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Pablo Corral Vega, NF'11

Ecuadorian photojournalist and 2011 Knight Latin American Nieman Fellow Pablo Corral looks back on his Nieman experience and lessons learned during his year at Harvard.

June 2011 – Gathering around a fire to tell stories is the most ancient and human of rituals. It is the means through which communities are built, families are held together, and friends become friends. Soundings, the cornerstone of the Nieman Fellowship, are nights when fellows take turns sharing their personal histories, talking about their hopes and needs, their frustrations and dreams. It would be difficult to speak of a Nieman family—something that all fellows refer to by the end of the year—without this intense personal sharing that goes beyond journalism, science, or philosophy.

For me, one of the striking discoveries was the fact that fellows are chosen not only for their talents and professional accomplishments, but also for their humanity, their ability to share and be part of a community. Nieman curator Bob Giles led the selection process for my class; my Nieman family bears his stamp of intelligence and kindness. In mid-May, a reunion of all the Nieman classes from the last decade clearly showed the deep appreciation and affection we all feel toward Bob Giles. A high bar has been set for the next curator.

When I started my Nieman year, I was determined to perfect skills I use in journalism. But by the second semester I realized that the great value of Harvard is precisely the importance that this university puts on the humanities, philosophy and thinking.

In my “Dreams and Literature” class, taught by Professor Panagiotis Roilos, I traveled from Greek philosophy to contemporary psychology, trying to appreciate the complexity and mystery of dreams and their symbols.

In a class taught by David Carrasco, the extraordinary professor of Latin American religion, I heard the music of the continent and read with delight pre-Columbian and contemporary texts. Professor Carrasco repeated again and again "Everything is religion,” which is to say every culture is steeped in mystery. David Carrasco gives life to the sacred, revealed with a contagious passion and dedication.

One of the most captivating classes was undoubtedly the “Science of Happiness,” a journey through the latest findings in neurobiology, taught by Dr. Nancy Etcoff. In this class we considered several key questions: Does happiness exist? Is happiness the primary reason for life? Is it possible to find happiness in work, sex, love, drugs, family, religion or community? What part of the brain does happiness come from? The fascinating aspect about the specialization of mind brain, and behavior is that all questions are considered from the point of view of both science and philosophy.

I continued this semester with my exploration of the future of the image with the brilliant MIT professor Ramesh Raskar. For a photojournalist and artist like myself, exposure to MIT has meant discovering that science and technology are powerful tools that transform and redefine society.

Part of my time has been dedicated to organizing, with my friend Loup Langton, the new POYi Latin America contest in affiliation with the oldest photojournalism contest in the world, Pictures of the Year. We received more than 17,000 images from 700 photojournalists, making it the biggest contest of the continent in its first year. This has allowed us to showcase the extraordinary talent and dedication of many photojournalists in the region. The POYi Latin America contest is a project of Nuestra Mirada, a network of Latin American photojournalists I started a few years ago with the support of the Knight Center for International Media at the University of Miami.

Harvard and the Nieman Fellowship are transformational. One arrives seeking to acquire knowledge and skills. One leaves with no certainty other than that it’s necessary to see the world with curiosity and wonder: So little do we know, so little can we know. The "I only know that I know nothing" of Socrates is the engine of science and thought.

We should approach what it is to be human on tiptoe, silently, as one coming upon the greatest of mysteries. The axis of journalism must always be human beings with their passions, their needs, their sorrows and joys.

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January 2011 – I never imagined the Nieman experience would be so intense and profound. I knew I was coming to Harvard, a global hub of knowledge and research, but I didn’t realize that the people I met here would change my way of seeing and approaching the world.

As journalists, we are prisoners of our reality, bound to our histories, to the issues we think we know. The Nieman year allows us to pause and imagine other worlds, to interact with people and areas of knowledge that we would never come across in other circumstances.

Harvard offers access to an almost unlimited range of resources, but for me the greatest opportunity has been learning from the other fellows and the staff of the Nieman Foundation.

The Monday "Soundings" talks have been my favorite recurring event. Each of the fellows discusses life, anxieties, and aspirations. We tell stories from personal and professional experiences. The gatherings are extremely rich because they are authentic; no one is trying to prove anything. In these wonderful exercises we discover that even though we come from different countries and cultures we share a common humanity. The “Soundings” have turned a group of strangers into a family.

I have remained busy since arriving at Harvard. I've developed ties to the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School of Government and participated in a number of activities. As a lawyer specializing in constitutional law, I gave a talk on constitutional reforms in Ecuador and Venezuela and the consequences for the practice of democracy. I also sat on a panel discussing relations between the U.S. and Latin America as part of the Herbert C. Kelman Seminar on International Conflict. And I presented work I did for National Geographic magazine on the tango in Argentina, an event to which we were able to invite two of the most famous tango dancers.

During the first semester of my Nieman year, I joined the Camera Culture group at MIT’s Media Lab. I took a class with Professor Ramesh Raskar on the future of imaging. That course’s curriculum, aimed at engineers and programmers, let us explore the imaging potential of sensors and computers with a focus on how the technology could transform our ability to perceive and understand the world. I also took a class with Professor Irving Singer, one of the most important philosophers at MIT, on the philosophy of art. Much of our discussion in that course was dedicated to the implications of the neurobiology of creativity.

I also have continued to strengthen Nuestra Mirada (www.nuestramirada.org), a network of Latin American photographers created under the auspices of the Knight Center for International Media at the University of Miami. And, with Loup Langton, I am organizing a Pictures of the Year contest for Latin America and a conference on documentary photography for 2011. I am also talking with several centers at Harvard about possible future collaborations with Nuestra Mirada, the contest, and the conference. One of my goals in the next semester is to build an online network for current and former Nieman journalists, along the lines of Nuestra Mirada.

The Knight Foundation’s invaluable support has allowed a number of Latin American journalists to accept Nieman Fellowships. The Nieman experience is transformative and revelatory.


Nieman Fellowships for Latin American journalists are supported by a generous grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Nieman Foundation values the long relationship it has had with the Knight Foundation in educating journalism leaders who work throughout Latin America.