Jonah Kessel: Visual Journalism
Jonah Kessel is an interactive art director, visual journalist and nomadically curious photographer. He offers visual communications solutions across a wide array of platforms including videography, photography, mixed media production, print, web and interactive design. Motivated to “Imagine. Create. Inspire” and to use his passion for visual storytelling to bring about positive change, Jonah has continuously pushed the boundaries of visual journalism and what it can become. We spoke with Jonah this week to reveal more.
Notes on Design: Where are you originally from, and what brought you to China?
Jonah: I grew up in Vermont, in a small town of 5,000 people. The journey from this small New England town to China’s booming capital of over 22 million people has been truly amazing: along the way, I’ve found myself traveling in and around New Orleans, Oregon, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, California and Algeria to name a few.
I came to China almost out of the blue, and I certainly never planned on living here. A recruiter for China Daily, the national English-language newspaper of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), found me online. A dozen e-mails and interviews later, I woke up in Beijing as their Creative Director. Two years later, I’m still here, but now working independently.
Notes on Design: Tell us more about your experiences working with China Daily?
Jonah: Working at China Daily was an extremely interesting, educational, fun and frustrating experience. Whilst it is a newspaper, it is very much a different kind of newspaper than we have in the West; the definition of “what media is supposed to do” in China is very different to our definition. Trying to understand this was very interesting – I got a glimpse of the real media system here and how it operates.
While most foreigners working in state-controlled media “polish” copy, I had a very different role. China Daily had had foreign designers working for them in the past, but my role was created for me; as Creative Director, I dabbled in various aspects of the company, from design to redesign, photography and multimedia production. I met an enormous amount of great people, but after 1.5 years, I was ready to move on – I wanted to get back to working on my own photography and videography. The knowledge that I acquired whilst working at China Daily, however, greatly informs the work I do now.
Notes on Design: How would you describe the line of work that you do now?
Jonah: I would describe myself as a visual journalist. Although I’m a photographer at heart, growing up in the new media age means that I find myself crossing many disciplines. I’ve had experience in web design and film-making, for example, but I’m also a blogger and social media geek. One day, I’ll be shooting food in a Beijing restaurant, the next I could be waist deep in mud interviewing a rice farmer in the Philippines. More recently, my focus has been on video production, enterprise video journalism or short form documentary. But whatever I do, I do from a photojournalist perspective.
Notes on Design: As a doer of many things, how do you stick out from the crowd?
Jonah: I think my wide skill set allows me stick out in general. I’m also very active in online communities – I try to communicate with people wherever I am. I think (or hope) this creates transparency in my work and the process it takes to create it. Using social media to connect readers to my work has been invaluable.
Notes on Design: How have you pushed the boundaries of your work?
Jonah: Particularly over the last 6 years, I’ve dedicated myself to learning and understanding many different visual fields whilst also frequently changing my geographic location. I feel that I am constantly pushing (at least my) boundaries of what a person can do in a small amount of time, from how many places a person can live, to how many forms of photography I can call “my favourite”. Sometimes, I feel like I am living in “fast forward” mode i.e. not sleeping enough, and constantly trying to improve on everything I do.
Notes on Design: What has been the proudest moment in your career so far?
Jonah: This is a tough question. I feel that in different visual fields I have made incomparable achievements. Here are three nonetheless:
On a design level: I’ve redesigned newspapers and publications in Arabic, French, English and Chinese. This can be an extremely arduous task. Last year, for example, I undertook the redesign of China Daily. With the help of a tremendously talented designer named Bill Gaspard, we convinced large groups of Chinese journalists, politicians and party members to move forward with a dramatic re-branding. Whilst I slept for about 10 hours during the month of the launch, getting it out of the door and seeing it in its new form was pretty neat. You can see the before and after products here.
On a photo level: I once spent 6 months photographing a woman who had survived Narcotizing Fasciitis but had a good portion of the right-hand side of her body amputated. This was part of a long-term photo essay that went alongside a print story by friend, writer and journalist, Jeff Munson. The subject, Tanya Gludau, was such an inspiration that I just kept shooting and shooting, wanting to show both her struggle and triumphs. The essay reached a very wide audience, from the Oprah Winfrey Show, to the Associated Press, as well as chains of community newspapers around the United States. We helped raise awareness of a serious disease by sharing the inspiring story of a tremendous woman. The entire photo essay can be viewed here.
On a video level: I have just completed a mixed media and video project that focuses on redevelopment and cultural heritage protection in China. I live in Beijing’s Old City, in a small alley known as a “hutong”. Beijing’s inner city is filled with these hutongs that breathe both history and culture. Unfortunately, they have fallen victim to China’s massive economic expansion: large portions of these areas are undergoing demolition to make way for high-rise buildings. Friend and journalist, Kit Gillet and I executed a massive project to document people’s lives within these hutongs, and their feelings towards hutong destruction. We hope that the resulting works act as a historical record for the local community, but also to educate and raise awareness amongst the public. Both the interactive and videos can be seen here.
Notes on Design: What do you hope to achieve in the next 3-5 years?
Jonah: I have a couple of long-term projects that I’d like to get into. I won’t go into much detail, but they do require years of work and a good amount of traveling to match. More generally, I want to use my passion for visual storytelling to create positive change. This is certainly an idealistic goal, I know; however, if we don’t try at all, we immediately remove the chance to even get there. So I say: try, fail, try again, fail again; repeat until you succeed; be idealistic and hope the truths we discover have an impact.
Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.