Andrew McGregor… has a plan

Jane Pojawa

It would be a mistake to underestimate Andrew McGregor. He doesn’t look like an activist, or a journalist. Not really. The first impression is the surprise of meeting someone who, at 6 feet 9 inches, is just impossibly tall. McGregor is full of surprises.

His sea-green gaze is calculated to stop evil in its tracks. It is the kind of look that might engender the response of breaking eye contact, mumbling an apology and walking away quickly from a susceptible person.

His disarming laugh starts as a heh-heh-heh homage to Beevis and Butthead. The sort of laugh that precedes a statement like “fire is cool.” But he doesn’t say that. “Our society cannot be allowed to ignore genocide,” he says, dispelling the assumption that he’s just a goofy nerd with a vast arsenal of obscure pop culture references – ’80s songs, Haile Selassie and the emerging science of synchrony might come up in conversation – to unleash on the unwary. And Andrew McGregor has a plan. He is using the tools of journalism to end war.

McGregor, 29, is the founder and president of the Tiziano Project, a non-profit with the stated goal of “creating self-sustaining, multimedia, online citizen journalism in areas of the world neglected by the established press.” To do this, he is building teams of media mentors to train citizen journalists on the ground in Rwanda, Congo and Iraq.

It is a plan that is at once simple and complex, and the surprising aspect is that he approaches the issues confronting refugees more like a coach than an academician or an aid agency.

“I played football in high school. I quit football because what we did on the field was pretty messed up [in terms of unwarranted violence]. I quit basketball because the coaching is exploitive and controlling.”

To elucidate, McGregor had what would be considered an ideal NFL lineman frame. As a senior, we weighed a solid 295, attended the biggest football school in Colorado (Cherry Creek High School) and was dealing with the expectations of coaches, teachers, classmate and team that he was going to “do something” with his football career. What he did was quit over what he describes as “soul-annihilating violence.”

“In this case [high school football] I was really, really good at something and projected to go very far with it and stopped doing it on principle,” he says. “I suffered a kind of adolescent [repercussion] for quitting.”

Basketball took the place of football in college. “I think that basketball coaches are largely deranged,” he says “but I was also injured in college when I was 20 and had a choice of rehabilitating my knee for something that didn’t really matter anymore or leading a more interesting life.” So much for sports, but in terms of building teams and motivating players, McGregor has lost none of the competitive edge. He is going to win.

“I met Andrew in an early-morning, coffee-injected photo editing class taught by Rick Meyer, former photo editor at the L.A. Times,” says Thomas Rippe, Tiziano Project Director of Operations for East Africa.

“It was my last semester [2007] and I was looking at a couple of years at a job at small-market media house somewhere after graduation when Andrew waved a ticket to Rwanda in my face. I took the ticket.” And with that, The Tiziano Project recruited the equivalent of what in basketball would be a star forward.

“There is an enormous discrepancy between what life is like in these places and what you see in the mainstream media,” says McGregor. He proposes to bridge the divide by preparing talented locals to contribute to mainstream media outlets and to keep the cycle going by mentoring new students.

The inspiration for The Tiziano Project came from a series of experiences McGregor had in his extensive travels, notably inciting incidents in Auschwitz and Belgrade. At the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Poland, Nazi Germany’s largest concentration and extermination camp facility, McGregor observed that only two photographs that now exist were taken by the prisoners themselves, and realized how the most damning evidence of the Holocaust – photographs taken by the liberating armies – might not have survived to bear witness to the events that occurred there. “It felt immoral to have YouTube and undocumented mass-murder at the same time,” he says, observing that many places where “ethnic cleansing” and other atrocities occur paradoxically have Internet connections.

“The reason Belgrade was significant in informing Tiziano,” he says, “is that the locals took me around on a ‘look what your country did to ours’ tour.” It was a vastly different rendition of the Bosnian War than the one he had seen portrayed by the media. “I witnessed the results of US precision bombing; remarkable, really. Milosevic’s police headquarters is in the middle of a row of buildings and it was imploded whereas the other structures around it weren’t touched. You can see lots of things like this. Then I was shown the old Chinese Embassy, which as you may recall, America hit and then cited ‘old maps [by way of an excuse] in the face of a diplomatic furor. It’s 300 yards away from other buildings. It’s in the middle of a field. So the ‘old maps’ thing…Complete bullshit.”

The two epiphanies merged in what could better be described as “The Tiziano Experiment.” The experiment worked, is now several projects and can be mobilized for short and long-term training programs anywhere in the world.

“We scrounged together a couple of small digital cameras and a couple of digital recorders before I left,” continues Rippe. “I arrived in Rwanda with a couple of contacts but with no projects established. Through friends I met here I found a place called Maison des Jeunes (French for House of the Youth), Rwanda’s largest youth center. They have lots of programs for kids including soccer, basketball, soccer, martial arts, acrobatics groups, quiz games, a film club, computer classes, all kinds of stuff. The programs are vitally important here because there are so many kids.”

“Birth rates are high and life expectancy is low, Rippe continues, “About 60 percent of the population is under age 24. I started teaching photography to a group of eight 18- to 25-year-old students who were all volunteers at the center. They got some great shots of life in their neighborhoods, but their main interest was in documenting and promoting their work at the center.”

Rippe also helped start a youth radio program at Maison des Juenes and began mentoring professional journalists in radio production.

“My role was to show Andrew the power of photographs,” says Rick Meyer, McGregor and Rippe’s instructor for “Photo Editing for the News Media,” offered by the Annenberg School for Communications at USC. “In my class, Andrew discovered that images can change world opinions. By giving cameras and sound recording equipment to people without a voice, Andrew empowered them to tell their own stories. The Internet levels the playing field between the traditional media and outfits like The Tiziano Project.

What the Tiziano does is visual journalism. It’s kind of a hybrid process of citizen journalism with still/video images and sound. The local benefit is that the locals learn real world skills and the possibility of a career and income. Andrew is an unsung hero to me. His determination and organizational skills are the reason The Tiziano Project is a success. Andrew always knew where he wanted to go; I just provided the driving map.”

McGregor, didn’t start out his academic life as a journalist, or even a writer or photographer; at Connecticut College he majored in philosophy and had a minor in Italian. He started traveling. “I went to Italy and that changed things because my friends were Croatian and Serbian and Libyan and Italian and it was a wonderful, transformative time,” he says. In a roundabout way, this led to the impossible name “Tiziano Project,” which sounds more like a progressive jazz ensemble than anything else.

“Andrew’s pretty difficult to miss,” observes Michael Parks, a journalist and educator whose resumé includes “interim director of the Annenberg School of Journalism at U.S.C.” and “editor of the Los Angeles Times.” “What he proposed is basically a straightforward photographic project – there are lots of them happening worldwide – but the critical difference that [The Tiziano Project] is happening in war zones. Andrew is not involved in journalism, so much as civic engagement. It reminded me of an old friend, Tiziano Terzani, who I knew in Hong Kong and China, and I suggested the name.

“Have you read Tiziano Terzani?” asks McGregor with characteristic enthusiasm. “A Fortune Teller Told Me” is in English now. Add it to your Amazon list.” Tiziano Terzani was an Italian who became enamored of Asian culture in the mid-1960s. He learned Chinese and became a correspondent for a number of European news agencies. Remarkably, he entered Vietnam as Saigon fell and remained there for several months documenting the war and its aftermath. Terzani’s legacy is honest and courageous reporting in the face of mortal danger. His respect for the cultural values of indigenous people in the face of economic encroachment would be considered, in today’s parlance, “sustainability.” Terzani died from cancer in 2004. McGregor sought, and gained, Angela Terzani’s blessing in naming his citizen journalism mission after her late husband.

Somehow, the first-name-basis of “Tiziano,” makes the whole endeavor seem fun and casual. It isn’t. In an area that has been in near-constant turmoil since colonization, the death toll in central Africa is staggering by any standards. The Second Congo War (1998-2004), which followed directly on the heels of the First Congo War (1996-1998), killed more than 5.4 million people. It was the deadliest conflict since World War II, and yet it drew little attention from the Western world. Eight African nations, as well as about 25 armed groups, were directly involved in the struggle to dominate the region and its vast mineral wealth. An estimated 250,000 women have been viciously raped, and Reuters claims that 45,000 people die every month as a result of the ongoing human rights crisis.

That is another surprising thing about Andrew McGregor: he’s not morbid. Although surrounded by death and destruction, he sees hope and potential. He believes that the project’s stellar students, women like Solange Nyamulisa and Sandra Ingabire, are giving a voice to their experience, and that the Western world will not be able to dismiss them.

“Here’s why Congo is f*cked up: the war is constant and if one correlates a map of where the battle lines are, they correspond precisely to where the mines are,” McGregor wrote in one of his frequent posts. “Because the conflict is based around a series of mines, Congo is essentially a mafia state and the war has no possible political conclusion.”

He adds that because UN Security Council members such as Russia, China, France and America have the greatest interest in the mines, there is no incentive to establish political stability to the region, and that is the real story, one with no celebrities in UN blue hard hats or cute mountain gorillas.

In addition to the The Tiziano Project, McGregor has recently received his master’s degree from USC’s school of professional writing. Except that there really is no “in addition to.” Finding ways to fund, promoting and recruiting for The Tiziano Project is what he does 24-7.

His writing does not follow an impartial journalistic style. It is a deeply personal rant, a travelogue and a plea for understanding. It is the literary equivalent of “the green gaze” a thinly veiled threat; “your evil ways will be exposed and I will name you, I will shame you publicly, if you do not redress this issue at once,” is the implication.

And so he holds ex-boxer, grille master and general celebrity huckster George Foreman personally responsible for capitulating to a cartel of the morbidly obese, when he writes about his own adventures as a man of substantial stature; 6 feet 9 inches tall and 280-pounds, who is too thin to buy underwear at the Big and Tall Store. It’s genuinely funny anecdote, but also carries a deeper social message. He has the same wrath for politicians, the mainstream media, and perpetrators of economic injustice; the other villains who populate his stories.

Last July, The Tiziano Project conducted a two-week-long pilot workshop in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Sulaimaniyah. Two of the project members traveled overland from Turkey, and so were in the region for about six weeks. The fundraiser didn’t go as well as he hoped. McGregor sold his car to contribute more funds. He is now at the mercy of friends and public transportation. “I’m not from L.A., so I’ve bought cars and sold cars; it really isn’t a big deal, the project needed money,” he laughs. “But the guys on the team acted like I cut off my arm.” Hearts and minds? “Not really what I intended, although it had that effect. It was worth it.”

It was worth it. Jon Vidar, Tiziano’s Interim Executive Director, is now back in Iraq documenting refugee camps in the Kurdistan Region. Becky Holladay, a teacher/mentor with the Tiziano Project spent last summer teaching photojournalism and multimedia to teenagers in Mathare, a slum area outside Nairobi, Kenya. This summer Holladay is investigating a Superfund site in Columbia, Miss. that was remediated by the EPA 10 years ago but is still so polluted that nearly all of the impoverished residents suffer from environmentally caused illnesses. Other projects in the planning phase include a visit to New Orleans and media training for landmine survivors in Angola. Funding is scarce, private donations and micro-grants fill some of the gaps and regular fund-raisers are held for specific projects. The bulk of Tiziano’s work is conducted on a volunteer basis.

But McGregor sees opportunity, and his methodology is utterly unexpected. He doesn’t have delusions about being able to feed vast numbers of refugees or provide medical treatment for entire camps. He just needs to get some cameras and computer equipment to some bright, motivated individuals, give them some basic technical training and then mentor them until they are contributing to Western news agencies.

“We do this with almost nothing,” he says. “If we could even pay our field agents as much as an elementary school teacher, that would be great. The thing is, these programs don’t really cost a lot of money and they do a lot of good. People in these African nations are smart, they’re resourceful and they are capable of documenting their realities.”

Reuter’s reported that from 1997 to 2007, over 1,100 journalists worldwide were killed in the line of duty, most in war zones. The Committee to Protect Journalists puts the 2008 total at 41, with 11 more for 2009. Many more have been injured or jailed.

Although Tiziano Project journalists have not been specifically targeted, there are inherent dangers in working under war-zone conditions. Jon Vidar has had to travel as an embedded journalist with the U.S. Army in Northern Iraq. McGregor got a concussion while suffering from dehydration in Congo. Gunfire is commonplace, as are disease and deprivation.

Michael Parks is concerned. “Andrew has to live with the possibility of danger. ‘Acceptable risk’ is a personal determination, and we have talked about the consequences of these actions. Empowering individuals may also put them in danger. It is a heavy responsibility.”

Although this work is incredibly dangerous, McGregor insists that he does not have a death wish. “Philosophically, death should not be feared by someone who has had an honest and meaningful life. A life not lived to the fullest is not fully lived.”

Continuing this line of thought through his Tiziano Project mission statement, he writes “as I have discussed the program with other journalists, I have also discovered an encouraging truth: there are many young, courageous journalists and people out there enthusiastically willing to put their lives at risk to expose to light the darkest corners of the human condition. All that is needed is support to bring about expansive and enduring change.”

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