Photographer Cody Ellingham on Building Community Around His Work
The creator behind ‘Danchi Dreams’ shares the genesis of his career-launching photobook and his advice for first-time creators.
Tokyo-based photographer Cody Ellingham always dreamed of traveling through various cities around the world and photographing the buildings and places he saw along the way. In 2018, he decided to make his dream a reality by launching a Kickstarter project for his work called Danchi Dreams, a photobook capturing the history and current state of Japan’s public housing buildings originally built in the 1960s and ’70s.
His community rallied around the idea, and 177 backers pledged ¥1,802,947 to bring Danchi Dreams to life. Here, Ellingham shares the story behind the project, how he got the word out, and his advice for first-time creators in Japan looking to build community around their creative work.
What brought you to Kickstarter?
As an up-and-coming photographer, it felt like it would take years and years to even begin talking with traditional publishers, even though I knew that there was an audience for the story I wanted to tell with my photobook. So I thought, why don’t I just do it myself? I was inspired by Craig Mod’s beautiful photobook Koya Bound, which he had crowdfunded on Kickstarter, and I decided to give it a go.
Why was this project important to you?
I have always been fascinated by the places we call home. The danchi apartment buildings represented a turning point in Japan’s modern history. These concrete buildings were mostly constructed in the 1960s and 1970s and, for many people, they were middle-class dream to aspire to; yet here they still are today — old and faded.
I was inspired by the ways that the original dream was encoded into the architecture and design of the buildings. The title of the project “Danchi Dreams” has a double meaning — the dreams of the people there at nighttime when I took the photos, but also the dreams of the generation who grew up in post-war Japan.
How did you build a community for your project?
I knew from the start that a supportive community would be the most important aspect of getting the project funded. I decided to hold a photo exhibition to launch the Danchi Dreams Kickstarter campaign.
I was able to get access to an old factory in Tokyo that my friends and I painted the inside to look like a danchi apartment. I printed out large versions of my danchi photographs and had some 1960s furniture for a real retro vibe. On the opening night of the exhibition, we had over 200 people turn up and swamp the place. There were so many people that it spilled out onto the street outside!
That night, I announced the Kickstarter campaign to everyone. This gave the project a big boost from the very beginning, and for the following week it meant that I could talk to people who came through to see the exhibition and individually show them the campaign and mockups of the book.
How else did you spread the word once it was live?
I think it is critical to have a media strategy and an idea of who you want to reach out to before launching the Kickstarter campaign. I made a big list of people who I wanted to connect with and I sent them some images from the series and a personal email. I also built relationships with people who were able to help me promote the project on social media as well as gaining coverage in online news and culture websites. I was lucky that many people were excited to champion my project and I think that is why it was able to get so much support.
What was your approach to fulfillment?
This was my first Kickstarter campaign and I wanted to take the responsibility to be involved in the production and fulfillment process from start to finish. Firstly, I wanted to ensure that I was happy, and that orders were getting sent out and packaged well; secondly, I wanted to get a better idea of what actually goes into successfully delivering the product to backers.
I stayed in Taiwan while the book was being printed and made sure to visit the factory and follow the production process closely. My friends at Flaneur Culture Lab, who helped me produced the book, were able to find me some excellent deals on shipping. We worked together to package up and send the photo books out over a couple of days.
Other fulfillment tips I picked up: Look for good shipping deals. Sometimes you can use different shipping options (SAL, EMS, etc.) to nearby countries, which are cheaper than sending standard packages to everyone. Also, tracking codes are extremely useful, I made sure all my photo books had tracking codes and I personally messaged the backers so they could follow the status of their delivery.
Any tips on communicating with your backers?
Open communication is very important to a successful campaign and is a core part of Kickstarter’s culture. Kickstarter has excellent tools for posting updates, so I made sure to keep backers updated throughout the printing and delivery process and to be realistic about where things were production-wise.
As we got closer to shipping and my deadline, I wanted to make people feel at ease about the status of the project. I also took the time to make sure everyone was messaged with a thank-you and the tracking number for their order. This took a little bit of time on my end, but it gave me peace of mind that everyone was able to track the status of their order (some orders traveling as far as Mexico and Sweden).
What was one of the biggest challenges during your campaign and how did you overcome it?
I think the biggest challenge was actually the editing process of the book. I took nearly 4,000 images over one year and I had to get that down to under 100. My mentor Honda Shinichi helped me with the editing process and he helped give the project a new set of eyes. The rest of the project came together quite smoothly.
Do you have any other tips you’d share for first-time creators, specifically those in Japan?
I think perhaps the most important thing is to have a timeline and a plan for your Kickstarter campaign. Try and get as much support and media on day one of your campaign from friends, family, and social networks to ensure that the project receives a positive response from the wider community. The bigger splash you can make at the beginning of the campaign, the more likely you will be to successfully fund the project.