Global reporting is vital, but few magazines pay travel expenses anymore. Here's my solution.
A Haitian hounsis, dressed in ritual purple, connects the living with Ghede, the family of voodoo spirits that rule over death and fertility, during the annual celebration of Jour des Morts. This photo was taken in the Grand Cimetiere De Port-au-Prince in Haiti. People who lost their homes in the 2010 earthquake have taken up residence in the necropolis. Photo credit: Tallulah Photography.
[Editor's note: On July 4 in Vancouver, a pair of journalists will present Journeys to the Edge, a multi-media event that also suggests a different way of funding expensive reporting. The Tyee asked Roberta Staley to explain her project.]
A few weeks ago, Conservative MP for Ajax-Pickering, Chris Alexander, addressed a crowd at VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver. A former ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander discussed a range of issues related to that war-ravaged country, including Canada's new role training a nascent Afghan security force.
Following the talk, Alexander fielded questions from the audience. Lauryn Oates, projects director for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan), which organized the event, stood up. Recently, Oates said, she had approached a "major national newspaper" to ask if it was interested in stories about literacy for women and children in Afghanistan, which is the focus of CW4WAfghan's work. Oates was turned down. Alexander smiled resignedly. Next time, he told Oates, ask him why Canadian media are "losing readership."
Why would an organization like CW4WAfghan, which has received millions of dollars in donations from Canadians as well as the Canadian International Development Agency, not warrant international coverage? Is this apathy towards "good news" international stories, as Alexander suggests, one of the reasons for declining newspaper and magazine readership? As a freelance magazine writer, I have viewed the decline of newspapers and magazines with a sense of doom and wondered which markets will continue to exist in the future that will publish such international stories that show the good Canadian individuals are doing in the outside world.
As it turns out, the work of CW4WAfghan will be covered. I have been given contracts from two top magazines to publish stories from Afghanistan this summer. But it is a labour of love. Few freelancers receive expense pay any more -- this is a "perk" reserved for a very few, or those reporting for large media corporations. I have pondered the emerging new business models for online publications, which include donation requests from readers in support of quality journalism. Could a freelancer dedicated to international reporting do the same? Why not give it a try?
This led to the creation of Journeys to the Edge, an organization that will be presenting an eponymous photo narrative. July 4 at Hycroft Manor in Vancouver. The event will feature the creative, beautiful and often-tragic people that Tallulah Photography, who often accompanies me on international trips, and I encountered on our travels in the developing world. Like many journalists who travel to destitute places, I have often returned to Canada with a sense of incompleteness. So many of the people and stories encountered will never receive a write-up. But such stories can't be silenced; the images, sounds and smells are tactile memories that echo in the head and heart.
There is also the unwritten social contract that journalists have with interviewees who, for the most part, respond with grace and honesty to prying questions. This contract is sacred: "I tell you my story because you have the power to make my voice heard." In many places around the world, where grinding poverty, inequality and violence makes day-to-day existence an act of courage, knowing that one's personal story will be communicated to others is the only power such individuals will ever know.
Raising funds to make voices heard
Journeys to the Edge will assist Tallulah and I raise funds to help cover basic expenses for Afghanistan. More importantly, it will provide a stage to tell a host of wonderful, untold stories from Haiti, Colombia and Soweto, South Africa. However, the mandate of Journeys to the Edge goes beyond this singular event. It is an organization that exists to support independent journalism not only in Canada but the developing world. A key objective is nurturing connections between emerging young reporters from other countries and Canadian journalism institutions.
Already, Journeys to the Edge has been successful in having photographer, producer and "fixer" Sebastian Petion of Haiti accepted into the Langara College Documentary Production program in September. Journeys to the Edge also set up a website for Petion, helping him build a business as a fixer and producer for Western media travelling to Haiti for post-2010 earthquake reporting. During our time in Afghanistan, Tallulah and I will also be looking to bring another young female reporter to Canada, allowing her to learn new skills that will enhance the practice of journalism back in her home country.
After our return in September, Tallulah and I will organize another Journeys to the Edge photo narrative, focusing this time on Afghanistan, CW4WAfghan's literacy programs and the many women, men and children we will meet along the way. In this way, we can connect this far-away land to Canada, and show how much Canadians have done for that country and its citizens, and how much more we can continue to do -- so long as we have the information we need to act with wisdom and understanding.