lot of thought, experimenting with things like Twitter and Flattr. What have you learned?
“And once in a while you have a story that catches fire. I had a slideshow about North Korea that went viral on the Foreign Policy website. You have things like Digg where people click to put it at the top of the list and the more people click the higher it goes and eventually it goes viral.
“So this one thing about North Korea got like 400,000 clicks in one day and then topped a million within four days or something like that. That was a year-and-a-half ago, before Flattr was launched, but you can imagine if 10% of the people had been giving money on Flattr there, you would actually have had some real money coming in.”
“Of course it’s very rare that a story goes viral like that, but it opened my eyes to the fact that the numbers you can get on the internet are totally different from the numbers you can get in print. I mean, 1 million hits, that’s The New York Times right there. But it all depends on how you promote it. If you just put something on your website you’ll get maybe a couple of hits a day but if it catches on to other groups, communities on the internet, there’s no telling how far it can go.
“It’s totally fickle and you don’t really want to go chasing after 1 milllion hits every time because the top hits will always be things like Shakira videos. But if you can raise your visibility and get a fairly consistent portion of the crowd then it can be worthwhile. There are lessons to be learned in terms of breaking out of your little cave on the internet and reaching out to wider audiences and what the tools are to do that.”
How does Emphas.is fit into all this?
What do you think photojournalists need to do to get backers and to keep them as well?
“It is useful to people who want to know how photographers go about their business. It is useful to people who want to know about a particular subject or conflict and have the time to figure out a more nuanced form of communication rather than just a synopsis at the end. It is useful to students, for example, who are going to make a leap from their education to the real world, and to be able to tag along online with somebody in the real world is helpful for their formative process.
“But that’s not going to appeal to everybody. People who collect photography are probably not the ones who are going to jump online. So you may have to offer different incentives to different people. It depends on who your crowd is.”
Do you see it working for you?
Which types of media will you be using to communicate with your backers on Emphas.is?
“There is also a question of the appropriateness of putting yourself in a story. In a story for the mass media it may seem weird to take away from the subject of the story to put yourself in there, but within the context of social media it may be that people actually want to hear the story from my personal point of view. I think that’s a door worth opening.”
Of course the biggest story that you’ve put yourself in was when you made up a whole new identity for yourself to get into North Korea.
You would probably still be in North Korea if you had.
Your first pitch for Emphas.is is a trip to Laos as part of your communism project. Tell us a bit more about that.
“I eventually persuaded The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune to split the cost to each put me on assignment for three days. And they didn’t want to pay for my plane ticket out there either, only for the short plane ride from Bangkok to the north.
“But when The New York Times journalist and I got back from talking to the Hmong the story actually made quite a splash. The Hmong were allies of the Americans in the secret CIA war in Laos during the Vietnam war era, and thousands of them are still in hiding in the jungle today where they are being tracked and killed by the Laotian army. But Americans are hardly aware of the fact.
“So the story ended up getting three excerpts on The New York Times front page and three pictures on the front page of the Herald. I think it was one of the cheapest front page stories they’ve ever had, but I didn’t even break even on it.”
Read more about the Hmong story here on Van Houtryve’s blog.
“So the idea is to go back to Laos and get a full picture of Laos and how it fits into my larger project about how communism has adapted to the 21st century.”
What kind of incentives will you be offering backers for the Laos trip?
“I will also be making custom mini 7-by-7-inch (18-by-18-cm) photo books of the Laos project for backers. People can choose between either an economical softcover, a beautiful hardcover, or for significant donors they can have their name listed in the book. And if enough people are interested live presentations could be organized in Paris or New York, or even via Skype for people elsewhere.”
(Interview by Gert Van Langendonck)
Tomas Van Houtryve’s website is tomasvanhoutryve.com.
NEXT: CHRISTOPH BANGERT