June 6, 2012

Fueled by the Power of Images: Visual Journalist Jonah Kessel

Jonah M. Kessel is an interactive art director and cinematographer who pursues “nomadically curious visual thoughts.” His practice is currently based in Beijing, China. Here, Jonah shares his fascination with more than one visual medium to tell a compelling story:

Can you please tell a little bit about yourself? Where are you from? What do you do for a living?
I’m originally from a small town outside of Burlington, Vermont, called Shelburne. When I grew up, I think there was about 5,000 people in the town. Now, I think the block I live on is at least five times that big. I live in Beijing where I’ve been for over three years. It might be as different from Vermont as anywhere in the world. In between Vermont and China there’s been a lot of places—places I’ve lived in, and many more I’ve traveled to. These places span most continents and range from Fiji to Algeria to Nepal to Yemen. Needless to say, I spend a lot of time traveling. In some ways, I feel like I’ve been traveling continuously since I first left Vermont, more than thirteen years ago.

I’ve made it part of my job. I’m a visual journalist and I’m constantly on the go. Right now, I’m working for a number of clients, but my main employer is the New York Times, whom I’m accredited with, here in China. I work for the video desk covering China. While I shoot video for the Times, I also shoot stills for various magazines and newspapers around the world, as well as broadcast video for network TV. I try to keep a couple corporate video, or commercial video projects going on, as well as NGO and non-profit related, short-form documentary.

I’m also in the design business—both online and in print. I have redesigned newspapers in English, Chinese, Arabic, and French, and have designed front- and back-ends of websites.

When people ask, I say “visual journalist,” which I think is easier to understand than cross-platform, multimedia storyteller. However, these days my primary medium is video, and (more than) 100% of my time and energy is going into telling stories with moving pictures.

What is your statement about being a practitioner of a number of creative disciplines, like photography, videography and interactive art direction?
I believe creative fields are much more closely related than people often believe. You can tell a story with a pen or a camera but at the end of the day—you are simply telling a story. In my life, I’ve found great benefit to submerging myself in an in-depth way in more than one medium. Some people say focus on one thing—and do that one thing very well. In the context of modern visual media, I throw that idea out. We hear the words “converging media” a lot. Well, nowhere is media converging more than in the visual world. A photographer who can shoot video is likely more valuable then a photographer who can’t. A photographer who understands how the design desk works, will be able to take pictures understanding how those photos might be used for publication. Creating powerful stories requires all parts of the story to work together—the written story, the video, the still photo, the presentation that communicates the information and even the code that creates the architecture for the story to be seen. Understanding all of these elements only makes you a better contributor to a team and that story.

If you are the one doing all of those things—having the background to truly understand all the different elements and how they interact—will make you a better producer and storyteller.

How did you get involved with the creative disciplines you currently practice? And what should be kept in mind in pursuing another creative discipline?
Between going to a journalism school that valued new media and multimedia and today’s job market, I became a practitioner of more than one medium, but I certainly didn’t set out to do so. I really wanted to take pictures. However, I didn’t know that this would lead to so many other things.

From the time I graduated from college, I was freelancing in Vermont, shooting anything I could...for barely any money. I shot weddings, events, and was a stringer with the Burlington Free Press. After less than half a year of that, I got antsy and wanted to get out of Vermont. I applied to hundreds of photography jobs around the United States. Once in awhile, someone would offer me a job working full-time for $14,000 a year or something equally as ridiculous, in some horrible location. It was a tough go for a while. And while I was really only looking for photo jobs, somehow a little mountain paper called the Tahoe Daily Tribune got my résumé and called me looking for a “presentation editor.” I was pretty much completely broke and was pretty fed up with the job market (this is circa 2006). The word ‘presentation’ shared the same first letter as ‘photography’ and so I said, well—maybe it’s a start?

It really meant starting my career as a designer. However, I pushed my way into the photo department, shooting in my spare time and on weekends—or when one of the staff photographers couldn’t fill an assignment. Three years later, I was running the photography and design department of the newspaper, working as the visual director.

I was trained in new media. I was a photographer. Then I became a designer. As I built new skills, I brought the old skills along. What I found was the new skills just elevated the old ones.

Since my days at Lake Tahoe, I’ve worked as a design and photography consultant for newspapers in North Africa and as the Creative Director of China’s largest English language newspaper. These jobs wouldn’t have been possible if I had a background in only one medium.
Why the current emphasis on videography?
At first, it was the market that pushed me towards video. I think there’s about 10 times more demand for video than still photography today. But then I realized how much I liked it. I could take pictures (approximately 30 a second), record audio, and use dialogue to tell stories all at the same time. It’s an enormous challenge. But to this day, I still look at each frame of a video as a still picture. I create a frame that’s composed just like how I would take a still photograph; but now, things move within that area.

The more I got into it, the more I realized what a challenge it was to tell stories with this medium. The challenge is super-exciting and the results, when done well, are very gratifying.

This gets into semantics, but is videography the same as filmmaking? If not, what are the differences?
After completing the project “The Fate of Old Beijing: The Vanishing Hutongs” (above), people started calling me a filmmaker, although previous to this point (about 1.5 years ago), I had never considered myself a filmmaker. However, when media was reporting on the video, they would say things like “Filmmaker Jonah Kessel finds...” This is when I first started thinking about the semantics and the difference. While I think the two titles are growing closer together, they aren’t the same. Here’s some reasons why, and some things I think are important about the semantics:

I think people perceive video differently, if they hit play thinking they are watching something made by a filmmaker vs. a videographer. I think we subconsciously accept that a filmmaker is taking more control of what you are seeing (via planning and being in control of all elements). A videographer might not necessarily do that (although they could). A videographer might film an event or be told what to film. A filmmaker makes stories out of pictures.

Ergo, a filmmaker is intrinsically a videographer, but a videographer is not necessarily a filmmaker.

Is it accurate to say that the creative disciplines you practice are essential to being a visual journalist? If so, why?
If you take the title “visual journalist”, I would assume you practice more than one visual medium. Otherwise, you would be a photographer, designer, filmmaker, etc. This is not to say a photographer isn’t a visual journalist—they certainly are. But if they focus on only one medium, they would probably identify with that title (i.e. photojournalist).

Is a visual journalist your preferred job title? If not, what is?
Yes, because it covers a broad range of mediums, which I use professionally to communicate stories. Seems to fit the bill.

How do you define visual journalism? And what makes a good piece of visual journalism?
Visual journalism could be many things. It could be a video, a photograph, a website, a newspaper page, an interactive web element or app. This means a “good piece of visual journalism” could take many forms—whatever form it takes, it is usually something that makes people stop and think. A video, photograph or visual element that not only tells a story, but pushes the viewer to think in a new way. A good piece of visual journalism helps transport viewers to the location of the story, regardless of where they are. It introduces us to topics we didn’t know we were even interested in.

What tools and materials do you use to work on your ideas and make them grow?
This is a tough one, because it changes based upon the project. The above video is actually one example showing the process of making the previous video above. It’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek look at what it takes to make a 3-minute video on deadline.

In general, the most important thing here, though, is planning and research. When embarking on a new project, look at what’s been done before—what worked, what didn’t work. Where is there room for improvement, expansion, and what are things to avoid.

Your bio states, “The places fuel the images. The images fuel you.” What did you mean by this?
Seeing new places and new people is simply inspiring to me. It fuels creativity in my photography and thinking. A new place makes me want to shoot. So the places inspire the images. And then images inspire me to share them. The images move me from place-to-place. It’s a very circular process.

How does time factor into your work?
Deadlines are a reality of journalism. I’m not currently doing too much breaking news where things need to be filed right away. To make my schedule work, I have to self-imposed deadlines in order to move on to new projects. Part of this has to do with being freelance and this can be tricky and frustrating, but it’s important.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying and how did you deal with it?
Balance! Trying to achieve balance as a freelancer is extremely difficult. And I mean balance in the most broad sense possible. To balance editorial projects with commercial projects. Balancing spending with earning. Balancing personal projects with projects that make money. Balancing work and play. To balance sleeping and being awake. I’m not sure what the answer is here, but I have noticed I can go from not busy at all to extremely busy in the course of ten minutes.

My opinion, as of now, is to simply be happy that I enjoy what I do. So when the balance gets out-of-whack, and I’m working 20 hours a day, 7-days a week, it’s because I like what I’m doing, and that’s OK for right now.

How do you stay creative? Do you draw? Or keep a journal?
I find a healthy diet of travel keeps me creative. New places give me new ideas. Meeting new people is always a great source of creativity and inspiration. And of course, reading, watching and observing what my peers and colleagues is always a great source of inspiration.

I don’t journal but I do blog: here, here and here. My personal blog is a combination of work stuff and travel photography. I suppose in the modern sense this is a journal ... just a public one.

What is your advice to people who aspire to be a photographer, videographer, an interactive art director, and/or visual journalist?
My favorite Tibetan mantra says, “Where I am now, is where I need to be.” I’ve found this phrase to be tremendously true in my life. This includes the good times, and the tough times. It’s a tough job market out there, but that’s no reason to not do what you love. Even if at first you have to do something less than ideal, keep shooting. If you are serving food at night, take pictures during the day. If you have a job making pictures and it’s not the job you want, spend your free time doing personal projects that you want to do.

Keep shooting, keep pushing and keep learning. If you do this, I believe you’ll get where you want to be. All of the other places will help you get there—they are necessary steps.

I also think it’s important to surround yourself with good people, either in “real life” or in the virtual world. Having a positive environment is tremendously helpful. Also, it’s good to hang out with people who practice what you do (or want to do). The visual journalism community is everywhere and most people are approachable and friendly. Ask questions. Make mistakes. Learn and improve.

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Images and videos courtesy of Jonah Kessel.

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Big thanks to Musician and Content Strategist Ariel Bolles who recommended Jonah Kessel. Read her Interview.

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