Photography. Lifeboats. The Sea.
From those three words scribbled on a paper came the journey of a lifetime for Jack Lowe.
Between the UK and Ireland, there are 238 Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) stations.
Each station has a volunteer crew ready to drop everything and rescue those at sea.
For the past two hundred years, it’s been a much-loved (and much-needed) tradition.
Jack Lowe is on a mission to document every single station. He photographs the crew, the coxswain, and the view from the boathouse using Victorian-era photographic methods.
Behind the scenes as Jack sets up a photo of female RNLI volunteers.
He’s three years and 100 stations in — with over one hundred stations to go.
Along the way, he couldn’t always connect the dots financially.
But that was then.
Just four months after he thought he reached his breaking point, he’s found a way to produce consistent monthly revenue from a loyal fan base that will do anything to see him across the finish line.
Here’s the story of how Jack left a profitable business to become a full-time creator (and what it took to do it).
Why Lifeboats? (Or, How To Choose An Engaging Project)
A portrait taken of Patrick ‘Patch’ Harvey at the Penlee RNLI Lifeboat Station in Sept 2015.
Jack was eight years old when his grandmother handed him a Kodak Instamatic. He’s been determined to make a living from photography ever since.
After years of study and apprenticeships, he opened a photographic printing and retouching business in 2000.
Jack with his prized Kodak Instamatic at ten years of age.
But in 2012, the fire went out.
Something in his soul was unfulfilled by hours spent poring over a computer, perfecting other people’s photographs.
But if he shuttered his business… what would replace it?
“It took me a while to really think about it,” he explained. The idea didn’t come overnight.
“I got frustrated with myself for not coming up with an idea,” he recalled, “so I broke it down to the basics.I looked back to my childhood and thought, ‘Right, what were the things I was interested in as a kid?’”
He grabbed a piece of paper and started a list. The first entry was easy: photography.
The question, then, was what to photograph.
As a child, the water was a part of his world. In fact, he lived on a renovated Victorian yacht for the first few years of his life.
Jack on the renovated yacht in 1976.
The yacht Jack lived on for the first few years of his life.
The project had to involve the sea.
But, anyone can take pictures of the sea. That wasn’t unique enough.
Then another memory came to him — one of ten-year-old Jack gazing in awe at the inner-workings of a lifeboat factory during a trip with his father.
In the UK, lifeboats are “an intrinsic part of island life,” he explained. They invoke a sense of solidarity among residents that few topics rival.
With those three passions in mind, he pulled out a map to see if he could link the three.
And he found that he could, by documenting the view from every RNLI station.
Takeaway for creators:Struggling to find a project? Make a list of the things you care about the most, then see if any intersect in a new and interesting way.
What’s Your Emotional Hook?
View from the station in Whitby, Yorkshire.
Jack’s project was perfect for him because it combined three things he cared deeply about.
But it wasn’t enough for the project to be something he enjoyed.
It had to be something others would care about, too.
The lifeboat project made sense because it was such a deeply-felt blend of history and culture on the British Isles.
He couldn’t believe no one had undertaken the project before him.
In the spirit of getting back to his roots, he uses Victorian photographic methods for every photo.
Jack documenting The Lizard Lifeboat Station in September 2015.
“I knew that I wanted to get back in touch with those feelings from when I was a kid, of using chemicals to make an image magically appear,” he explained.
“I worked for so long in front of computers and with digital equipment. I knew I had to get away from that because it wasn’t me. It was time to get back in touch with those feelings that I loved about photography from those very early years.”
As it turns out, that process makes the emotional component of the project more tangible.
It’s the best of both worlds: the method makes him happier while better engaging his supporters.
Takeaway for creators: Why should patrons care about your project? Find the emotional component of your work that will resonate with your audience.
“Mission Fatigue” to “Mission Success”: How Jack Funds His Project
Jack taking a color photo for Vivienne Grey, an RNLI volunteer at the Little and Broad Haven Station.
Jack didn’t drop his business overnight. It was two years from the time he chose his project to the time he felt ready to begin.
During those two years, he practiced his craft and set up a website for the project.
He updated a small but growing number of followers on his blog.
“One of the blog posts was called ‘Time for The Flying Suit,’ because it really felt like I was standing on the top of a cliff, about to jump off into the unknown, because it’s something that nobody’s ever done before.”
After securing a few thousand British pounds in startup funding from friends and family, he started visiting lifeboat stations and making pictures.
Within the first few days of returning from his first trip, he had prints available online.
The view looking over St. David’s boathouse in 2016.
He shared about the project on social media (primarily Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) and regularly updated his blog. Over time, he’s garnered about 30,000 followers across all platforms.
“I made a beautiful work of a beautiful subject in a beautiful way. And that really started to engage people,” he said.
Despite the appearance of success, sales from the shop weren’t enough.
Even though he has an audience of 30,000 strong.
Even though his work has been purchased for a national collection.
Even though Martin Parr, a famous photographer, has praised and purchased his photographs.
Financially, he was hurting.
“I was open to the vagaries of the retail world in a way that I hadn’t really been open to it before. One of the crippling things is that the income wasn’t predictable and consistent enough.”
In October 2017, Jack had just about had enough.
As he attempted to record a commemorative video for the 100th station he documented, the dejection and exhaustion showed.
“It’s just a 20-second video,” he explained, “but you can see it in my face. I’m absolutely finished.”
“It’s been so financially precarious. Sometimes I’ve driven to towns not knowing how I’m going to pay for the night’s accommodation,” he added.
Fortunately, a last-minute sale or commission always came through in the end.
He reluctantly shared the video with supporters, explaining that something had to change.
That’s when a good friend called him up and asked him, “Have you heard of Patreon?”
Pulling Together a Successful Patreon Page
When Jack looked at Patreon, he realized it was a perfect fit for his business. One week after his “mission fatigue” post, he launched a Patreon page.
As of December 2017, he’s earning over $1,000 per month from his patrons.
It doesn’t fully fund him. But it gives him the beginnings of a secure base in a way he’s never had before. And he’s working to grow that base to $2,500 per month and beyond.
December 2017. That was the first ever predictable payday I’ve had as a creative artist, you know? It was just blissful.
Part of his early success is because of the way he set up his page.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got everything I need already,’” he said. Many of items he already does for his business fit perfectly in a Patreon account, such as:
- Lots of photographs
- Behind the scenes shots
- Regular podcasts
- Printed work
“It is almost plug and play for me,” he explained, “because I was able to take existing elements of my work that had already been made and just slot it in.”
He even had an introductory video ready.
The video was produced in prior months for free by a fan of Jack’s work. The videographer was did the video for free in support of Jack’s project (and loved having it in his own portfolio).
Part of what makes Jack’s Patreon page effective is how it combines visual and verbal appeal.
Jack shows patrons what he does through the video and his pictures, then tells them about the project and how they can join in.
The first appeal was a success; now, Jack hopes it will continue to grow.
In the meantime, he’s doing everything he can to encourage that growth.
Takeaway for creators: Explaining what you do with images, video, and words* *is more effective than just one of those alone.
The Message That Changed Jack’s Life
The crew at Clovelly Lifeboat Station in Devon (June 2015).
Someone Jack admires greatly — because of what he’s learned from her — is Amanda Palmer, author of the book (and Ted talk) The Art of Asking.
In fact, he pays $1 per month to be her patron so that he can learn from the way she interacts with her audience.
He learned that, when you turn to fans for support, you’re not telling them to give you money.
You’re letting them give you money.
“But she said another thing,” he added, “and it’s that you can’t actually ask money from strangers. You cannot. But you can ask money from your crowd.”
Jack has a crowd. He has a group of people who love what he does.
Some people in that audience were thrilled to have a new way support him. He just needed to offer the right method.
When he found Patreon, he said, “It was the mechanism I finally needed to let people support my project.”
Allen Frary poses with his plate in 2015.
Case in point: after Jack posted the “Mission Fatigue” blog post (but before he launched his Patreon page), one of his fans from social media reached out to him.
“When one of my followers saw that video, he was so upset by it and upset for me. He messaged me on Instagram. We hadn’t met but I did recognize his username as somebody who regularly liked my work.
“He said, ‘Can I have your bank details?’ And I said, ‘Why?’
“I had a PayPal donation button on my site. But he said, ‘Well, I presume if I donate through your website, you will have to pay fees to PayPal.’
“And I said, ‘Oh, well yeah, but that’s just par for the course, you know?’
“I gave him the details and I was thinking in my head that this was a bit of overkill for 20 pounds.
“Later, I checked my bank balance. He put in 1,200 pounds! I wrote to him and thought there was a mistake.
“He said, ‘I saw that video. I really felt for you, and I couldn’t bear not to see your work in my Instagram feed if you failed, if it fell apart for some reason.’
“And now he’s on my Patreon paying well over $100 a month because now there’s a mechanism for him to do that.”
Mission (Not) Impossible: Educate Your Fans
An image Jack shared with patrons to inform them of an upcoming appearance.
“People seem to confuse liking images and sharing posts and re-tweeting things as supporting what you’re doing. But you can’t go to the bank manager and say, “I’ve got loads of likes on my posts.’ It doesn’t actually put bread on the table. I have a wife and two boys,” Jack emphasized.
“I feel it is the duty of creative artists in the modern era to educate their audience, to educate the crowd that likes and shares and retweets,” he continued.
It’s a message he encourages all creators to share with their crowd:
“If you actually support my work, please use a paid platform like Patreon where I can let you pay for it, where you can actually put bread on the table and help me make new work. That’s what will really help, putting your money where your mouth is.”
He wants everyone to have access to what he’s doing.
But he reserves some of that material—such as behind the scenes posts and first-access—for paying supporters only.
“All the language I’m using now is very clearly educating my crowd. That’s how it has to be,” he emphasized.
Exmouth coxswain Steve Hockings Thompson poses for his portrait in 2016.
He doesn’t think of it as exclusion.
Instead, “It’s an invitation. I’m not saying you can’t look at this because you’re not paying for it. I’m inviting people in, saying, ‘This is where the party is.’ Come and have a look because it’s fantastic and you’ll really enjoy it.”
Takeaway for creators: Educate your audience so they understand the financial obstacles you must overcome to produce the art they now enjoy.