When the Press Association of Jamaica's (PAJ) National Journalism Awards Committee named its Videography Prize for Ken Dawson it was paying signal tribute to one of Jamaica's most accomplished and well-loved media practitioners. Ken, who died on November 2, 2022 at age 84, was regarded by his peers as dean of the community of video camera operators in Jamaica for decades.
It is not widely known that the diminutive Dawson was born, not in Jamaica, but in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 13, 1938. His parents, Eric and Josephine Dawson lived in Haiti for several years, with his mother passing away in that country. His Jamaican father returned to Kingston with his family when Ken was only six years old, in 1943. Young Dawson attended Windward Road Primary School, before moving on to Kingston College, where he graduated in 1956.
His apprenticeship in photography was served in his father's Kingston photo studio, where he learned pioneering darkroom processing skills, including colour printing for still images — a technique that was in its infancy in Jamaica at the time. Ken's father eventually headed the Photography Unit of The Gleaner newspaper, where Ken's older brother Winston was later to become a photojournalist.
Ken Dawson's interest grew in the direction of moving images, and he was hired in 1963 by the newly established Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) as a photojournalist. He soon moved to JBC's Film Unit, where he became chief cameraman and the go-to professional for visual and moving images.
Acknowledging his immense talent, the JBC sent Ken on a number of training courses, including within British and German media institutions, where he acquired advanced competence in cinematography, lighting, and sound. These skills were to prove vital in the development of the early JBC-TV, and in the creation of a repertoire of local television productions in which Ken served as director of photography. These included JBC's recording of Oscar Wilde's poetic drama Salome; performances by Jamaica's National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC), as well as many recordings in the Music and Youth TV programme series, under the guidance of acclaimed TV producer, Wycliffe Bennett.
Ken was also delegated to cover major news and public affairs assignments, including coverage of campaigns by Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante, and later of former prime ministers Hugh Lawson Shearer, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga. In the late 1970s, Ken was extensively deployed, for example, in Manley's international travels to Caricom summits, official visits to Cuba and to other international destinations and events.
I had the good fortune of meeting Ken when we worked together at the JBC in the mid-1970s and where we would be jointly rostered for news assignments from time to time at locations throughout the country. As one of a group of young reporters at JBC at the time, I relied heavily on his experience and skill as an ace cameraman.
I remember in December 1976 being assigned with Ken to conduct and record a TV interview with Bob Marley at his Hope Road home (now the Bob Marley Museum) shortly after Bob had been shot and injured by gunmen who invaded his house in what is regarded as an attempted assassination. In that rare local television interview with Bob, Ken, the videographer, was reassuring and effortless, as he captured Bob's every expression and every response. He expertly documented the evidence of the bodily injury sustained by Marley, and property damage in his domestic and recording studio settings, where we interviewed him.
Ken and I maintained our friendship over the years, as he established his own videography business in Kingston in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, when I joined The University of the West Indies' (UWI) academic staff after a period of work and study in the UK, our paths were to cross again professionally when I recommended him to be the freelance, in-house videographer for the then Mona School of Business (MSB) at The UWI. There he skilfully covered MSB's public affairs events and video recorded the in-class deliveries in our speech and communication sessions for successive cohorts of graduate students. Whether working on a high-profile news assignment abroad, on a complex theatre production locally, or in routine video recordings for educational purposes, Ken was the consummate professional, with a calm attitude, a disarming demeanour, and always a welcoming smile.
It was fitting that Ken's reputation as a master videographer was acknowledged by his peers through the naming of the PAJ's videography award in his honour. While receiving numerous such accolades, Ken Dawson remained a humble and accessible professional, making himself available to provide technical advice and assistance wherever his skills were needed.
He devoted a great deal of his time to his family and interacted regularly with his network of close friends and fellow videography professionals. Through his exemplary career with the camera, Ken Dawson made a major impact on the lives of many who regarded him as an icon in his field.
His passing came only a few days after the death, on October 25, of another legendary media personality, the actor and broadcaster Leonie Forbes, with whom we worked at JBC in the 1970s. May their souls rest in peace.
Ken is survived by his wife Elsie; sons Graham, Keino and Hanif; as well as daughters-in-law; three grandchildren; nieces; nephews; surviving siblings; and many devoted friends.
A celebration of the life of Kenneth Graham Dawson will take place Friday, November 25, 2022, at Roman's Funeral Chapel, 23 Dunrobin Avenue, starting at 1:00 pm. The service will be live-streamed on YouTube.
Professor Hopeton Dunn is an internationally established scholar, academic administrator and researcher in the field of media and communications, based at University of Botswana. He is also senior research associate, School of Communication, University of Johannesburg. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.