INC: Pulitzer Prize winner reflects on Scripps experience
University of Florida Professor John Kaplan directs the Florida FlyIns international journalism program and recently revisited Athens to participate in the 2010 International Film+Video Festival and shared his personal account with cancer.
Interview: Cameron Glover
INC: How did you end up at Ohio University?
Kaplan: Iím originally from Wilmington, Delaware. My high school guidance counselor told me that OU is such a good place for visual communications. When I first came to OU, I was deciding whether to go into photojournalism or radio and television, but soon realized that I was a better photographer than a disc jockey. I went back for my masterís in 1997. I was a Knight Fellow and did some teaching while I was there.
INC: What were your immediate reactions when you won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992?
Kaplan: Sometimes information leaks out. The morning that the Pulitzers were to be announced, I had checked around with a couple of the other finalists and heard that I had not won. Of course, I believed it. I spent several hours convincing myself that I wasnít sad about it, because you do have to remember that just to be named a finalist is also an honor. When the phone rang at precisely 3 p.m. that day with Western Union calling me to read me the telegram that I had won, I didnít believe them. I thought it was my friends playing a trick on me. Then I knew that if I had won, once it hit the wire my telephone would go crazy. Sure enough, it hit the wire at 3:20 p.m. It was pretty exciting. It really was a surprise.
INC: Youíve won numerous prestigious awards. Was the Pulitzer the most meaningful?
Kaplan: To me as a journalist, the most meaningful thing is making a difference in society. After a while you realize that the awards can be a nice indicator that you might be on the right track with your work. But, if you want to have a long-term career with continuing growth, then you canít let yourself be defined by yet another set of subjective contests. The Pulitzer, obviously, can make a big difference in your career. It led to all sort of neat opportunities for me. The next thing I knew, a book editor was calling me up and I ended up doing a childrenís book for Scholastic, Mom and Me, which was really rewarding. I just think itís important that you [remember] that you canít come home every night and hug a plaque on your wall.
INC: How did you develop the idea for the Florida FlyIns program?
Kaplan: Along with another professor at the University of Florida, we wanted to advantage of this wonderful trend of the growing Latinization of Florida. At that time, UF really was not doing much to take advantage of the fact that we were at Latin Americaís doorstep. We came up with this idea to bring writers and photographers together working in teams to go to a new country every year as part of an international journalism course. Itís been really wonderfully successful. We have been to many countries and the program has evolved. Over the years, weíve evolved to bring in television, radio and multimedia students. We publish an online magazine, www.internationaljournalism.com Itís a labor of love. We reinvent it every year, and itís really been a game changer for a lot of students, which is really rewarding for me, too.
INC: What was it like coming back to OU for the 2010 Film Festival?
Kaplan: I felt at home immediately, and I was incredibly impressed with all of the new changes, such as the new Baker Center. As a loyal Postie for four years, it was really neat for me to see my third Post location. The first was when I was a freshman in 1978; it was in the Pilcher House next to old Baker. There were literally huge gaping holes in the floor that you had to avoid falling into if you were running on deadline. Then, we moved over to the old Baker Center where The Post had been until recently. In terms of changes to Athens, I was really impressed. I did notice that there seems to be more and more chain stores and restaurants around town and I hope they donít take over what I see as the unique culture of Athens.
INC: Why did you decide to record and share your experiences with cancer in your film, Not As I Pictured?
Kaplan: It was quite accidental. The first two months after my initial diagnosis, picking up a camera was the last thing I would have considered. I took the first picture of myself in my bathroom mirror almost accidentally, and it was really fortunate for me because it became an outlet for me to cope with my fear. I quickly realized that what I was doing had the potential to do a lot of good for other cancer patients and their families. Iíve been in remission for more than a year now and doing well. We have very ambitious goals of getting literally thousands of free copies of this film out to cancer patients, caregivers and family members. Itís also going to be valuable within the medical education field. (www.facebook.com/notasipictured)
INC: How do you have the emotional and intellectual strength to cover sensitive topics, such as torture?
Kaplan: Often in journalism, we want to be objective and not have our work used by one side or the other in a situation. Yet, when it comes to torture, thereís no subjectivity. Thereís such a clear right and wrong to it, and I thought anything that I could do with that work to help bring justice to those people who had been so wronged I really wanted to do. I think that journalists are very much like emergency room health professionals ??ď we both see traumatic situations and sometimes rationalize it as if it doesnít affect us. The reality is that if you pretend it doesnít affect you, it will catch up with you. When I did the torture work, I knew that I couldnít break down when I was literally there taking notes and photographs. But each evening I made sure I spent some quiet time reflecting on what I had seen and witnessed. I always recommend to others that, obviously, you canít fall apart on the scene. You have to stay collected and remember that you have a job to do, but donít push any emotions aside.