Based in Berlin, the startup gives artists a platform to sell their work whilst helping social good projects across the globe.
Thomas Heinrich studied economics in both Spain and Berlin, making him more than equipped to take on the business and economics track as a career. But one trip to central America changed his perspective as he became involved with an NGO called Vamos Adelante, an organisation that provides education and health services to poor communities in Guatemala. When he came back to Berlin, he started working for a business consulting firm, a sector that seemingly suited him. But he still felt like it didn’t quite fit him.
A year and a half later, he quit his job and started travelling again but this time to Southeast Asia. He knew he wanted to work on a startup after his travels but he still was unsure what area to focus on. Whilst travelling in Thailand, he started taking photos of communities, and when he returned to Germany, his friends told him to sell these photos as they thought his shots could interest buyers.
But still, he didn’t feel quite right. One particular photo was popular within his peers and he was encouraged to make money off it, but selling it without even giving a portion to the subject of the photo didn’t sit well with him. From there, he had the idea of starting Photocircle, a platform where photographers and artists upload their works and once their works are bought, a portion is given to a project that the organisation is supporting.
INKLINE talked to Thomas Heinrich about his journey of travelling and starting a business that has a purpose to do social good.
INKLINE: Can you tell us more about how your venture on selling photos started?
Thomas Heinrich: I checked out all the photo platforms. Actually, I didn’t know that something like this existed. But then yeah, I checked them out and I didn’t like them, and above all, it didn’t feel right to sell. I had one photo with a young Thai boxer (and they’re small kids sometimes) and he had this very sad expression in his face and there’s a coach who’s talking to him. It’s a cool photo but if I sell this photo, I get something from it, and the guy, the subject of the photo, the boxer in this case, he doesn’t even know I’m selling this.
It just didn’t feel right and I wanted to give something back to him and this was actually when I came up with the idea.
I talked to two other photographers and many of them like to travel and when they travel, they always get so much from the country or the place they go to, and sometimes they have a feeling that they get so much but they don’t give anything back. Basically, that’s the idea. We created this platform that gives the artists — now it’s not only photographers but also other artists — the opportunity to give something back to the places they travel to and the places they love.
I: How do you choose the artworks that go up on your platform? Is there a selection process?
T: We have an editor. She is a photographer and she selects. She invites artists to join us and they then apply with their works. We have actually two editors, her and also a graphic designer. She also looks at the works that are uploaded to our platform and then if the quality is good, if we think that they are a fit, then we accept them to our gallery.
Initially, it was open to anybody. We always had an editor but anyone could sign up. But then we had a problem. A lot of hobby photographers would join and upload their works but it was important for us to offer good quality prints and good quality art, so we had to decline some. It’s difficult because they put in quite some work to upload their photos, give them titles and descriptions and all that, and then in many cases we had to decline the photos. That wasn’t very nice for them and for us because we always appreciate that they joined us so now everyone can still join but they have to write us an e-mail and send us some examples of the photos or the art they do first.
I: Can you tell us what customers and artists go through in the process of buying and selling their work?
T: We have a Photo Lab so a customer chooses a photo he/she likes or an illustration or whatever artwork and then they could say, ‘Okay I want this print.’ They then decide the size and also the product. They can say they just want a print or they want it behind glass or framed or canvas and then finally we produce the print and ship it to them.
We have six or seven different products at the moment, so the artist can say if they don’t want to sell their stuff as a poster, for instance. For us, it’s not only important to donate to our projects. We also want to make sure that the artist gets a fair part. Most of the other bigger startups that sell art pay the artist around eight percent as a commission. With us, they can decide for themselves about the price. They can set their own prices and they can also decide how much of their commission they would like to donate or how much they want to keep. All the works that we sell have different prices.
I: When it comes to the social side of this platform, how do you choose the projects you support?
T: Basically, we’re quite open to any good projects out there. We don’t only support educational projects or environmental projects but we always do a quality check first. Sometimes, there are organisations or NGOs that come to us and sometimes the artist themselves have done projects for organisations and so they tell us: ‘Why don’t you check this out?’ That’s actually the nicest thing because then it really fits the artists and now we get to support them with their work and project so that’s quite nice.
In any case, we have a quality check before we take the project online. We talk to them and then we agree on a project goal. And whenever a project is financed 100 percent, we give all the project money to the organisation so that they can start with their project.
For instance, we support one project in Guatemala where we bought water filters. It’s a big problem there and many children die from diarrhoea because they don’t have clean drinking water. So we bought 40 or 50 families water filters.
We also sponsored a project in Afghanistan where we finance a school education for girls. We also did some refugee projects here in Berlin as well and also in the Mediterranean Sea where we had Sea-Watch, who rescues refugees from drowning, as a partner. It’s a very wide list.
I: The platform is very geographic-oriented. Why is this so?
T: When artists upload their works, they say which country the photo was taken or where they work. If we have a project in a certain country, you as a customer can only support this project because this is a geographical connection that we also like to establish. But if we don’t have a project in a country, the customer can select the three geographically closest projects to where the art was made.
We have photos from almost every country now but we only have at the moment ten active projects. We want to make sure that we can finance the projects we have quickly and we also want to be able to give our customers project updates. If we had a project in every country, we wouldn’t be able to keep track and manage properly.
We want to have one or two projects in every continent and then whenever we finish financing them, we change the country. That way we can support as many regions and countries as possible but just not at the same time!
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.