Peace Through Storytelling: Ian Curcio Photographs Kiran Singh Sirah for The Rotarian Magazine
Believe it or not, one of the most popular people in Jonesborough, Tennessee is a decidedly Type A British-born Sikh named Kiran Singh Sirah.
As Ian Curcio learned, Kiran expertly melds a “global citizen” mindset with a genuine love for Appalachia. The Greenville, South Carolina-based photographer made the two-hour trek to Jonesborough to meet and photograph the former Rotary Peace Fellow for The Rotarian Magazine.
The Art Director, Jennifer Moody, found me through Wonderful Machine. It was my first experience with Rotarian Magazine, and Jennifer was delightful to work with.
As was Kiran, who has been the president of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough since 2013. ISC is a nonprofit that has hosted its annual National Storytelling Festival since the early 1970s. Every October, the festival brings in visitors from all over the world, doubling the population of a town now known as “the storytelling capital of the world.”
This assignment was my introduction to both Kiran and the International Story Center. I'm looking forward to experiencing the festival with my family next year.
Despite global recognition, ISC went through some tough times at the beginning of this decade. In 2010, the center filed for bankruptcy and took nearly two years to get itself back on stable financial footing. Since arriving at ISC in 2013, Kiran has almost single-handedly lifted the nonprofit to new heights. He’s forged partnerships with organizations like the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation and the Google Cultural Institute, raised funds from Silicon Valley philanthropists, and created a free downloadable toolkit called “Telling Stories That Matter,” which “teaches educators and business leaders how to collect, share, and present stories as a way to build community.”
The creative direction was very specific. Jennifer wanted to make sure we had him in the same outfit with a variety of poses/expressions/emotions against white, so she sent along a mood board with examples. From there, I just explored Kiran's personality. I only spent a few hours with him but he seems to be driven by focus, compassion, and an understanding of the power of storytelling. He required very little direction, to be honest.
The time Ian didn’t spend instructing Kiran was instead used as a bonding session and a chance for the photographer to learn what makes his subject tick. The way that Kiran approaches life can perhaps be summed up by the story that leads the Rotarian's write-up, penned by Jeff Ruby. A small, insignificant group of white supremacists planned a Confederate rally in Knoxville in August of 2017, two weeks after the Charlottesville conflict grabbed international headlines. Kiran went to Knoxville but didn’t attend the rally or join the 3,000 counter-protestors, who predictably outnumbered the hilariously sparse gaggle of 35 nationalists. Instead, Kiran went to “an alternative interfaith rally that celebrated diversity.” Here’s his reasoning for not going to that Confederate rally, which he posted on Facebook before heading to Knoxville:
Channel that anger and figure out your own best alternative-non-violent means, skillset, and talents to contribute to a better world. Activism also means writing, telling or collecting stories, mobilizing, working on policy, offering a service, writing a letter, getting educated, educating oneself, and being part of a community garden.
Now, let’s be honest. Those sentiments aren’t going to resonate with anyone unless they come from a person who backs up words with action. But as we’ve learned, Kiran gets things done. The International Storytelling Center has never been healthier than it is right now. It has a budget of $1.2 million, a yearly regional economic impact of $7.6 million, and employs more than 100 people in part- and full-time positions. Not bad for an organization that was bankrupt as recently as 2012. When asked what makes Kiran so effective in his role, Thelma Kidd, chairwoman of ISC’s board of directors, had this to say:
Storytelling is, indeed, worldwide and cross-cultural — and Kiran is a natural connector with people and organizations who share our belief in the power of story to change people’s lives.
The gregarious immigrant — who still has his British accent despite being stateside for nearly a decade — has become a pillar of his community in large part because of his aimiability. When you read the story, you learn that Kiran has a distaste for small talk, preferring instead to dive deep into substantive conversation with the people he meets. It’s a personality trait that made the assignment a walk in the park and has endeared him to the people of Joneborough.
The shoot took place at The Storytelling Center Theatre. We spent two hours talking and shooting. Afterward, we went across the street and had lunch. Not much conversation there, though. Kiran knows everyone, and everyone wants a minute of his time.
An empathetic individual with a truly unique backstory, Kiran maintains a jovial outlook on life in spite of his potentially traumatic past. The son of an Indian-born father and Kenyan-born mother, Kiran was raised in England, where his family settled after being forced to leave their previous home in Uganda. The only Sikh child in his community, Kiran was attacked multiple times during his upbringing — including once at the age of five by a group of Neo-Nazis. In 2011, with numerous degrees and a lengthy humanitarian résumé in his back pocket, Kiran attended UNC in Chapel Hill, becoming a Rotary Peace Fellow while at school (hence the Rotarian profile). A few years later, he found himself in Tennessee and has been there ever since, bringing the same positive energy to small town America that he has everywhere else he's been.
Kiran was a ball of energy from the very start. He was excited about the shoot and fully engaged. We're both day-long coffee drinkers, so that was a good place for our conversation to begin. It didn't take long to realize that the Kiran I was interacting with was the same Kiran everyone else interacts with. His personality doesn't change based on his environment or the company he's mixing with. He is unapologetically himself.
On paper, it doesn’t seem like a laser-focused British Sikh with an outsized personality would fit in a laid-back place like Jonesborough. But, as Ian found out, there’s a best-of-both-worlds dynamic that both Kiran and his community have embraced.
I think the juxtaposition between the Type A individual and the Type B town is a perfect balance for Kiran. From the outside looking in, it appears the people of Jonesborough need Kiran every bit as much as he needs them.
Check out more of Ian's work at iancurcio.com.
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