MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT | THE GROUNDTRUTH PROJECT
This interview with Lauren Bohn was recorded on 22 March, on the evening of the Brussels bombing.
The world can be so sad.
How do you make it better?
I don't know how you make it better, but a question that I'm more focused on is how do you make people more aware of our shared humanity?
Is that why did you chose journalism?
I became a journalist because I wanted to show people what was going on outside of their own backyards. If you don’t have the luxury and privilege of travel, the only way you’re exposed to “The Other” is through the news and storytelling.
I come from a middle-class Philadelphia suburb, and I went to a high school that was ethnically, culturally and ideologically homogeneous. I was always interested in diversity of thought, of stepping outside my own comfort zone. Journalism was a way to experience the world and to learn more about other cultures and other people. More importantly, I saw it as a way for me to channel everything I learned and gathered about a world so seemingly far-removed from people.
The foreign press corps, and the intelligentsia in general, we sometimes run with a self-righteous conceit that the things we report on, that we analyse are so inherently interesting. How could others not be interested? How could others not care? It has somehow become a fait accompli that a typical human doesn't care about international news; that they just don’t care about “The Other.” I think that's grossly incorrect. They just haven't been presented stories or information in a way that is accessible, interesting or relatable.
I don’t want to gloss over important differences in world views or ideologies, but at the end of the day, humans want similar things. We want to eat good food. We want to be with our loved ones. We want to be sustained by a purpose larger than ourselves, to feel that we’re doing something useful and important. It’s easy to lose sight of these commonalities. Storytelling is an empathy-generator, it’s a reminder of our shared humanity. It’s a way to get at the sleeping universals that lie beneath it all.
When people call me a “Conflict” journalist, I cringe. Conflict isn’t what I’m interested in. I’m interested in humanizing, in contextualizing…in teaching you something about your own life through the lives of others. “Their” stories our so often “our” stories.
You say you went to quite a homogeneous high school. How do you go from there to be based in Turkey as The Ground Truth Project’s inaugural Middle East correspondent?
Some of my earliest memories are of my rummaging through old copies of National Geographic. I always wanted to place myself in different situations that exposed me to “other” ways of life.
I went to an all-girls Catholic high school. While I have a lot to say about that experience, as well as organized religion in general, I’ve always admired the spirit of service that the nuns not just preached, but lived. When I was a sophomore, they organized a community service project to the Dominican Republic, in a little village called Banica, on the border of Haiti. I couldn’t sign up fast enough. They assembled a small group of about 10 students and we went there to help build a school.
One night after a long hot day on the border trying to hammer wood planks, I took out my journal. I was 15 years old or so and I remember writing beneath a mosquito net at this little convent where we were staying: "This is what I want to do." I didn't even know what "this" was, but I think it was putting myself in a situation where I knew nothing and acknowledging I knew nothing and realizing that I had so much to learn and so much to bring back with me. So much to share. The most exciting part of that volunteer experience was coming back to my high school and doing a presentation for my classmates about what we learned and the fraught dynamics on the ground between Haitians and Dominicans.
Some time after, I spent some time in Appalachia, in West Virginia, helping to refurbish a house. From an early age, I was obsessed with traveling abroad, but that experience served me a good lesson: You don't have to go across the world to report on poverty and development issues. You don’t have to go far to place yourself in an environment where the only thing you can do is listen. The admission that I so often know nothing is a firm part of my constitution. It's a liberating spirit of curiosity I've carried with me.
You did your undergrad at NYU. How was it?
The great thing about New York University is that you don't really go to a college. New York City is your classroom. While I had incredible classes like the Supreme Court and Religion Clauses with John Sexton, the president of the school - so intimidating, but amazing - the highlight was interning at great news outlets. I interned at Cosmopolitan Magazine, which was super interesting because I minored in gender studies. Cosmo was a great, if not often sad, glimpse into the gender representations at one of top-selling magazines in the country.
Then I interned at CNN for a year with the documentary unit with Christiane Amanpour and Soledad O'Brien. The unit is no longer there, which is a woeful reflection of budget cuts and priorities of mainstream media.
I also interned at Time Magazine, and got the chance to write quirky things,including interviewing the paleoanthropologist who discovered “Lucy,” and the always eccentric Marilyn Manson. At CBS News, I interned for a unit that focused on the LGBTQ community.
To be able to take on some unpaid internships, I was a Resident Assistant at NYU, which compensates with a meal-plan and free housing. One of my greatest pet peeves is that a lot of great learning opportunities are unpaid. Experience and access are then limited to those who can afford them. It’s a huge injustice that we’re trying to combat at GroundTruth and Foreign Policy Interrupted (FPI).
After NYU, I went to Northwestern University for their one year Master’s journalism program. A week after my last class, I moved to Egypt on a Fulbright Fellowship.
Why did you choose Egypt?
Growing up post-9/11 and taking some courses on media studies at NYU, particularly regarding representations of Islam and Arabs with brilliant scholars like Helga Tawil-Souri, really opened my mind. At the time, I thought there was no other place to go that was so crucial in terms of fostering cross-cultural understanding and humanizing the other and showing that the whole notion of the other is problematic to begin with, than the Middle East. Egypt was an incredible entry point into putting those beliefs into action.
I moved to Egypt in 2010, about five months before the Arab Spring. As my part of my Fulbright, I helped start the Cairo Review of Global Affairs out of the American University in Cairo. I was slowly coming up with story ideas to pitch the big outlets…trying to figure out how to cut my teeth as a foreign correspondent. There’s no handbook. You just have to do it. Admittedly, I was often intimidated to lean in…to pitch the bigwigs. I was just 23 or so, with a couple months under my belt. What the heck do I know? I thought. Who I am to report on these complex stories?
Soon, the uprising started and it was baptism by fire. The “Who am I to do this” negative self-talk was silenced by louder voices. I was there as a witness to history, but more importantly, in service of those whom I wanted to learn more about the world. It’s a good reminder and something I always try to tell others when they’re in a funk (including myself!): get out of your own head. Get out of your own way. Do the work. It’s in service of something larger than yourself.
Did you have a role model in terms of foreign correspondents?
In college, I was obsessed with Christiane Amanpour. When I got the chance to intern with her, I practically peed my pants. On the first day of the internship, I met her by literally bumping into her on an elevator. We were only for a few floors or so, but I basically vomited so much praise and enthusiasm and all the geeky things. Afterwards, I ran to the bathroom to call my mom.
Toward the end of my internship, I got the chance to sit down with her and talk about my plans and goals. I went in with a notebook, a recorder – "I have to take in all her guidance", I remember thinking. She had to hop on a last-minute flight, so our time was cut in half. “The only thing I can tell you…to advise you,” she said. “Is to just do it. You want to be a foreign correspondent? OK, then be one. Go. Move. Just do it.” I remember being kind of disappointed. I wanted a road map, guideposts. But it’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received. And some of the most frequent advice I give: Just do it.
I always reference and recommend Cheryl Strayed’s brilliant advice to a young writer. It’s aptly called “Write like a Motherf****r.”
What is the most important thing you learned in Egypt?
Egypt was an intimidating place to cut my teeth, because the country already had a high concentration of talented, veteran journalists. How the heck would I distinguish myself? When you're a young woman starting out, it can be especially challenging. I wanted people to take me seriously. I wanted to establish myself as a “serious” journalist. And look, I have a high voice, I’m a bit goofy, I’m very peppy, and I like wearing a lot of lipgloss. Those traits can rankle. I didn’t feel like I could be “myself.”
But after about a year or so of deep-diving and getting into the nuances of the Egyptian political crisis and producing wonky foreign policy pieces, I realized that I wasn't staying true to my mission. My mission was to show the world what was going on outside of their backyards in a relatable way. I’m not saying that it's mutually exclusive to produce nuanced, hard-hitting foreign policy pieces and humanistic storytelling, but I've always wanted to be a humanizer. And I wasn’t doing that as much because I was so concerned about having gravitas and being this “serious” foreign policy expert.
I’ve since realized I'm never going to be Christiane Amanpour, and that's okay. I can only be Lauren Bohn, quirk and red lipstick and all. I want to be Lauren Bohn more than I want to be anyone else.
How did you get to accept yourself?
Like anything, it's a journey, not a destination. You have to reaccept yourself every single day. I love this passage from Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: "I used to think truth was eternal, that once I knew, once I saw, it would be with me forever, a constant by which everything else could be measured. I know now that this isn’t so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work all our lives to remember the most basic things."
Where does Foreign Policy Interrupted (FPI), an initiative to amplify female foreign policy voices in the media, fit in?
Around three years ago I started developing Foreign Policy Interrupted with my best friend and foreign policy expert, Elmira Bayrasli. FPI has been about supporting other women and trying to attack these institutional and internal barriers that hold women back from expressing their truth, their expertise. Elmira and I are constantly practicing what we preach: we remind each other to lean in, to lean out, to lean backwards, to downward dog, to Namaste... We're constantly checking in on each other.
By "foreign policy," we mean anything international relations-related: entrepreneurship, journalism, consulting, development, etc. We meet women from all walks of life. But we have picked up on a common thread – and that’s one of fear, of not wanting to mess up, of not wanting to get it wrong, of not wanting to be ridiculed or ostracized. That's a very human tendency but there is a socialized aspect to it.
Generally, women fear putting themselves out there. Some men have similar fears, but in general, men tend to peacock when they're insecure whereas women tend to go inward. That’s problematic when you're talking about the media, which is so outward facing. You do have to put yourself out there. You have to voice your opinions. That's terrifying because there is a high likelihood that people aren't going to like you, that people will disagree with you. In general, women and men process and respond to these dynamics differently. Plus, this “confidence gap” doesn’t occur in a vacuum; women do receive more flack than men do. So, yes, we want women to lean in, but we need to make sure they’re leaning into a space that values them.
When our fellows or other women we consult come to us seeking advice, they’re often asking for permission to put themselves out there. We’re trying to create a challenging but nurturing space. Sadly those spaces don’t often exist because the thought-industry is so competitive and the pie is perceived as being so small – especially among women.
Other people’s lives, women or men, always look better than yours from the outside. How do you deal with it?
We’re about to launch a vertical that gets at this problem. Social media massively distorts our realities and expectations because it only shows us highlight reels. Everyone’s lives end up looking like a Diana Vreeland-styled magazine spread. It’s all too easy and tempting to compare your insides to people's outsides.
I’m not sure what the antidote is, but we need to start showing our vulnerabilities and fear, which is hard, if not horrifying. But it’s everything. Because if I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s that no one of us have anything figured out. We’re all just trying to do the best we can. Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
A couple months ago, I brought our FPI student-fellow to a book club that my friends and I have in Istanbul. We read A Little Life, which is – in a word – intense.
I wanted her to come to that book club discussion because I knew the book would trigger an interesting conversation on vulnerability, intimacy, and fear. I wanted her to see how we're all kind of struggling at the end of the day. It's okay to not have your shit together all the time. But you wouldn't necessarily know that if you're just looking at glossy and enviable Instagrams. We need to remind each other and ourselves that we’re all just works in progress.
Many women come to us because they see so-and-so posting brilliant bylines in top publications and they don’t understand why they don’t have the same. They don't realize that so-and-so got those bylines only after a pile of rejected pitches, after mountains and “failure.” No one sees the cutting room floor. Mine’s littered with them! Or I guess I should say sprinkled. "I love my rejection slips," wrote Sylvia Plath. "They show me I try.”
Eventually, the more you apply for things or put yourself out there, the more you are titanium when it comes to rejection. You have to learn not to take it personally. Eventually, you warm up to the water.
You've got the Ground Truth Project, and you work on School Cycle as well, and you've got FPI. How do you do everything?
I don't think I do everything. Sometimes I have days where I just don't perform as well as I could or want. Today, for instance, I have three deadlines hovering. I have two reporting trips to plan for.
I was supposed to follow a very detailed to-do list for today, and even time myself monotasking via the Pomodoro app, which you have to try! But it’s a beautiful day and at noon, I decided to go to a park for an hour or so and read a book completely unrelated to my work. Just last year, I would have never done that. I would have been overwhelmed with guilt. I'm getting to a place where I'm okay with that.
I've gotten better about taking time out to chill and to process things. “Busyness” is held up way too much as a virtue.
We give gold stars to people, especially women, who “do it all” and who have so much on their plates, and we don't give enough space to a conversation about how you can't do everything. You need to take time to process things, to just be a human.. Sometimes you need to lay down in a park for an hour and do absolutely nothing.
One of my few regrets is when I was just starting out in Egypt. I was so deep into a story that when one of my mentors invited me to travel with him and his best friend to Ethiopia, I turned it down to report on a local elections in an obscure Egyptian government. “I can’t take a break right now!” I barked at him. “This is so important!” Well, yes – it was important, but everything is important. It’s a marathon, not a race. In hindsight, I probably would have learned more from a week in Ethiopia than I did “working” in Egypt.
Myopathy is a curse. You can’t let your “work” define you. You miss out on life that way. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who's on our founding board for FPI, is a brilliant foreign policy mind, but she really didn't become a thing to the mainstream until she wrote a piece for the Atlantic Magazine called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” She really got to the core of so many insecurities and anxieties, especially for women. Again, no one has it figured out.
How do you connect everything you do?
It gets to a place of my wanting to create more access for people. I want to democratize conversations and give people more options, whether that's a school girl in Malawi with SchoolCycle, giving her the chance to ride a bike to school, to make her commute to more safe and efficient; or if it's giving someone who's reading my story on the way to work in Chicago new insight into what's happening with the Syrian refugee crisis, which is now modern history’s worst humanitarian disaster; or whether it's giving a woman, a foreign policy expert in Texas, the tools to get on the New York Times op-ed page, it's all about creating access.
I want to wake people up to their own power. The guy reading my story in Chicago might not have the chance to travel to the Middle East and to meet people one-on-one and to sit and eat with them like I do. He doesn't get a chance to see how resilient and wonderful some of these people are and how he’s actually not much different than they are. I'm trying to bring that experience to him, and I'm trying to democratize that experience through storytelling.
The world can be a really ugly, awful place. I’m an optimist, but a cautious and informed one. My lens aren’t rose-colored. I’ve seen things that you can’t unsee. Sometimes you just want to curl up under a blanket and binge on Broad City all day. And that’s OK. You have to accept the reality of things, but you don’t have to accept its permanence. There is always light. There is always resilience.
Lauren Bohn | Middle East correspondent at The GroundTruth Project | Co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted
Eight years' experience
CV in brief:
Career so far: Co-founder of SchoolCycle | Columnist at Foreign Policy magazine | Grantee in Egypt of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting | Founding Assistant Editor of The Cairo Review of Global Affairs | Overseas Press Foundation fellow at Associated Press | Fullbright Fellow at the Fulbright Commission in Egypt | Intern at TimeMagazine and CNN
Inspired by Lauren's career? Here are related job opportunities: Employment opportunities at Foreign Policy | Apply to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting | Submit to The Cairo Review of Global Affairs | Careers with Associated Press |
Exclusive Skype interview by Lucie Goulet, 22 March 2016