Getting the dirt: The ‘truth’ behind one compelling travel photo

By Ron Reason

For a variety of other essays and collected writings and images of my work in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World, visit this link.]

Since my initial visit to Africa, I’ve returned a number of times and produced thousands of photos. Some have been published in magazines and newspapers; some have been put on exhibit; a number have found their way into my teaching and blog posts.

One image resonates with me in new ways each time I encounter it in the archives:

Truth Be Told. [Photo by Ron Reason]

It’s a simple shot of a scrap of newspaper that caught my eye during one of my initial walking tours through the Kibera slum, reportedly the largest in Kenya and the second largest in Africa. (Though I’m told no census can ever keep a truly accurate account, Kibera is massive.)

I can’t imagine this small detail – just one part of a larger, chaotic, messy and beautiful scene – catching the attention of many people. But something about it jumped out to me.

“… the truth be told …”

A folded, torn scrap of a page, alongside another, revealing local death announcements. All of it mangled by footsteps passing above in the dirt roads of a slum. As a headline writer for many years, starting at The Washington Post, I’m curious how the rest of the headline may have read, the story behind the story, but maybe a little mystery serves me well here?

It happened to be a portion of a page from The Standard newspaper, the client who hired me to visit Kenya over a number of years and help initiate change, to make the newspaper more clearly readable and organized, more visual, more helpful to readers and advertisers, more influential in a corrupt culture. Standard Group is the second largest news publisher in East Africa (after Nation Media), with interests in print, digital, mobile and broadcast news publishing, and it was an honor to work with them, from training of staff photojournalists to creation of new design styles to marketing campaign work to digital and social media transformation.

As printed newspapers were slowly declining in the States, and elsewhere, they continued to hold strong interest in Third World countries like Kenya, partly because the threat from desktop digital access wasn’t so strong yet – broadband access in slums and remote areas remained hard to come by. Investment in the printed paper remained strong, and circulation remained a priority even among slum dwellers, who were passionately interested in the workings of government and by extension, their prospects for getting out.

One of the variety of things clients worldwide have asked me to do is to help them rebrand, sometimes create new slogans that can resonate and define their position in the market. These slogans end up in marketing campaigns, or positioned under the nameplate, or masthead, of the newspaper. As it turned out, among a number of potential new slogans I offered up to them, they selected the following:

“The Standard. For fairness and justice.” 

One day it showed up, without notice, underneath the new nameplate I had designed for the newspaper.

Fairness. Justice. Truth. All were key words we anguished over in pondering finalists for the newspaper’s new motto.

A variation on the motto also turned up among a variety of concepts I presented to management for marketing campaigns, to announce the relaunch of the paper and its commitment to the country. Following are excerpts from some of the creative work I provided them – one special thrill was being able to include my own photography, from extensive visits to Nairobi’s Kibera slum, for use in the campaign:

I return to the “truth be told” photo, a newspaper clipping stomped into the dirt roads of a slum, and recall how difficult it can be to find “truth” in Kenya. News organizations often struggle to communicate and pursue stories internally, making precision and depth sometimes difficult to come by. Government is rife with corruption, and it’s not uncommon for journalists to be roughed up.

Indeed, Standard was the target of a government raid just a few years before my work with them, with masked police storming the newsroom with AK-47 assault rifles, detaining journalists and ransacking computers and desks.

“Truth be told,” if you have the stomach for it.

Long before “fake news” became a concern in U.S. politics, mainstream newspapers in Kenya, Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent were often accused of “selling” space for stories, to corporate interests, government officials, or others with special interests. So to claim, up front and center, that you stand “for fairness and justice,” is about as bold a stand as a news organization can take.

My work with Standard, and photos from travels throughout the country, continue to serve as a good reminder of how fragile a free press is, around the world. For more information on threats to the press worldwide, visit the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists. My former employer, Poynter, the nonprofit international school and advocate for journalism integrity, also publishes frequently on threats to a free and independent press.

I love sharing examples like this from my own work and travels, with students at U of Montana and elsewhere. Yes, they may end up writing about beautiful beaches in Bali, but I’m hoping those with a bent for travel and storytelling end up finding so much more.

Of related interest:


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