By Monica Chapman
For Ohio University graduate student Kevin Riddell, storytelling is far more than entertainment. It's about giving voice to the voiceless.
He does it well, as his current accolades would suggest. A former newspaper photographer, Riddell currently freelances for the Associated Press as well as The New York Times while completing his course work at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication.
On Wednesday, after a year's worth of work, Riddell unveiled two of three documentaries produced on behalf of the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs to the school's Strategic Partners Group. Co-chaired by U.S. Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, and noted political strategist and business leader David Wilhelm, the group gathers annually to advise in the school's three key areas: public service and leadership, energy and the environment, and entrepreneurship and competitiveness for Southeast Ohio and the state. As the first presentation of the day, Riddell's depiction of major school initiatives set the tone for a day's worth of strategizing.
The situation was intensified by the fact that Riddell has served as a guinea pig of sorts -- the first student to serve in the role of GVS/VisCom photojournalism fellow. Created to promote the work of the Voinovich School in a viewer-friendly format, the project is now seeking funding for a second year. Riddell's success was critical to ensure that the project established itself as a valuable tool and student experience worthy of investment.
Even if funding sources are identified, Riddell likely won't be here next year to watch the fellowship move into its second year. If all goes according to plan, he'll graduate this June and be well on his way to documentary stardom by then. But Riddell is invested in the work of the Voinovich School. And as he met the eyes of the school's namesake and those of other key partners, he wanted nothing more than to see his test run blossom into a successful story-telling tool for the school.
Riddell's attachment to the Voinovich School is difficult to understand, unless you know a little something about his background.
After a fairly typical middle class childhood in Appalachian Ohio, Riddell's world came crashing down at age 11 when his father lost his job at General Motors. The blow sent his family into a cycle of homelessness and poverty. For four long years, Riddell, his parents, and three brothers struggled to get by, often living out of a car or a tent in the absence of a roof over their heads.
As Riddell's family struggled to recover, food and shelter were the top priorities, Riddell admitted. And a photography career was the farthest thought from his mind. That is, until he stumbled upon a photo essay in Life Magazine.
The essay, "A Week in the Life of a Homeless Family," was shot by world-renowned documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark. And as Riddell paged through the 1987 issue, something clicked. After living for years in the societal periphery, Riddell had discovered a voice.
"She got it right," he recalled. "She made these photos that transported me back to my experience. Before this, I never really thought about the power of an image. I saw this and was immediately impacted by the ability somebody has to give voice to the voiceless. That became a goal of mine -- to learn how to do that kind of storytelling."
It wasn't until years later, at age 19, that Riddell could finally afford to buy his own camera. Six years later, those images still nagging at his conscience, Riddell returned to college to pursue an undergraduate degree in photography. There was graduation, a few years spent in the newspaper industry, and finally, Riddell arrived at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication. It was here that he first learned of the Voinovich School.
"Here's a school that's dedicated to improving the lives of people living in Ohio Appalachian communities. It's a cause that's really easy for me to align myself to because my family is part of the target group, essentially, that this school is trying to help in some capacity," he said.
But putting a human face on work that largely revolves around behind-the-scene tasks was a struggle, as Riddle learned in spring 2008, when he landed the fellowship.
Thinking back to his own experience, Riddell found his answer in the people.
"Being able to give voice to a lot of the stories has really been an important piece of this," recalled Smithsonian Photography Institute Director Merry Foresta, a Voinovich School visiting scholar who advised Riddell over the course of the project. "I think we solved this, thanks to Kevin, with this idea of adding real voices and letting the subjects of the pictures, the people involved in the projects, tell the stories."
The first project that Kevin showcased was a documentary of the Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls, a small, family-owned business in Hocking Hills that has consulted with the Voinovich School's Small Business Development Center over the past four years. The second featured portraits of four teachers and a principal from Marietta City Schools who participated in the Ohio Appalachian Educators Institute, a two-year professional development program addressing the achievement gap facing students in Ohio's 29-county Appalachian region.
A third documentary on the recovery of Raccoon Creek Watershed will be released this spring. The documentaries are available for viewing at www.voinovichschool.ohio.edu/PhotojournalismFellowshipProject.aspx.
Striking a balance between the subject matter and the institute's message wasn't always easy, Riddell said. But Riddell, like many aspiring documentary film producers, hopes to dedicate his career to issues of social significance. And in that sense, the opportunity to work in the non-profit realm was invaluable.
Equally invaluable was the mentoring that was afforded to Riddell over the course of the project. In her first year as a Voinovich School visiting scholar, Foresta conferred with Riddell at least monthly, offering her expert input and direction as the project took shape. Riddell also received frequent technical guidance from Terry Eiler, director of the School of Visual Communication.
"Visual information is so much more powerful and engaging than just asking people to read a text," said Foresta. "What we're trying to do is add that component to the Voinovich School's Web site to better tell the story of what it is they do. To also then give the (clients) materials that they can use down the road and to give a photojournalist fellow an opportunity to do a real-life project as a student."
This idea -- of raising the profile of the Voinovich School while simultaneously benefiting clients and students -- was the foundation upon which the GVS/VisCom photojournalism fellowship was developed. According to Foresta, Riddell's low-key attitude and flexibility was an asset as the concept came to life, "and yet he was clearly able to also bring a kind of intensity to his work with the camera. And that shows in the images."
That intensity was not lost on Wednesday's audience. Nor was the overriding message -- that public and private partnerships can have valuable impacts on the organizations, communities and individuals of Appalachian Ohio.
No stranger to tough economic times, Riddell has a realistic outlook as he transitions from graduate school into an increasingly cut-throat job market. But maybe, just maybe, his past holds a key to success in the current economic climate.
"I know what other families are going to be going through. It's difficult but it also could be an opportunity for me to build a relationship with somebody going through this -- to show that I'm really interested in their best interests as a photographer," said Riddell. "I'm not here to exploit them for what they're going through. I'm here to help give them a voice so people can see what's really happening. I think because I've been through it, it helps me build a bridge a little easier than somebody who has no idea what it's like."