The Fact That Changed Everything: Jon Vidar and Tiziano Project

"We leave with friends in these communities and with stories that would never have been told otherwise.”

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From the smartphones we hold in our hands to the hybrid cars we commute in every day, the world has seen an unprecedented rise in technology and connectivity. Yet, in a world where YouTube reaches more than 800 million unique users per month, 42 million people in the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes with nary a blip in our collective radars.

Seeing the imbalance of media attention on human justice issues, Andrew McGregor, Jon Vidar and Thomas Rippe, photojournalism students from the University of Southern California, were inspired to do something to rebalance the scale. They co-founded the Tiziano Project to share voices that may otherwise be heard.

Named after intrepid veteran foreign correspondent Tiziano Terzani, the Tiziano Project focuses on empowering the voices of people living in conflict and post-conflict communities participate in the world dialogue by teaching them new media skills.

“We had a sense that with YouTube, journalism is going to change. The importance of a Western journalist parachuting into a community, living there for two months and reporting on the conflict wasn’t going to have the same value as the local community perspective,” recalls Vidar, now Executive Director and the most active of all the founders.

The Tiziano Project was first a scrappy affair funded by student loans and credit cards. It was only after running programs in Rwanda, Kenya, Congo and Somalia that the project hit its stride by winning a $25,000 Chase Community Giving grant in 2009 to run a three-month journalism program in Kurdistan.

Kurds clamored to bring the Tiziano Project to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “Hundreds of Kurds voted for us,” says Victoria Fine, Director of Programming. “We had a man in London who we call the miracle Kurd. He was calling people in villages all around Iraq explaining in Kurdish how to sign up for Facebook and vote because people wanted it so badly.”

By this time, the all-volunteer group realized that to be sustainable, they can’t simply teach journalism, but they also have to provide an inviting platform. “[Usually,] when journalism projects are done, they just put up everything up on Tumblr or Wordpress—something just to show the work. A lot of these projects are poorly funded, the last thing they’re going to spend money on is a hugely interactive website,” says Vidar.

The irony is that to get visitors, one first has to build an inviting home. So Tiziano Project did just that. While in Iraq, Chris Mendez, Tiziano’s technology director, put in hundreds of unpaid hours to build 360 Kurdistan, an immersive non-linear platform that displayed the stories produced by the students and their professional journalist mentors.

As the Tiziano Project had hoped, the stories told on the site were those that almost never got into mainstream media, but also somehow made Kurdish life more real to viewers.

“When we went over, we were thinking that the students would want to report on conflict from their own eyes, but in reality, we went to Iraq and [the students] didn’t want to report on war. They want to report on their culture and their community and the stuff the world doesn’t see because all mainstream media chooses to report on is the conflict itself,” says Vidar of media’s myopic tendencies.

The reports covered a wide variety of day-to-day Kurd life. It included a glimpse into the life of a nomadic Kurdish family raising sheep by the border, but also of a world-traveling pastry chef who eventually chose to stay in Kurdistan.

360 Kurdistan was a resounding success. The Tiziano Project beat out CNN and NPR to win the award for Community Collaboration in last year’s Online Journalism Awards. They also took home the Activism award from SXSW Interactive, a Gracie Award for women’s issues and two Webby Award honors. Topping it off was a $200,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to scale what they began in 360 Kurdistan. Plus now, the group has recently been nominated for the American Giving Awards by JP Morgan Chase. (To help them win up to $1 million so they can continue to empower communities worldwide, visit the Tiz the Season campaign page).

After a year of hard work on 360 Kurdistan, the Tiziano Project launched at Dokufest, a preeminent documentary film festival in Kosovo. Built for the iPad and optimized for the web, Storiesfrom is an ultra-slick upgrade from the already engaging 360 Kurdistan platform. Vidar hopes it will be a place not only for stories produced by the Tiziano Project, but also for other communities with like-minded projects. He is now actively looking for organizations with beta projects that want to test out the Storiesfrom platform.

While in Kosovo, the team also taught Kosovar youth how to create professional level documentaries with nothing but an iPad. “[The results] were fantastic. They went beyond our expectations,” says Fine. The stories will soon be available for viewing on Storiesfrom.

Working within the Tiziano Project has never been easy. From managing tight budgets to negotiating extremely delicate political lines in Israel, Vidar has seen his share of stress and unwelcome surprises, but he perseveres. “What keeps me going are the students. In every single one of them, you can just see the transformation of these students. [At first,] they come in kind of hesitant—about us, the technology, our motives. After the two month program, we leave with friends in these communities and with stories that would never have been told otherwise.”