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Via Panam

A transmedia tale of Pan-American migration. Position by Kadir van Lohuizen

Kadir van Lohuizen (The Netherlands, 1963), is an internationally renowned photojournalist, probably best known for his long-term socio-environmental projects. His photo book ‘Diamond Matters, the diamond industry,’ in which he followed diamonds from the mines to the consumer markets in the western world, was awarded the prestigious Dutch Dick Scherpenzeel Prize for best reporting on the developing world and was also recognized with a World Press Photo Award. From 2011 to 2012, Kadir created ‘Via PanAm,’ a visual investigation on migration in the Americas. Originally made as an interactive application for the iPad, Via PanAm also included a traveling interactive multimedia based exhibition, installation and a book. With the project ‘Where will we go,’ Kadir looked at the global consequences of rising sea levels caused by climate change. The project is designed to highlight both the immense complexities associated with in-island and inter-island/country movement, and the human rights implications involved in such displacements. Kadir’s environmental projects continued with ‘Wasteland,’ an investigation in six megacities (Jakarta, Tokyo, Lagos, Amsterdam, São Paulo and New York) into the management or mismanagement of the cities’ waste. For this project, which earned him the first World Press Photo Prize in the Environmental category, he used photography, video, drone footage and audio. In 2007, Kadir co-founded photography agency NOOR, which takes its name from the Arabic word for light, as a platform for its members to take financial control over their work and leverage the power of a group in a changing media landscape.

Kadir van Lohuizen / Noor

Introduction

It was back in 2006 that I had the idea to work on a story about migration. The political climate in Europe, the US and elsewhere had become quite negative, populist parties were on the rise and many regarded migration as a threat to so-called western or national values. Throughout my career I have worked on many stories touching migration, whether it was labor migration, people migrating because of conflict or fleeing the climate crisis, and so I realized that there was nothing new. Migration drives human history – if we all dig deep enough we’ll see that at root, we are all immigrants. So what could be a better story than to show migration as normality, something as old as humanity.

I am a photojournalist, a documentary photographer, whatever you want to call me. Someone who visually documents the stories and events of our world and the people who live on this planet. I want the work I do to be seen by as many people as possible, so I work for magazines and newspapers and broadcasting organizations, which by now I consider my platforms.

The plan

But how and where, on which of ‘my’ platforms, would I show the ‘normality’ of migration? Where is migration a routine part of daily life? Where are people on the move either because they want to earn money for their families or flee conflict or leave their land because of draught or a rising sea level? I decided I would work on the two continents where most people are immigrants: the Americas. So I developed a bold plan: to travel from the very southern tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego in Patagonia to the northernmost point in Alaska, Deadhorse. I would travel overland to make sure I would understand the distances people were covering and the possible hardships they would be facing along the way. A road trip in black & white, telling the stories of the people I would meet on the road. I went to Chile in 2006, early 2007 to shoot and research for this project and to make sure it was a feasible and good idea. I planned to use this material to pitch the project to the media and for funding purposes.

Next step

I was pretty convinced about the idea and wrote a proposal for funding and to gain interest from different media. It soon appeared that I was the only one thinking it was a good idea, because the proposal was widely rejected – actually for the very reasons I thought it was a good idea: what’s new about migration? Why the Americas? Now I am used to dealing with disappointment, but if I am convinced something is a good idea, I will pursue it, confident that it will work out. This time it was different, because there was not a single positive reply. So I thought this is one of those rare moments when you have to admit that the idea is not as good as you hoped. I accepted, but was very disappointed.

Content or package?

A few years later, I was having a drink with a friend of mine, Bas Vroege who is the director of the Dutch Paradox foundation. They are co-funding documentary photography and film projects, stimulating experimentation with multidisciplinary and multimedia forms of presentation. I was telling him how frustrated I was about the failure of my migration project. It was early 2010 and we talked about this rumor that Apple would launch a new device, which sounded like it could bring many media together in an organic digital environment – photography, film, sound, text, all interactively connected. We started fantasizing how great it would be to bring my migration project to this new platform, and when Apple launched the iPad in April 2010, we decided to collaborate and re-write my proposal to fit the new medium and together apply for funding. Thus I designed the outlines of what probably became the first iPad app on documentary photography.

To my utter surprise I now received the funding which was previously declined. In addition, I found interest among various media partners. When they heard of the project, Dutch public radio, for instance, called me and asked if I could make weekly short radio documentaries. It seemed that everyone was fascinated by the potential of the new device, and wanted to be part of it. I guess sometimes the package is more sexy than the content.

And then an app

Slowly, I started to realize that I’d gotten myself into something. What initially was thought as a traditional photo documentary, suddenly became this very ambitious multi-media project on a device that had just been launched. The question arose: how do you actually build an app? The team of Paradox was instrumental, that was for sure. The plan now became to travel for a year, cover forty-thousand kilometers and I can’t even remember how many countries. I would write three blogs a week and produce at least one story a week. I would make a radio documentary, photograph, film, edit, research, all while traveling on my own. I was getting a bit nervous.

We contacted a design company in Rotterdam, the Antenna men, who would design the app and the website. The question was how we would deal with what would be published on the app. If I would publish all stories in the app I would lose my partners in print and broadcast media, because the content had been seen already. So we decided to distribute the content – all the images, footage and stories I would make during my travels – in a variety of ways, which catered to the specific character (and business model) of each of the media partners. Thus the blog would contain a growing library of short stories with an image, which would be available for free to all on the website. If you wanted to see the full stories with additional images and short videos you had to buy the app. But that was like buying a book with a lot of still empty pages – it would gradually fill during my travels. I recall some angry messages in the beginning, where people bought the app, but saw no content. I had to explain many times that it was a live medium so it would slowly fill up while my journey was progressing.

The business model

As a result of rewriting the proposal, in which the focus was now on building an app as central medium for the content, Paradox and I had received funding from the Mondriaan Fund for the Arts in the Netherlands. This covered the production of the app, the research for the project and my travel expenses. Not covered was my fee, which therefore had to come from the different publications. This was a scary thought, because before my departure there were only a few real guarantees, which would definitely not cover my income for the year. On board were NRC, one of the Netherlands main quality newspapers, where I would have a weekly photo column; The Sunday Times magazine would publish a monthly spread; Dutch public radio organization VPRO would broadcast a weekly five to six-minute radio documentary; and ‘One world,’ a Dutch online magazine dedicated to stories for “a just and sustainable world”, would publish a monthly spread.

Whether I would be able to sell the work elsewhere during or after the completion of the trip remained to be seen. At the initial stage, we had plans for an exhibition but didn’t plan a book. But to realize any of those, additional funding needed to be found. It proved to be very successful in the end – many media who initially declined my proposal did eventually publish my work: Sette (Italy), El Pais (Spain), Sunday Times magazine (UK), Newsweek (USA), Vrij Nederland (Netherlands), Geo (France), De Morgen (Belgium), Life (China).

I would leave in March 2011 for a year, starting off at Puerto Toro on Isla Navarino, Tierra del Fuego, Chile – the most southern settlement in the Southern hemisphere. From Puerto Toro, (the port of the bull) I would travel to Deadhorse in Alaska forty-thousand miles to the north.

The journey and working method

If I would have known what I know now, I would perhaps have reconsidered, because it was a heavy year: seven days a week with only two times a week-long break. On the other hand, I would have never wanted to miss it. What we initially characterized as ‘slow journalism’ actually turned out to be rather fast journalism. I am a photographer who is used to work on stories for quite a long time and only stop when I feel I kind of have it. Now, I had promised to deliver one story a week plus collect the rest. And I always considered myself to be a black & white photographer, so that was the original plan. But I soon discovered that the variety of the stories, the working method and the platform I was using, the iPad, required a re-thinking of the more traditional way I habitually work. I am used to publishing in print media, so when I am editing and sequencing photos I keep in mind how my work will be used on a page. With the iPad this was different – it is basically an interactive slide-show medium, which requires a different way of editing and treating the material. I started to use color not only for the different stories, but also within the narrative, often to divide a story in chapters. For example I portrayed two women from Peru who work in Chilean households as maids. After that I went to Peru to visit their families. The story in Chile was in color and I used black and white for the families in Peru to distinguish the geographical locations and the narrative hierarchy.

Via Panam video trailer. Video: Paradox

Another challenge was video. I had made film documentaries in the past and always stated that you can’t do photography and film at the same time. They are different media, which require different ways of thinking, different mindsets. And at that time you also needed a separate still camera and video camera. Today’s cameras can do both, which makes it a lot easier. So since this was an experiment with a new platform I understood the necessity to do both: it would make the content richer, that was for sure. An important lesson was: decide what has priority, photography or video, because you can’t do both with the same quality at the same time. For me, obviously photography came first, so the videos were supplementary to my photographic work. And then there were social media – another relatively new thing I had to deal with to broaden my audience. I had a Facebook account, but never really knew what to post. This became very different now and quite instrumental for this project. I began to use Facebook as a platform on which I would post stories, ask people for ideas, fixers, places to stay, etc. It turned out to be very useful, but at times also discomforting. I always used to work in silence and my work would only be seen when it was done and published. Now I was publishing (semi-) live and a wide audience could share the experience with me, including the hardships and insecurities I sometimes had to face. During the trip I also gave lectures and short workshops for local photographers and journalists. The Dutch embassies in the different countries were a great help in organizing these events.

Via PanAm Exhibition at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, Chile, 2012
Exhibition design: Jeroen de Vries, Video: Frank Ortmanns

The exhibition and a book

From the beginning the aim was to organize a traveling exhibition, which would not only be seen back home in Europe, but would also travel part of the route I travelled for the project. After we had found funding for it we could realize the exhibition, designed by Jeroen de Vries from the Netherlands. At the heart was a multiple screen projection with photography, video, text and sound. Around it, images printed on canvas were hanging freely in the space. The kick off was in Santiago, Chile, at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. It was very well received and traveled on to Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, New York, Poland, Luxemburg and the Netherlands.

There was no plan to make a book initially. I felt that the app was so rich in content, that a book could never compete with it. But two years after my return I started to realize that a book is not an app and an app not a book. An app is a ‘dead’ thing in a phone or tablet. It’s not something to pick up and touch and smell and look at. As a medium, in other words, a book is a very different experience and not something that will disappear – as I am convinced the app will. A book is unique and will remain. Thus we made a book, which was published in 2013 by Paradox (Bas Vroege) and Ydoc, beautifully designed by Teun van der Heijden. The book takes the reader along the changing landscapes of the countries I travelled through and zooms in on the lives of the people I encountered. The book also includes an essay by acclaimed Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez. In an inventive design mixing color and black and white pictures and texts on pages of different sizes, the book provides a unique, high-quality closure of the project.

Book dummy, 'Via PanAm - Exploring migration in the Americas'. Book design: Teun van der Heijden / Heijdens Karwei. Publisher: Paradox, 2013.

Observations

In the end I consider Via Panam as a meaningful and very rewarding project: it visually investigated contemporary migration in the Americas and concluded overall that migration in most cases is a positive force. It enriches the diversity of nations and many countries benefit from immigrants who come to work. The project was experimental, because it brought together so many media formats like photography, video, sound, spoken and written text. It explored the possibilities of a very new medium, the iPad app, in combination with more traditional ways of communicating like print media, exhibition and book

It is clear to me that the Via Panam project really changed my way of approaching and working on future stories. It made me aware of how much more is possible outside the traditional printed media, not only creatively, but also as a business model. Print media will probably not die out soon, but they will most likely become less important as economically viable commissioners for photojournalists. Publishing on different platforms has enlarged my possibilities to keep on working as a professional photographer. Although, “photographer”… Nowadays I am probably more than that – videographer, blogger, writer, curator, whatever you want to call it. As I hope I have shown, there are many ways to tell a story. I dare say that Via Panam was not only a life-changing project for me, but that it also inspired many of my colleagues and many aspiring visual storytellers.

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