When you walked into the darkroom of the small-town newspaper where I worked two decades ago, you could still smell the chemicals. While no one had used the darkroom recently, decades of vapors from photographic developers and fixers hung in the air.
The red safe lights buzzed and faintly illuminated the enlargers. Until you flicked the switch to also turn on the fluorescent tubes overhead, you couldn’t see the dust covering everything.
Abandoned and ghostly, the room creaked, and I imagined the decades of photographers who stood over their prints, tapping their toes impatiently for images to emerge so they could meet that night’s deadline. But that was years before.
By the time I worked there, digital photography had firmly grasped the newspaper industry. First, darkrooms became obsolete because we could scan our processed 35mm film into the computer. Then, we pushed our film cameras aside in favor of digital cameras. Our darkroom became a storage room ... a landfill.
Standing in the opening of the revolving door, I saw that room as regal yet forsaken, dumpy yet nostalgic, historic yet disposable.
So, when I saw Jeremiah Ariaz’s photographs of rural Kansas newspapers, those contradictions and emotions rose easily.
Ariaz has traveled Kansas to visit and then photograph the offices of small-town newspapers: The Russell County News, Downs News & Times, The Winfield Daily Courier. A photography professor at Louisiana State University and a Kansas native, Ariaz brings a mixture of reverence and urgency to the project.
His collection — still in progress — mixes portraits of the small-town journalists and print shop laborers with dusty still-life images of newspaper artifacts. Ariaz’s images situate the industry facing great challenges while hoping that the papers receive a vital lifeline.
On Oct. 6, Ariaz visited the University of Kansas to show his images to my media photography class. He explained how vital rural newspapers are to our democracy. And he told the stories of editors who refuse to let their newspapers gather dust.
Below are excerpts from a Q and A with Ariaz. The conversation has been edited for brevity.
When you arrive in these newspaper towns and meet people for the first time as part of this project, how are the editors or the owners of these papers reacting to your interest and your being there with a camera to document?
There’s a real range of responses from the people that I photograph. Sometimes I’ll try to get a hold of somebody in advance. If there’s a paper that I really want to photograph that feels like it’s been a significant paper or that there’s something about their history that I’m particularly interested in, I want to make sure that I’ll have access. And so I’ll call or write or whatever in advance.
But most of the time I’m just showing up. And I’ll show up and I will tell them what my interest is. The people vary their responses incredibly. Now, some people will be a little protective and a little suspicious. A guy from the outside coming in with a camera? What are you doing? What’s your intention?
I’ve photographed in so many newspaper offices that the no’s have been few, but there’ve been a few and that has surprised me. There are also newspapers that when I walk in the door and I tell them what I’m interested in, it’s a conversation I feel like they’ve been waiting to have.
And so I walked into the Newton Kansan on their 150th anniversary. And the editor, Chad Frey, had said that he had tried to contact the television news and some other places about, “Hey, this might be a story. 150 years. That’s something.”
There was no response. There was no interest in that story. And here I am walking in the door on that day (of the anniversary). They have a chocolate cake and two strawberry cakes with 150 candles. And I want to have that conversation that he’s been thinking about for a long time.
Can you talk about the decision to narrow the project to Kansas?
I had started (the project) in the battleground states (from the 2020 presidential election). I wanted to see how I could visualize democracy through a photograph in these spaces: Michigan, Wisconsin, the swing states across the country.
And because I was working in the swing states of the country, I was driving back and forth across the country numerous times in the last two years. And so whenever I’d go between states, I was stopping in these small-town newspaper offices. So I’d already accumulated a number of photographs that I felt sort of told this story, but I was telling the story kind of in a national way. And I would never have been able to create a representative sample of the papers that were out there as one person in whatever time that I have.
So I thought I would direct it to Kansas. And Kansas became a window through which I hoped I could speak about concerns that were national, but I wanted a place that I could feel I had a more representative sample. I’ve been to over 50 newspapers in the state so far, and it is through the intimacy in specificity of those spaces.
But I was interested in Kansas because it’s where I’m from. I grew up in Kansas.
I was interested in Kansas because of the rich legacy of journalism here in the state and you know, thinking about the legacy of William Allen White.
And Kansas is a very rural state. And so these towns are positioned about every 25 to 35 miles apart across the state. They have newspapers, or at least they did have newspapers, and there’s no urban center in most of the state that is going to vacuum up those interests or concerns. So these communities really do kind of stand alone.
Your photos trigger — whether it’s a gut punch or nostalgia — some sort of emotional response at a time when the nation is divided about journalism and media. There’s a lot of cynicism and suspicion of journalists and the media. Can you talk about how you feel like small town newspapers fit into this? Whether it’s sympathy or nostalgia that people have for newspapers as a different and a less divisive kind of media?
Well, and so it should be clear that I don’t live in Kansas, and I don’t even live in what would be characterized as a small town.
I can’t point to a lot of examples, but I think about what happened under the previous (presidential) administration, hearing about the press all the time. But the press that I was hearing about was national newspapers, and I think (national newspapers) operate in a very different space, and I think they occupy a different space in people’s minds.
I think it’s easier to deride someone that you’ve never met, someone who’s not in your community, somebody who’s you know, maybe in New York City, who has different concerns. And I think that that’s quite different than what happens in a local newspaper where if it’s a small community, that community is gonna know who the editor is, their kids are probably going to play the ball together on the same team. And it is harder to demonize somebody that you know.
What are the next steps, the timeline and the scope of the project?
Well, when I decided that I would focus on Kansas I wanted it to be a representative sample of what’s here in Kansas. And as I’ve worked over the last month, and have been able to visit over 50 newspapers so far.
I’ve asked myself, is it possible to really get to all the newspapers? So I guess that is my goal. Although I don’t know. Often when I’m traveling to a place, (the newspaper office) might not be open. So many newspapers now may have left their office, even if they’re still publishing. It might be somebody working from home, and that’s harder to access.
I’ve made these portraits of almost all of the offices, these facades, usually on the main street of those communities. They could become a collective portrait of Kansas through those main streets. And so even if I’m not going in, I’m trying to represent the spaces and the project. And I hope that I get to all the newspapers in the time of my sabbatical while I’m here, but if not, I will feel confident that I’ve gotten to a representative sample of them.
But I’m really trying to do everything that I can now because I want it to be when somebody is looking at this project, whether it be now or 50 years from now, I want it to be like a kind of a timestamp to the moment in which it was made. Because this is a historic moment in our country. And this is about the newspaper industry, but it’s also about so many other things that are happening in our country and so it is important that they come from this time.
Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Contact kansasreflector.com.