17 years in the making, local photographer's self-published book of images from Sri Lanka sees light of day
In his nearly 40 years as a professional photographer with clients ranging from Hallmark Cards to Compuware, Michael Sarnacki has always made time for personal projects.
But none of them was as ambitious as the book he recently finished after 17 years of work.
"Sri Lanka and the Kandy Esala Perahera," which he self-published this month, shares the Royal Oak photographer's impressions through stories and more than 300 photographs of a more than 600-year-old annual festival in the city of Kandy. The title refers to a pilgrimage for followers of the Buddha, and the 10-day event includes processions of drummers, dancers, torchbearers and elephants.
It sounds like a photographer's dream. Except that it was never Sarnacki's, at least not at first.
The idea was sparked by a chance meeting with a Catholic priest on a flight bound for New York City around 1994. The priest was on a mission in the U.S. to raise funds for Sri Lanka. Sarnacki gave him a small donation, and the priest invited him to photograph his country.
"At that moment it was an interesting idea," said Sarnacki, 62, a former medical photographer who got his a bachelor's degree in sociology before earning a master's degree in photography.
He began researching the country and the ongoing civil war. "Every time I planned to go, there would be a bombing, and I wondered, 'Do I want to do this?' I eventually went and thought of it as an adventure."
On his first trip in 1995 he learned about the festival and decided it would be his focus. But he had a problem. "I could make photos but didn't understand what it was really all about," said Sarnacki, who dove into more research on its history and made nine more trips until 2010.
Then he needed backing. After striking out with traditional publishers, he funded the project through Kickstarter, raising $21,671 in one month through the crowd-funding website for creative projects.
It covered a good chunk of the expenses, which he estimates were $34,000, including paying for a designer and travel, which he offset with frequent flier miles.
Mary Castelli gave him $50. Castelli is an art director and has worked with Sarnacki on past projects.
"His passion for this project was inspiring. Kickstarter was the missing piece for him to realize his dream," she said.
Steve Hughes of Hamtramck also used Kickstarter for the first time early this year, raising over $3,000 for "Washed in Dirt," a full-color 16-page issue of Hughes' 'zine called "Stupor" that was designed by world-renowned contemporary artist Matthew Barney.
Hughes, a 2010 Kresge Foundation literary arts fellow, has been self-publishing anonymously recounted tales in "Stupor," laid out and designed by a different visual artist each issue, since 1995.
With Barney, he figured he could get some backing for a full-color issue; he raised more than his $2,200 goal.
He had one hesitation with the platform: "You're drawing on your friends. People I know made up the bulk of my contacts." But it also was a good platform for building an audience, he said.
He recommends being sincere and warns against getting greedy.
As for Sarnacki, now with 1,200 limited edition copies priced at $49.95 each, he is preparing for the book's premier, an exhibition and book signing May 31 at Swords into Plowshares Gallery in Detroit. More exhibitions are in the works in the U.S., Canada, Europe, China and Sri Lanka.
Though Sarnacki said for months during the book's production he was so immersed in the project he could barely look at it anymore, he's ready to bask in his success: "It's the finest work I've ever done."
How did you end up using Kickstarter?
A colleague sent me an email about his project in 2010 and I thought, 'This is an option.' Before that I was trying to find publishers the traditional way. For photo books, unless you're Richard Avedon or Annie Liebovitz, it's hard for them to justify the costs.
I decided to self-publish and started Kickstarter in May 2010. Because I've been in the Detroit photo community for a long time, I had a good email list to start with. ... I reached out to everyone I could think of, high school friends, associates, clients, the Sri Lanka community. I also reached out through Facebook. ... The bulk of those who donated came from those I knew from my career. More than 230 people donated to the project.
How did you decide on the book's price?
People who've seen the book say I could charge more than $50, but if people cannot see it in a local bookstore they cannot evaluate it. I have 200 to 300 photo books and when they got past $50 a book I'd think, 'Do I really need this?' I gave some (copies of my book) away through Kickstarter (as incentives for certain levels of donation) so I have about 900 to sell on Amazon. After shipping and handling, I'll probably break even.
How are you marketing the book?
I gave the Kickstarter community updates each month to let them know where we were (after the fundraising was completed). ... Now that we are shipping, that community will die down. We're also marketing it through Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I've gotten most of my contacts through LinkedIn, more than 2,000 across the world.
Advice to someone thinking of going through Kickstarter?
Have it well thought out before you put it on Kickstarter. Once it's up, you have a (recommended period of one) month to make it happen and that's not the time to wonder who to contact. A big part is awards you give, like for $10, I put people's names on the donor list; for $75, you got a book.
What is another dream assignment you'd like to do?
A long time ago I photographed thoroughbreds in Kentucky during breeding season. ... I'd like to do a photo story on that. It's beautiful scenery.
What might surprise people to know about you?
I've renovated four homes. Really gutted them. I'm an accomplished but not licensed electrician, plumber and carpenter. Nothing I've renovated has burned down.
Best advice you ever got?
I screwed up an assignment once and my friend (photographer) Todd Weinstein said: 'Don't beat yourself up, continue on, and in a short period of time it will all be forgotten.'
Biggest take-away from the book project?
That people did not want me to fail. And people told me if it looked like I was going to fail, they were going to contribute more. For me Kickstarter was a fabulous and remarkable tool for artists.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I'm not going to stop, but I won't be doing anything large-scale, probably more personal work.