When people read about a potential book deal, or a proposed television show based on my work, they naturally assume: “He must be making a killing!” It’s a natural assumption. It also happens to be completely wrong. I have never gotten a penny from any movie or television deal, proposed or otherwise. Anything that might increase the audience for these soldier stories that I post on my website gets my attention. But anything that even hints of outside editorial control, or smacks of someone spinning this material to promote a commercial or political agenda, gets shown the door.
I’m not trying to suggest that I am independently wealthy, or that I have taken a vow of poverty. It’s just I value my independence and the credibility it brings me with the people who trust me with their stories. But this work is both dangerous and incredibly expensive and without a steady level of income I could not continue to do it. Because so many misconceptions are out there about nonexistent “big money” deals, I thought it might make sense to clarify how I get the funds I need to do this job that increasingly, it seems, I am the only guy committed to doing.
So, for those who wonder how this project is funded, read on:
I first traveled to Iraq in December 2004, but the prime impetus to go occurred almost nine months earlier, after two friends were killed in two days in Iraq–one in Falluja, the other in Samara. In April, 2004, I attended both their funerals, also days apart, one in Colorado, the other in Florida. I met many veterans of the war on terror, some of whom encouraged me to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, and write the truth.
One childhood friend in particular—Rodney Morris—regularly called and emailed me, asking me to come over to Iraq, where he was then known as Lieutenant Colonel Morris. My initial reaction was, “Are you crazy!? I am a writer, not a war correspondent.” I thought there was nothing I could offer, and being intimately familiar with the effects of bombs and bullets, and having no wish to be burned alive or shot down, I repeatedly declined. But those two funerals, coming so close upon each other, got me thinking.
In a decision that entailed shelving serious investments in labor and time, I put current projects on hold and packed off for Iraq. When 2004 turned into 2005, I was in Baquba, near Baghdad. At that time, heading into Iraq’s historical first elections, there was daily fighting in Baquba. It was definitely newsworthy, but I was not sponsored by or affiliated with any media organizations. In fact, I had barely heard of the word “Blog,” when about three weeks into January 2005, I blogged my own first dispatch from Baquba.
Over the next several months I spent most of my time with combat soldiers doing combat things. I traveled up and down the Iranian border, met with countless Iraqis, got in shootouts and saw homicide and other bombings with my own eyes. The military was overwhelmingly open, though there was confusion about how to categorize me. I didn’t work for a paper or magazine, or television or radio. I would just say, “I am a writer.” Initially, when my blog became known, it lowered what little stock I had: Blogging was not exactly seen as the epitome of journalistic platforms.
Then, Rathergate and a few other major news scoops by bloggers started to change that perception, and a readership swelled around my work. Soon my photos and dispatches were being cited by mainstream sources around the world. Although I was offered numerous writing assignments and jobs, I declined them all. Some of the offers were quite good, but after struggling for many years to be independent, I came to see the value of that status. Not as a rabble rouser or as pugnacious individualist reflexively bucking “the system,” merely someone who could buck the system when it needed bucking.
Although I declined employment and advertisers, I never turned my back on “the system.” I wanted to be at arm’s distance, but not completely isolated. These decisions were good for business ethics but lousy for the bottom line. I had cut myself off from the normal methods for obtaining operating capital, and this left me broke. By mid-2005, despite the notoriety that my work was gaining, (it had now been used in nearly every major media outlet in the world) my bank account wasn’t the only thing going broke, my primary camera was crippled, and most of my work and communications gear was rapidly heading in the same direction.
By July, I could not even afford a new camera and I could not work as effectively without a camera. So I put up a Paypal support button and help flooded in. I got a brand new best-of-the-best digital camera within a week, and eventually bought enough gear, including night vision, satellite communications gear, better body armor, to keep the work coming. Support came at a cost, though, because I could no longer handle the extreme flood of emails and letters; so I hired assistants and got some technical services, both of which enabled me to stay focused on the work.
When the Deuce Four headed home to Ft Lewis, I returned to the United States. Once I did the support immediately began to wither, so I explored other options, eventually deciding to sell one of my better known photographs, Strength and Compassion, something which readers had been urging me to make available for purchase. Brisk sales helped to stabilize the situation but we’ve almost exhausted the supply of the limited edition photographs. The sales of a new deluxe hard cover edition of “Danger Close,” a book I had self-published in 1999, are also rewarding on several levels. When I first published Danger Close, I sold 8,000 copies, but the book was no longer in print. I received many emails asking about it and so I resurrected “Danger Close.”
In the year since I first set up the online gallery, I’ve added over 70 photographs, some of which are available in deluxe framed editions and all of which are offered in various print sizes. Customers tell me they make great gifts for fathers, husbands, brothers and sons who have military affiliations. But many women also write to tell me they love the photographs of children I’ve taken from all over the globe. I’m partial to the landscapes and nature photographs but that says more about the wanderlust in me.
All this said, it so happens that support from readers is by far the most important way for me to maintain my independence. I had to take time off from writing dispatches in Iraq so that I could complete “Deuce Four: The Battle for Mosul,” a book about my extended tour with that legendary and highly decorated unit. There was the possibility of entering into a publishing agreement with a hefty advance, but this came with editorial strings and ropes. So I opted for no contract, no advance but full control of the content. I owe at least that much to the soldiers of Deuce Four, especially to those who gave their lives and limbs in this struggle.
Except for a two week trip to Afghanistan in the spring of 2006, I spent most of 2006 focused on telling their story with accuracy and attention to detail. The research entailed travel, expenses I am still resolving, and it kept my profile low which in turn kept support low.
I follow the never ending news about journalists who get badly wounded,or worse, in Iraq. The enemy targets journalists as prize kidnap victims, and not all make it out of that trap alive. “Needless to say, that’s a consideration when I am in combat. I think about how important it is to have a war chest of funds in case the worst happened.
And so, how is this work funded? Mostly, and most importantly, by people continuing to make donations, or mailing in support. I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to the people who have hit the donation buttons because the generosity of individual readers has kept me at this work.
I try to let my work speak to that, and the fact that it has been submitted for three separate Pulitzer Prizes, in photography and reporting categories, and it continues to garner awards and acclaim from both mainstream and alternative media organizations is my testament to how I much I value the support of my readers. I show my appreciation by doing the best work I possibly can.
People who prefer to send checks or money orders can send these, payable to Michael Yon, to:Michael Yon P O Box 5553 Winter Haven, FL 33880-5553