INTERVIEW by SARAH HAWLEY |PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of JON VIDAR
The mainstream media portrays conflict zones as dangerous and frightening, but one young entrepreneur has found friendship, inspiration, and innovation in unexpected places. Jon Vidar, 29, is Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Tiziano Project, an initiative launched in 2007 that provides aspiring journalists in combat and impoverished areas with the technology and training required to document their lives. As the compelling and fascinating stories produced by their students have reached international audiences, The Tiziano Project has become nothing short of a journalistic phenomenon, a revolutionary new approach to media that combines community and professional reporting in an interactive online format. Most recently, The Tiziano Project beat CNN and NPR for the Online Journalism Award for Community Collaboration, an incredible testament to the impact of their work. This is storytelling that shatters preconceptions, produced by a team that is passionate about sharing the beauty of some of the world’s most troubled locations.
Tell us a little about yourself, Jon. You received a master’s degree in Communication Management at the University of Southern California, and I first met you through the USC archaeology department and later on archaeological excavation in Turkey. How did you get from there to working as the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Tiziano Project?
I always tell people that I got my start in new media through archaeology, which is a weird oxymoron. I started on excavations in southeast Turkey, and while I was there I was working as the dig photographer and at the same time I was constantly hanging out in the villages and getting to know the local culture through my camera. That ended up turning into an exhibit on Kurdish life up in Berkeley, and from there it led me into a career as a photojournalist. So I freelanced for the Associated Press and did a military embed in Iraq and things like that. It was around that time that I ended up going back to grad school at USC and I met Andrew McGregor and Tom Rippe, who were starting the project. When we finished our program we basically just picked up and flew to Rwanda and started the project officially, teaching at an orphanage.
The Tiziano Project has operated in Iraqi Kurdistan, Somalia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya. Where in particular have you worked, and do you have a favorite place you’ve visited through the project?
I helped start the project in Rwanda the first time, and I’ve led the project twice now in Iraqi Kurdistan and helped establish a small satellite project in southeast Turkey last year. Just personally, Turkey and Northern Iraq are very close to my heart because I’ve been there so many times, and I can honestly say that I have friends and family there now. I enjoy going back and hanging out with all the friends that I’ve made over the years.
Have you ever encountered problems in the areas you’ve traveled to?
There’s always some kind of problem in these regions. A lot of times I’ve had to deal with the government or with officials that may not like what we’re doing, or may want to take a hand in what we’re doing. It always varies from place to place. Iraqi Kurdistan was great, they loved having us there, but working in southeast Turkey as a non-profit is very difficult.
What is a typical day like when you’re in the field actually working with local community members?
Our program is structured around a two-month curriculum. We teach everything from journalism fundamentals and ethics to writing and storytelling through words, and from there go on to teach visuals, how to tell that same story through photographs, and then how to combine it with audio, and then finally how to bring all of that together into video storytelling. We have three-hour-long classes twice a week with all of the students together, and then the rest of the week we go out and actually help our students one-on-one. We’ll help them film their story or do interviews, whatever it takes to help them produce quality content. So it’s a lot of one-on-one, hands-on work with our students, and that’s what really develops the friendships and bonds that we’ve created in these regions.
Can you tell us a particularly inspirational story about any of the community members you’ve worked with?
The Tiziano Project is focused on changing perceptions of these regions. We want to get past what traditional media reports on conflict zones, which is basically just war, and show real-life stories, real culture, real people from all these regions, to humanize these areas. Shortly after we launched the 360° Kurdistan website, we received an email from an American college student who was going to Iraqi Kurdistan to volunteer, and his parents were understandably apprehensive about him going. He sent them to the 360° Kurdistan website, and after spending about an hour on the site, they were not only excited for him to go, but they wanted to come visit. So the site completely changed their perception of the community there. That’s what we want to do on a global scale.
I know the work in Rwanda was turned into a radio broadcast by Voice of America. What typically happens to the finished media projects, and how much do the media outlets used vary from project to project?
We try to get media partners with each of our projects. With Iraqi Kurdistan, America Abroad Media promoted a lot of our work, so they were putting up a weekly blog with videos that our students produced over the course of the summer. It varies from project to project, who’s interested in that region at the time. The first time we went to Iraqi Kurdistan, two of our students’ pieces actually made it onto CNN International, and they did a live video webcast interview with one of our students, so that was a great use of the work and of the students’ time.
You’ve had particular success with the 360° Kurdistan project. You got the SXSW Interactive Award 2011, the Gracies 2011 award for Outstanding News Website, the New Media Award 2010 for Best in Industry, and a 2010 Interactive Media Award. What do you think is so compelling about this particular project and the way it’s presented on the 360° Kurdistan website?
The website has done better than we could have possibly imagined in the awards circuit. What we think is right about this platform is that we’re combining community and professional reporting in a way that’s really never been done. CNN has a major section called iReport, but that community content is kind of treated like a second-class citizen to the professional content. With our platform, they’re given equal weight, so we present the community reporting side-by-side with professional Western reporting so that people really get the full perspective of the culture. We’re calling it a Documentary 2.0 approach. There’s actually more than two hours worth of video and multimedia content in 360° Kurdistan, but you navigate it in a choose-your-own-adventure way. It’s a completely non-linear website that you can explore on your own as if you’re almost in the culture.
The project recently won $200,000 from the Knight News Challenge. Congratulations! What initiatives or developments will the funding be supporting?
That grant from the Knight News Challenge is specifically going to developing the 360° website into a platform that other organizations completing community journalism projects will be able to utilize. We’re trying to really elevate the quality of community journalism around the world so that people start to take it seriously as a resource for content from these regions. In addition to allowing organizations to create their own 360°s, we’re going to curate those 360° projects on an interactive map. At the interactive map level, we’re going to present profiles for all the students, and people on their couch in Los Angeles or on their couch in London will be able to talk to one of our students in Iraq or talk to a student in Congo directly to get real first-hand information about their communities.
So what’s next for you personally? Any upcoming adventures?
We just signed on to teach a workshop in advance of the TEDxBaghdad conference. It’s the first time that there’s going to be an independently organized TED event in Baghdad. We’re going to do a full-day workshop the day prior to the conference for journalists and aspiring journalism college students, teaching them new media, and then we’re going to set them loose on the conference the following day, and then collect all that content and push it out through social media and the web.
What can Daily BR!NK readers do to contribute to your success?
We are ramping up, so we’re definitely looking for volunteer mentors, as well as developers and designers to work with for specific projects, and also just publicity, we really need help getting the word out on the project. And finally, as much as it sounds like we’re getting some big grants right now, we’re still always hurting for organizational funding. There are plenty of ways to get involved on our website, click on “Get Involved.” There are tons of ways you can help. If you’re interested in being involved, definitely send me an email, and check out our website.
The one other thing, it’s kind of bad timing, but we do have an entry in for the Ashoka Changemakers competition, and that’s going to have an online voting component starting November 9th.