Originally created 09/09/01

'Chronicle' presents photographer's 2-year project



Most people do their best work when they stretch, when they reach beyond the routine and try to do something new.

A great example of that is a special project starting in today's paper, called From Augusta to Africa. Jonathan Ernst, a photographer by trade, has spent nearly two years reporting this story. It was worth the extraordinary effort, because I think he has produced a gem.

The project is a story of slaves who were freed in Augusta and returned to their African homeland more than 160 years ago. Those slaves helped build the country of Liberia, and one of their descendants became the most influential and powerful president in that country's history.

Mr. Ernst became interested in the story while looking up information for another assignment. He read a paragraph that said William V.S. Tubman, a descendant of former slaves, was elected president of Liberia. After that he was hooked.

"It's hard to say what really pulled me in," Mr. Ernst said. "The more I found out about the Tubman story, the more fascinated I got. It started telling itself."

He is being modest, because no story tells itself. Elizabeth Adams, our features editor and the supervisor of the Tubman project spent many hourson it herself, and had high praise for Mr. Ernst's efforts.

"Jonathan is passionate not just about photography, but about writing and reporting," she said. "He doggedly pursued this project. It took massive amounts of research, countless hours of interviews. A lot of leads seemed to go nowhere, but he never gave up."

Mr. Ernst faced many obstacles, starting with trying to convince his editors that we should send a photographer to Africa to report a story that started 165 years ago. His arguments won out because he uncovered such a rich story. Ultimately, he spent about a month in Liberia and many more weeks in a dozen research facilities in four states.

"To take something that happened in Augusta in 1836 and connect it to what is happening today is really exciting," Mr. Ernst said. "There is a lot of rich history here in Augusta, but people don't have much understanding of some of it.

"Liberia is a place that's hard for some people to care about. This project is something that connects us to other places in the world. It touches on race, religion, war, family. It's a universal story, although at times it is extraordinary."

Mr. Ernst, 29, has been with The Augusta Chronicle nearly four years, covering a wide range of events, from the World Series to President Clinton to the Salley Chitlin' Strut. This is by far his most ambitious writing project.

He was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Baltimore and suburban Atlanta. After graduating from Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, N.C., he worked for the Asheville Citizen-Times before coming to Augusta.

Right now he is continuing to explore ways in which our world connects. He won a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism that will allow him to study at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. In October, he will travel to Colombia to report on America's involvement in that country's war on the cocaine industry.

We hope to publish his reports late this year or early next year, when he returns to Augusta.

Mr. Ernst will return to Augusta to speak about the Tubman series at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, in the C.T. Walker Chapel of Tabernacle Baptist Church, 1223 Laney Walker Blvd. His audiovisual presentation will include a discussion of his experiences in reporting this story and dozens of photos we didn't have room for in the newspaper.

He also will speak at local middle schools and colleges later this month.

To find out more about this series, you can go to the Web site augustachronicle.com/tubman.

Besides Mrs. Adams, other key contributors to the Tubman project were Nate Owens, our graphics director, who produced the elegant graphics, and designer Laura Prichard, who designed the pages. This is Ms. Prichard's swan song at The Chronicle, because she has been hired away by the Kansas City Star.

I hope you will take the time to read the eight-page Tubman section in today's paper and the sections the next two Sundays. It will be a substantial investment of time, but you will be glad you did it.