“When you spend your time in places that haven’t been investigated, you can transform our understanding of those places. We tend to think of the world as a well-explored place — but the reality is, there’s still a lot to discover.” — Kevin McLean
On Thursday, July 13, in an event at the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C., the National Geographic Society welcomed the returning class of 2016-2017 Fulbright-National Geographic Storytellers and announced the 2017-2018 fellows who will soon embark on their projects. A component of the U.S. Fulbright Student Program, the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship was created in 2013 through a partnership between the U.S. State Department and the National Geographic Society. Each year, five storytellers are selected for the fellowship, and undertake a close examination of a globally-relevant issue with the goal of breaking down barriers between people and cultures using digital media.
Altogether, the 2016-17 fellows — multimedia storyteller, journalist, and global health researcher Ishan Thakore; multimedia journalist Tim McDonnell; ecologist, conservationist, and National Geographic Young Explorer Kevin McLean; garden educator Lauren Ladov; and photographer and filmmaker Christiana Botic — traversed ten different countries to create stories on pressing issues through a transnational perspective. Speaking to a rapt audience at the National Geographic Museum, each fellow gave a presentation on their project and shared stories that revealed how their immersive travel experiences led to penetrating insights and lasting connections.
Ishan Thakore examined the overlooked community effects of large-scale projects to tame rivers in South Africa and Cambodia, and shared his findings through a film project. His work immersed him in six different languages and demanded that he engage with the past, present, and future of the regions he researched. “There is no single experience, no one story that ties these people together,” he remarked. Through this process, he discovered how the human consequences of taming the Orange and Vaal rivers reveal parallels to the history and policy surrounding the American west. Tim McDonnell, who studied the effects of climate change on food security in three African countries, similarly stressed the importance of considering all perspectives surrounding an issue, and the perceptions of the individuals facing it in their daily lives. As part of a collaboration with his host institution, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, he distributed disposable cameras to 12 coffee farmers in Uganda and asked them to spend a week documenting their personal experiences of climate change. He returned to the area, gave the farmers prints of their photos, and interviewed them about the subjects they chose to photograph. With this footage, he produced a short film that he was able to later share with the farmers he featured — a meaningful opportunity he recognized as being unique to participating in a Fulbright program. (Some of the images the farmers captured with their disposable cameras can be found on Instagram using the hashtag #coffeecameras.)
In addition to sharing insights on their areas of research, the storytellers emphasized the value of building relationships in foreign countries and of learning to look beyond their own personal experiences. Lauren Ladov’s grant took her to India, where she worked on farms and learned about seed preservation. But she also spent two months teaching children at an after-school program in Dubai about seed diversity. She noted that these varied experiences helped to enhance her understanding of the value of diversity in our food sources and our communities, and noted: “I think this experience really transformed who I want to be when I show up to a place.”
Ecologist Kevin McLean traveled to the Malaysia Borneo and the Ecuadorian Amazon, two of the most biodiverse areas of the world, to document some of the least-known wildlife species by setting up motion-sensitive cameras along the rainforest canopy. He now has more photos of the bushy-tailed opossum alive than anyone else in the world. “In terms of the value of a program like this, I think several of us have mentioned the amount of time you’re able to spend in your host country. Showing up, showing your face is how relationships are built, whether those are personal or international,” he stressed. Christiana Botic, who focused on themes of identity, geography, and migration as she traced her own family history through Serbia and Croatia, emphasized the investment of time and conversation that goes into building the type of relationships that are necessary for successful film projects. “Coffee matters,” she reflected, advising the new class of fellows and storytellers that taking the time and initiative to meet with locals, build deep connections, and speak honestly with them — often over coffee — plays a significant role in laying the groundwork for conducting interviews with subjects.
At the conclusion of the event, the National Geographic Society introduced the 2017-2018 class of storytellers, who were named earlier that day: Abby McBride, Destry Maria Sibley, Isaí Madriz, Lillygol Sedaghat, and Toby Cox. The new fellows briefly presented their project proposals, with each proposal exploring an aspect of three National Geographic themes: “Our Human Story,” “Critical Species,” and “New Frontiers.” Visit National Geographic Voices, where the fellows will share their stories, insights, and ideas, and follow their travels over the next several months!
Guest post by Apurva Jolepalem