INTERVIEW WITH KEN HARPER, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF MULTIMEDIA PHOTOG- RAPHY AND DESIGN
Would you give us a summary of your educational and professional background, your activities, your research?
My name is Ken Harper, and I’m an associate professor in the multimedia, photography and design de- partment at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. I’m also the director of the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement. I’m in my ninth year of teaching at Syracuse University and it’s it’s the longest I’ve ever stayed at one job, because it’s worth staying at.
I’ve probably had 13 or 14 jobs, previously. I had my own business on and off over many years. Before joining Newhouse I worked as the lead interactive designer at the Rocky Mountain News, a newspaper in Denver, Colorado, that shut down just shy of 150 years of operation. I had to quit that job, two years before they closed their doors. I had made an ethical choice before my newspaper shut down to leave early because of some of the political stances that they took on the Iraq war. There were some other ethical and moral issues that I didn’t feelcomfortable supporting by working there. I went back to my own business, Ironclad Images, where I worked with a lot of non-profits, specifically the Bahá’í Faith. I had a lot of work with the Bahá’ís. I’m not a Bahá’í but I lean in that multicultural, peaceful direction. Previous to that I held many different positions, advertising, news originations, nonprofits; from Indian advertising agencies in Dallas Texas (where I designed interactive DVD ROMS) to working for USAID in Uganda. I even made Ben and Jerry’s ice cream for a period of time. I’ve worked for several media outlets, various newspapers, from Tucson, Arizona, to Chi-cago, and Dallas, to Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky. I also worked as an interactive designer for Electronic Intifada (EI). I served as the lead interactive designer with EI starting around the year 2000. At EI I worked with Nigel Perry, Laurie King, and Ali Abunimah and others. I also worked at MSNBC.com in Redmond, Washington, as a picture editor and interactive designer for the Winter Olympics. Over the years, I’ve tried to focus on empowering people to speak for themselves. I think it’s important for people to be able to speak for their own culture, on the international stage, and that’s one of the reasons I gotinvolved with EI. I believe the more we understand each other, the less likely we are to want to hurt each other. That’s where the power of communications can come in, as part of a solution. Unfortunately, it’s not, of course, that simple; justice is a clear requirement for peace. Luckily, here at Newhouse I’ve been able to work with amazing people and fine colleagues throughout the university like David Crane in the law school and Mary Lovely and the TNGO Initiative in Maxwell. I’ve been able to find partners who want to engage in the world and have honest conversations, to learn from each other and then bring that to the table to create something they couldn’t create on their own. I think we can address complicated issues with humility and move forward collectively, with knowledge and wisdom, applying that knowledge to real-world situations. Then there’s the clumsy reality. It all sounds lofty and mushy and you wanna cuddle with it, but the reality is, it’s inefficient, and difficult. So, it doesn’t happen very often, you know? Because you have to teach your regular classes, like I’m gonna go teach at 5, but I’m not ready for it, such as freshman, sophomore level introduction to graphic design. So you have that imperative. I mean, I’m getting paid to do that, I love it, but you can’t do everything well. You only have 100 percent to give so there’s an ebb and flow between teaching and everything else—they feed into one another.
Luckily, I work at an institution that allowed me to create the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement, and to work on proj- ects and find partners like the Near East Foundation and Charlie Benjamin there. I get to work with amazing professors like my chair, Professor Bruce Strong, and Professor Steve Davis, the chair of the newspaper department. To be able to go into the world and take students to places like Nablus in Palestine or Monrovia, Liberia, not just see the world through literature and books but go out and shake hands, have some tea, and meet regular people—people who don’t have some sort of a high-brow political agenda. They’re just trying to live their lives and understand the complications of the world they inhabit, they live a little bit closer to the earth. We try and teach how one can develop empathy for others, through experiences, and take that and share it. More recently, you know, I worked with David Crane closely on the Syrian Accountability Project and the dialog Running for Cover; Politics, Justice and Media in the Syrian Conflict. We brought together a real diverse group of people to discuss something that’s so horribly topical. Since we keep doing these things to our fellow man, we need to at least try and wrap our minds around it. We’re trying to understand it, the political realities surrounding the conflict. Instead of just throwing our hands in the air we need to be proactive in the world and not just accept what’s put before us, but pushing through that, and with the opportunities that are presented to us, pick that up and, and combine it with other people’s work. Coming back to that central idea of creating something through communal effort, something that is bigger than we could ever hope to ac- complish on our own.
So that actually is a segue to our second question, and I want to combine the second and third questions. Now that you started talking about this panel that you organized about Syria, can you tell us a little bit more about it? What was the initial objective and what did you achieve? Did you accomplish the goals that you were basically planning to achieve?
Well, you know, we initially had been talking about partnering with the law school and Maxwell specifically the Syrian Account- ability Project, international relations department and Middle Eastern studies programs at Maxwell, around the issue of the Syrian conflict, all the complicated issues around that topic; how it’s become exponentially complicated over the years.
It’s actually taken quite a while, a year or a year and a half, for that to actually come to fruition. One of the main points that David Crane and I realized we wanted to cover was that we wanted the event to be more of a dialogue than a symposium. We wanted it to be a conversation, more like a talk you’d have over coffee or beers with experts, people from the region. People who not only understand the intellectual side of what’s happening but have parents there, sons and daughters. During the day we had five panels that were put together to cover the the disciplines from the various schools, and also some more communal panels that covered broader issues like, “How We Got Here” and “Where Do We Want to Go?” Other panels around the concept of ac- countability in an age of absolute power. When you think about what the Russians have done, or what America has done in Iraq or more recently in Afghanistan to a degree, or God knows what we’re gonna do in the future—I think of the impunity of all these things. The long arm of the law is something that comforts me to a degree. Professor Crane speaks about it and how there’s no expiration date on prosecuting war crimes. You know, they’re dragging people who are 90 years old who were Nazis into court in Florida. They will spend their remaining days behind bars thinking about what they did. So I think there is hope.
I don’t think having a conversation is all there is to it, it’s not “the” answer, but one answer. If you think about the population that we were speaking to during the dialogue, they were actually students and professors; some media folks came in, but students were the primary audience. To engage and plant those seeds amongst that population sitting in the seats, daring them to think differently—to have empathy for the other. To begin to understand the complexities of the situation from different perspectives. If you think about news rooms, for instance, like a modern news room, like the New York Times, you know, they’ll employ com- puter scientists, and architects, and astrophysicists, and people from many different disciplines to tackle a problem. They look at an issue indepth, from very different positions. They can put together a much better solution for the reader by gathering various experts and tackle the same problem, that’s one premise of what we were trying to do—to have people from different disciplines talking about a complicated issue and having a human conversation.
The physical makeup of the dialogue was a central concern. “Oh, we’ve got all these seats, comfortable seats you can sit in....” We had, you know, 300-some stadium-style seats, very fancy and comfortable, easy. I said, “I don’t want that. Put those away. I want a flat space. I want the people who are on the panels to be basically on the same level as the people in the audience, physi- cally.” The panelists needed to be raised a few inches so they can be seen from back rows, but essentially on the same plain. It is very a central method for this type of conference, called the fish bowl method. It’s made of a semicircular or circular row of seats. The panelists sit in the center, surrounded by the audience. There’s always at least one open chair on the panel for an audi- ence member to physically walk up and sit in, inches away from the people who are the experts, and participate, like a human, in a very human conversation. If there’s one thing that the dialogue was all about, it was the fact that humans are suffering and we need to me mindful of that. This isn’t just an intellectual exercise. It is about the suffering of people who are going through something that I can’t even imagine, and I am humbly aware of that, and trying to raise awareness of what that means and the complications behind that. One of the panelists brought up a question at the bar after the event: “But what’s the point, what’s the goal?” It was harder to answer than I thought—I think the best things aren’t quantifiable. I think the deepest impacts can’t be put in a spreadsheet, because they grow deep inside of people and they come out in very unique ways. There is no one solu- tion. There have to be 10 thousand solutions, thousands of these events. There have to be a million David Cranes. The only way events such as Running for Cover will ever have positive effect is for the experts and academics to speak with people outside their own circles, speak like humans, human to human. That was one of the goals of our event and I think that was successful.
You know something, when I think about my undergrad experience in photojournalism, my undergrad degree is in photojournal-ism, even though I was an interactive designer most of my career. I wasn’t some amazing student. I wasn’t a great writer, youknow, pumping out some great dissertation or something. I was out in the world, photographing in the trailer parks of WesternKentucky. I was hanging out with the Ku Klux Klan, I was talking to real people from very different backgrounds. That has given me an interesting perspective. One of the things I’ve learned while teaching—the things that are discussed in academic situa- tions often don’t bear fruit until much later, until they interact with another life event, or some, some other bit of wisdom that someone else drops. You know, Rumi, or some Chomsky, or something, or maybe you just need to speak to a farmer in Iowa. You know what I mean? Often things take time to make sense. “Oh, that is what the lecture was about”? Revelation. Like it resonates with your life and then it has meaning, more meaning. But without that seed planted, there is nothing. There is no fruit. It takes a lot longer for real change to happen. One of my undergrad professors, Michael Williamson, who won a Pulitzer many years ago,many of the things that he said, I was like, what? I was listening but not understanding, I think I got like a B in his class. I worked re- ally hard and he probably looked at me and thought, “Yeah, Ken is nice but I don’t know. Does he get it?” Many years later, when I went to school in the West Bank at Birzeit University—I never really went to class—but I did go to school there, technically—a lot of the things that Williamson spoke about started to make sense. It wasn’t a phrase or a sentence. It was the culmination of his intent and my new experiences that somehow reverberated in my mind subconsciously or otherwise, combined to help me understand the world in a new way. So I believe events, like what we held last October, bear fruit in ways we can’t possible understand and I’m okay with that. It’s the beginning of conversations inside an individual’s mind that are most exciting to me. I might not personally be a part of continuing that conversation, but I can let that go and I think that’s just fine.
It sort of answered, at least, partially the third and the fourth and fifth questions I wanna ask you. So, I was going to ask, how do you evaluate the response to that, basically? Academic circles in the U.S. gave to crisis in Syria and , you know, I want ta combine two questions. How can we play a more constructive role, in similar situations: conflict, hu- manitarian crisis, by academic circles?
I think it’s engagement. I worked really closely with the Liberian government during the Ebola outbreak. I was surrounded by academics at a U.S. academic retreat, and I was talking to my friend Thomas, who was in charge of the website for the Minis- try of Information. I was standing on the boat dock, I had a glass of wine in my hand, and my friend asked “What’s that retreatabout?” I paused. He was in the middle of telling me about a mutual friend, Francis, who lost his brother to Ebola and was now missing. I had trained Francis in web design and different things. I’ve worked one on one with communication professionals in West Africa for the past nine years, training people, mostly in media development. So Francis lost his brother to Ebola and then his father contracted the virus. So he carried his father to the Ebola clinic and he contracted Ebola himself, and now, come to findout, was also in the clinic. Thomas said, “Ken, it’s so bad. It feels like death, we didn’t know where Francis was and he just called me—he called me screaming, screaming from his bed. He’s like, “I’m dying. Save me. It’s horrible here. No one can help me, the bread is moldy. I can’t eat. Please bring me food.” Thomas was crying recalling their conversation, crying so hard. I said, “Oh my god, Thomas.” He said, “Ken, I went down to JFK Hospital,” where Francis was. And he said, “It was unbelievable. Mothers andchildren bleeding in the yard, people screaming. It was like a horror show. I could only bring food for one day for Thomas and the chief resident there, the chief doctor, came out screaming, ‘The media is lying about the numbers.’” It was a horrible account ofwhat he had seen with his eyes. He’s a Liberian and he’d seen so much during their civil war. I said, ”Oh my God, this is horrible.” “Ken, where are you?” he said, so I told him. I was standing watching a beautiful sunset in the mountains and drinking a glass of wine. There were probably 50 Ph.D.s within earshot of me. Thomas said, “We have such a crisis. Why don’t you tell everybody, stop their group discussions. I can give them direct access to the government of Liberia with the crisis that’s happening right now.” I said, “I’ll do whatever I can do, man. That’s just horrible,” as I’m watching the sunset over this beautiful scene. So I go back into this group of academics, good people, smart people wanting to do good in the world. I came into the bar and said, “I have a crisis for you to manage.” So when I tried to tell them the story of my phone conversation, one by one they left the room and eventually I was alone. Days afterwards one of them wrote me and said, “I know you were really upset. But honestly, we know how to write about things that already happened, but we don’t know how to deal with things that are actually happening now.”
I have no illusion about my impact on the world. I am just trying to do what I think will help, what will benefit my family, myself,others, and to keep learning along the way. But there was one wish I had at that retreat, to take all that fucking brain power andapply it to something where you can see the fucking stone move. I think it’s a mindset and a culture. Many people, because of their personalities, are led to what makes clear sense for their own little journal-focused world. If it’s peer reviewed it’s impor-tant, right? But if it stops there, and 12 people in Korea read what you wrote, then what good is that? It’s a giant waste of brain power and human capacity. It’s the same thing as having somebody turn a wrench in some factory. That person has potential. When you see somebody with high-end brain power, keeping in it a box in an ivory tower, if only they applied their knowl- edge and were more humble on how to engage with the world and it’s challenges, I think that would be a life well lived, and a struggle worth sweating for, and feeling uncomfortable for. I don’t know how to do half the shit I do, until I go out and make it happen, I figure it out. I partner with others too, extend my abilities and go beyond what I know. I figure things out because it’s worth figuring out, you know? And if I fall, I fall. To that point I’m co-teaching a new class with law Prof. David Crane in the fall, called Media and Atrocity. “Media and Atrocity, ” I’m like, “Whoa.” I may work with the media in post-conflict countries so i’m not completely ignorant of conflict reporting, but I’ve never been a war correspondent, you know? But guess what? I’m gonna figure it out, and I’m gonna make it work. I’m going to learn a lot and the fear of not being an expert in all things media and war will motivate me in a big way, you know? It’s not gonna stop me from trying. I’m gonna find those bad ass people, and I’m gonna bring them into the conversation from communications. And David is going to bring them for the conversations about the Rwanda genocide, you know, from the Charles Taylor trial. It’s going to be an amazing class. We all play our part in the world. I guess some of what I said may come off as judgmental and that is not my intention. I just hope each of us go beyond our comfort zones, extend our abilities and make the most of our time on the planet.