As its name suggests, there’s something missing from the logo for NEED, a Minneapolis-based global magazine debuting this week. The word’s first E is gone, and the negative space left behind looks a bit like an electrical plug. Given the publication’s mission of showcasing organizations addressing human need worldwide and offering a way for readers to plug into great causes, it’s smart design. A labor of love by Kelly and Stephanie Kinnunen, NEED’s smarts extends through the magazine that combines the photojournalism of LIFE, the high production values of a coffeetable art book, and the design sensibility of COLORS. The 120-page first issue is packed with stories, conveyed mainly through images by celebrated photojournalists like Steve McCurry, about MercyShips’ floating hospitals that removed a three-year-old facial tumor from a Liberian woman named Marthaline, about the health-through-sports initiative Right to Play and the International Justice Mission’s work rescuing Southeast Asian girls forced into prostitution. Last week, Stephanie Kinnunen took time to describe the magazine, the success stories shared its pages, and how it's being praised as "LIFE magazine for a new generation of photojournalists."
Read the interview...
Schmelzer: One of the first people featured in NEED is Timon Bondo, a Kenyan man who’s been living in the Twin Cities for the last decade. Tell me about him.
Kinnunen: Timon is such an amazing man. He lives here, in Golden Valley. He went back to his village in Kenya in the mid-90s and couldn’t even believe how devastated it had become. There were no adults our age left; there were elderly and children, and that was it. There were no crops planted in a subsistence-farming community. The school had crumbled to the ground. Children had fled to Nairobi, getting caught up in slavery and the sex trade, and there was just no hope for this community. He knew he had to do something, and he thought: I’m going to start with a school… Basically he makes cold calls in order to raise funds. He’s now built a primary school and a secondary school. He’s building a healthcare clinic right now. He’s brought in Lifewater International to dig a well and create a water-catch system for clean water.
PS: You said you’re also impressed by how he’s providing aid?
SK: Right. He’s employing people within the community. So for example, if you want to help a little girl with a school uniform, he won’t let you buy a school uniform. You buy fabric. Then he utilizes one of the local seamstresses and pays her to sew the uniform for the child. He’s taught elderly women how to make bricks in their front yard. One widow is taking care of 12 of her grandchildren because her husband and children have died from AIDS. So she makes bricks in her front yard while the children go to school, then when he does a building project, he buys the bricks from her instead of from the wealthy businessman in Nairobi... I have to tell you one more thing about Timon Bondo—he’s 70 years old and he’s blind. And he’s done it by himself. No business cards, no letterhead, no assistants. He’s done it completely on his own at this end… He’s a giant in my eyes, because he’s really what’s creating the change around the world.
PS: So, who is the target audience for NEED?
SK: It’s everyone. We initially thought our primary audience would be influentials, philanthropists, and educators. But it has blossomed into the weirdest demographic I could express to you. We’ve had foundations call up and say, “We want to use NEED magazine as a research tool on projects to fund.�? One of the top supporters of the UNHCR [the UN Refugee Committee] called us up and ordered 100 subscriptions for his closest friends and family, and 1350 copies to go out to the top monthly donors of the UNHCR. So things like that are happening, but also we’ve received a subscription from an inmate at Moose Lake Prison, a 16-year old high school student in Prior Lake Minnesota, an order of nuns in north Minneapolis, a woman in Virginia who owns a tattoo parlor. It’s really all across the board. We’re a little perplexed by the amazing scope and reach that NEED has for the general public. We hear over and over and over again from photographers, “This is the new LIFE Magazine for our generation of photojournalists.�? That’s such a huge compliment to us. How could we ever—I mean, we’re six people in a warehouse office in Northeast Minneapolis. To hear this could be the next LIFE magazine is such an honor and shock, almost.
PS: The first thing I’m struck with is the magazine’s substantial feel. It’s perfect-bound with great color and good design—like a coffeetable book or art magazine. So of course the first comparison that comes to mind is Oliviero Toscani’s COLORS magazine.
SK: COLORS is one of those magazines we would look for, no matter where we were living. “Ooh, it must be time for the new colors.�? But, yes, sometimes they do have a political slant sometimes. We love the imagery of colors, we love the storytelling of COLORS, but again, we’re inspired by contact. There’s no way for us to become involved with something. That’s the one thing we didn’t like about COLORS.
PS: Two criticisms you might get: The title NEED could be perceived as talking down to people who “need�? charity. And the art-magazine price tag: $9.
SK: It’s human need, and need exists when something’s missing. When people are in need, they’re just like you, they’re just like me. And that’s what we want to show. The $9 price tag; we have a 19.5% ad ratio to content, when we’re full. So you’re getting the highest quality printing, photography, and uninterrupted stories for nine dollars—if that’s to value of you, you see $9 as quite inexpensive. If you see $9 as too expensive, we do have a great website where people can get involved. We definitely have heard some criticism about the quality… We are using our own money. We’re not using charitable dollars. So often aid organizations have such small budgets, and they don’t want to sacrifice budgets that are going to directly helping people in need to promoting their work and connecting potential supporters to their work. We wanted to help in that way. How do we help the people who are helping the people on the ground?
PS: You’ve decided to keep politics out of NEED. Why?
SK: We worked with one photographer for the next issue who said, “Why aren’t you talking about the conflict in northern Uganda? Why aren’t you talking about Joseph Kony?�? Because every single media outlet has to draw a line somewhere about what they’re willing to do and not do… If we put in about the conflict, about Joseph Kony, now we’re laying blame. Ultimately, what we want to do in this story is help the children who have been soldiers, who have been forced to kill others. To us, the conflict, at that point, is irrelevant: it’s, how do we help these children now? We’re not going to do anything by saying, “Oh Joseph Kony is this horrible man.�? But we can do something by helping this one child who’s in a child-soldier reintegration program through World Vision or one of the many other great organizations that’s working in the region. We have to draw the line at some point.
In this issue, we have a story about cooperation, and it’s volunteers working down south after Katrina and Rita. We could’ve done a piece about how the government’s not helping or this or that, but ultimately, what’s that going to do?
PS: Right, one magazine article can’t solve the problem of the government’s incompetence.
SK: Exactly. What we do want to show is that there are volunteers down there now who stopped to do the bathroom and never left. Literally, got lost, stopped to use the bathroom, and they’re still there six months later, a year later. There’s another woman who scheduled five days to go down there on a volunteer vacation. She went home, sold all her belongings, bought a bigger tent, and went back. These are volunteers who are living tents with no water, no shower facilities, no air conditioning. They’re camping out so they can volunteer and help people gut their homes, to rebuild, to help distribute food and clothes, to help set up laundromats so people can wash their clothes. We want to show the great stuff that’s happening—the amazing stories of hope and inspiration. That’s our take. We’re not a news media. We’re not CNN or Fox News, who have their opinions and slants. There’s enough focus on what went wrong. There’s not enough focus on the amazing things that are happening.
PS: Your tagline is “Human. Disaster. Success.�? Is it limited to relief organizations?
SK: Basically, anyone that’s serving anyone in need. In the next issue we’re working on a story within the UNHCR in Colombia with their IDP (internally displaced people) population. Colombia has the second largest IDP population in the world, and no one knows about it. But the people in Colombia are developing peace communities, and they‘re throwing out the paramilitary and the rebels and they’re struggling every day to keep their community at peace…. We’re also doing a story about Product Red and their cooperation. Product Red was started by Bono, and what he wanted to do was inspire organizations to give back… We’re doing a story with Wings of Hope. They’re an aviation organization that’ll go into the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there’s fighting all around them, because there’s a child who’s dying who needs urgent medical care. … My favorite story we’re working on is about child soldiers in Northern Uganda, focusing on the programs to reintegrate these children once they’ve either escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army or been rescued or injured and left to die by the LRA. So all these children have been kidnapped and forced to fight, and it’s very difficult to get them back into their world, their normal world and go to school again after they’ve been forced to kill people…
PS: Anyone reading this interview might get the mistaken impression that reading NEED is like taking vitamins. Like: "That doesn’t sound very fun or entertaining; it sounds like it’s good for me."
SK: That’s a really great point. For me, it’s not. I love the stories. I love knowing that if I give $10 to the Rabondo Community Project USA, Timon Bondo can build half of a school desk. Ultimately, to me, giving is quite selfish. I think we all feel amazing when we give. Whether it’s a Christmas present to our mother or $100 to a charity, we feel good about it, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Photos (top to bottom): Cover of NEED, an Afghani boy in school, by Steve McCurry; Timon Bondo by Justin Grierson; Afghani Girl by Steve McCurry; a volunteer with a homeowner in New Orleans, by Leslie Spurlock.
Great idea! Long needed and I'm sure it will help people grasp what the issues and opportunities are. And they were smart to create something gorgeous to hold and look at. Well-designed mix of marketing, art, and proactive, engaged activism.
Excellent interview. Thank you!