How have the past few days in Istanbul been for you?
Note: The interview took place two days after the Ataturk Airport attacks in Istanbul
I'm obviously very glad to be safe. I am a photo-journalist, but I do not typically cover news such as the Istanbul bombings. If there's an explosion or something, I’m usually not the journalist who is first on the scene and covering it. My experience so far has been shared with my roommates: I live with a Turkish girl and an American girl, and we've just been talking and sharing perspectives. You feel closer in those moments when you talk about this stuff. It sounds really sad, but you get used to it. I’ve lived in Istanbul for a year and a half, and I don’t feel less safe today than I did yesterday or the day before. You move on, you keep living.
Why did you decide to move to Istanbul?
I started my first job at a newspaper in the United States, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and I worked there for about four years. Growing up, I loved Latin America, and in my teenage years, I remember wanting to move abroad to Latin America. After the paper, I moved to Lima, Peru, where I was based for four years. That was my first time freelancing. The work was good but I had this idea that I would live in Lima and cover the entire region, and find opportunities to travel around the region. However, because of the way journalism operates now, and how disconnected the continent is regarding flights, I never really got to report on the rest of the continent. In my four years, I believe I traveled to Brazil, Ecuador, and Argentina once, and the rest of my work was in Peru. It’s also not a very robust news market. It’s pretty hard to get editors interested in publishing things from Latin America sometimes - unless it was stereotypical or sensational. Like, a story about an environmental issue in the Amazon that could affect thousands of people could be hard to sell if the people affected weren't from an uncontacted tribe, or something else sensational. It was frustrating.
Istanbul felt more accessible to me. You can get to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe from Turkey, and there are so many news outlets that are based in Istanbul. When I first moved, I’d never been to Istanbul, so it was quite a risk. It's worked out really well. I’ve been here a year and a half, and I get so much meaning from my work here. It seems like editors and global citizens are interested in what is happening in this part of the world.
You mentioned earlier that photographing news such as the Istanbul Bombings isn’t your type of photojournalism. How would you describe the work you do?
I like to cover stories on the fringe of the news. So, maybe I won’t be at the airport taking photos that night, but I would be interested in following the stories of people it really affected – in their homes, with their families, or in their industries. A lot of my friend’s in Turkey are tour guides, and it’s been really hard to see them in the last few months because it’s meant to be Turkey's tourism season, but no one is visiting. Those are the stories that interest me.
Why do you feel that the Instagram @everydaylatinamerica is so important?
It goes back to what I mentioned about being a journalist in Latin America and finding it very hard to get anyone to pay attention to Latin America unless it fits into this little box of what they think Latin America looks like – something exotic. @everydaylatinamerica was inspired by @everydayafrica (the first of these accounts), and then many followed. The aim is to give a more accurate portrayal of these places, and to show the world how people live, and what everyone looks like. Not everyone looks the same, and not everyone lives in the same way, either. Someone in rural Peru has a very different reality and life experience than someone in Buenos Aires, for example. The idea was to show the diversity of life in Latin America and to surprise and inform people with these images. Make them question what they previously believed about Latin America.
How did you become involved with The Fuller Project International Reporting?
I was freelancing, and one morning I looked at the calendar for my next few weeks, and I had nothing going on. As a freelancer, you start to panic a little bit when this happens. I had been meaning to reach out to The Fuller Project for a long time because I knew they were based in Istanbul. I emailed the founder, Christina Asquith, one morning. That day, I was invited to her house for lunch, and I met with the team, and I was commissioned to film a story for them. I guess it was a moment of good fortune. Since then, we’ve worked together on five videos, all focusing on issues that Syrian teenage girls face in education in Turkey. Really, these are war stories just told away from the frontline. These kinds of stories might be a tough sell somewhere else, but The Fuller Project makes time to tell those stories.
Could you provide some background to your documentary about Peruvian prison aerobics?
When I shoot photos, I like to look for the positive. I will seek out stories of people in bad situations who manage to remain positive in their outlook. I’m always interested in how they remain positive and hold their head up in their situation. So, of course, this example of the gentleman that was in prison caught my attention. In this case, it was an easy sell because South American prison falls into that exotic stereotype. However, you don’t usually see positive stories published about Latin American prisons. This guy Alejandro worked at a gym before he went to prison. While he was in prison, he decided that he would do something worthwhile with his time. So, he started a small aerobics class and started teaching prisoners. Eventually, he got the whole prison behind it! If you watch the video, you’ll see that they were trying to set some sort of record. They had thousands of these prisoners in the yard doing this exercise with Alejandro.
I worked on it with a colleague of mine so it was a joint project. We found out about the aerobics classes from a press release. We followed up with the prison warden, and they let us speak with Alejandro and go back to the prison a couple of times.
Your stories have been published in the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Der Spiegel, etc. Are there any publications that you would still like to work for?
Honestly, it doesn’t make a difference to me whether I’m working for a large newspaper or a small one. I just like telling stories. The publication doesn’t matter to me.
What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to pursue a similar career?
If you’re going to a particular region, and you don’t speak the language, I recommend that as a starting point. In the last few months, I’ve been working with a lot of Arabic speakers. I don’t speak much Arabic, but I’m working on it. Being able to say 'how are you?' in their dialect, or say something sweet, like 'take care' when you leave them can make a big difference in the way people interact with you.
Travel as much as you can. If you’re studying journalism right now, and you’re not sure how to spend some money, then I would always choose to travel. Getting out there and seeing the world, asking people about issues, is so important. There are stories everywhere if you take the time to ask questions and listen.
Work hard, and do not give up. Journalism is a hard career. If you really care about what you do, and you take your job seriously, there’s no reason why anyone can’t be a journalist. Yeah, the model is changing for journalism, but there’s more hunger than ever for informed, good reporting, photography, and videography.
Elie Gardner | Photographer and Filmmaker
Active for 10 years
CV in brief
Studied Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri- Columbia
Affiliations The Fuller Project for International Reporting | Everyday Latin America | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Foto Istanbul | The International Crisis Group Turkey (Ambassador Council) | National Geographic Student Expeditions | Webster University
Exclusive interview by Aisha Babalakin on June 30 2016
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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