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Allyn Gaestel: International Journalist
Allyn Gaestel, an international freelance writer and journalist currently based in Lagos, Nigeria, depicts her worldview in an exclusive interview with Pressing the Future’s Jessica H. and guest Martha Lewand. Let’s take a look at her story.
Jessica: Could you describe how you got your start in international journalism?
Allyn Gaestel: Sure. My first job in journalism was covering the United Nations in New York. I was able to get that job in part because I had traveled so much during college. I took advantage of summer opportunities and study abroad opportunities so I had some experience. I was working at the United Nations for a newswire and then the earthquake in Haiti happened and I was covering the response of the United Nations to the earthquake. I was skeptical of what they were telling me and I started to do some reporting with Haitians who were living in Brooklyn and who were traveling back and forth and Skyping with people in Haiti and kind of started building up connections and then I decided to go and see for myself. I did a bit of networking while I was in New York at different cocktail parties at the UN. If I met anybody who worked for a news outlet or any editors, I would just beg for their contacts and tell them that I was moving to Haiti even before I knew. I was like “I’ll be in Haiti in a couple months, can I file some stories for you?” and they’d be like “sure!”. I had a couple editors who said they would answer my emails and then I went down and started working on some future stories and then a lot of news started happening and that’s when I was able to meet some journalists who were flying in just to cover the news events—“parachute journalists,” I call them. When they had to go back after a week, when the story was still unfolding, I would tell them, “You know what, I live here. I can keep covering this for you,” and that’s when I started building up my curriculum vitae [CV]and working for a lot of the big outlets.
Jessica: How have your experiences defined your worldview? In other words, how has your approach toward the world changed after living in a developing country?
Gaestel: I think everywhere I live has really entered me and affected me and really changed the way I see the world. I think it’s important to live in the places we are writing about as much as possible and to be open to the process of transformation that happens when we encounter other ways of being. I think a lot of the questions that I’m asking through my journalistic projects are also questions that I am asking of the world and of myself. It’s always been very philosophical and personal and a bit conceptual and I’ve always connected with the intellectual communities in the countries where I’m living. I’ve really talked about my work with artists and thinkers in the place itself. I think everything about my worldview has changed based on my experience of where I’ve lived.
Jessica: What has been the most challenging story of your career?
Gaestel: I did a story on infanticide in Senegal. That was very challenging in part because of the state I was in. I had some personal stuff come up and I had kind of stepped back from the heavy reporting of human rights and trauma that I was doing before that when I was younger. It was my first time back in the thick of it again and it hit me really hard. It was exhausting to come across some of the stories. I think that was the hardest one, it was a mix of what I was reporting on and how it touched me personally and how it had affiliated with the things that I had experienced.
Jessica: What is your opinion on American news outlets both in the way they convey news topics and what they choose to cover?
Gaestel: I do think that there is a problem with the way that the mainstream media culture is in the US. I think that too many American media outlets maintain their center in the West, maintain their center in America, and narrate the rest of the world in constant comparison to America. I think it would be better for American readers and American journalists as well as readers all around the world. Nowadays when you publish something, it’s on the Internet, so it’s read by people outside of America too. I think it’s really important to shift the center of our stories and write in a way that we understand that the people we are writing about are going to read what we are writing. I think that would improve journalism, which would improve American’s accurate understanding of themselves and the world. I think that right now, the media does kind of feed very American, egotistical framework for the world, which I think is damaging for everyone.
Jessica: While traveling abroad, what is one experience that has shaped, scarred or changed you?
Gaestel: I feel like I’m in a constant state of evolution. I feel affected by a lot of people that I meet. A very early and very formative experience was when I lived in Mali. I was kind of “adopted” by the head of the NGO that I was working for. Her name was Kadida Djenepo and she was a very powerful, very dynamic woman who really taught me a lot about femininity and that was kind of the first time I really started to grow into myself as a woman. I didn’t really identify with my femininity before that, I was kind of like, “Just call me a person, I don’t even want to deal with this,” but it was with her guidance that I started to grow into that, so it was quite formative.
Jessica: What has attracted you to stay at the places you have lived? Why live instead of just [take] a trip or shorter stay?
Gaestel: It’s always a very intuitive, energetic thing. I just kind of feel my way through where I am. For a long time, I was looking for a place to live and I would go to a country and say, “Nope, this isn’t it,” but when I went to Lagos, I was like, “Oh, this might be it.”
Jessica: What has your experience been as a woman working with investigative journalism and international living?
Gaestel: It’s so funny. People have asked me that a few times, and it’s hard for me to narrate because I have nothing to compare it to. I think I have a constantly evolving understanding of femininity that is very informed by the places where I am. I understand power dynamics in different ways. I think that I don’t have a very basic, classic, White, Western, feminist view on power and oppression. I think my understanding of power is constantly shifting so I feel coherent, like myself, and enjoy the different expressions that I have in different contexts as a woman.
Jessica: When and how did you get into photography and documentary videos? How do these relate to your work as a writer?
Gaestel: My photography is not documentary photography, it’s more art photography. It’s taken me a really long time to have that be identified as part of my work. That’s only started in the past year or so. I’ve been shooting pictures forever. I studied photography in college and I think also high school. I was curious about photography for a long time, I’ve really liked photography, but I’ve often worked with photojournalists and I’ve never really been drawn to photojournalism. Photography is a much more emotional practice for me, it’s a spiritual practice, a way of entering a space, it’s something that I do vey compulsively. I don’t set out to document something—I have this urge to make a photograph, and then I do. I have so many pictures that I’ve been taking for years, which also feed into my writing process. It helps me notice and be present in a space to be taking pictures. It’s a loving way of engaging in a space for me. It’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve started growing into myself as a photographer and coming to understand that I can have this photography practice that is not a documentary practice and that’s okay. I started showing work and pushing it out in outlets that are more literary or artistic. I don’t really identify with the frameworks for putting information into photographs that is essential in a photojournalistic realm. I want to communicate in an entirely different realm with my photography.
Jessica: What are your goals for the future? Which stories are you looking to share next?
Gaestel: I’m still growing. My vision for what I want to do next is constantly shifting. I’m excited about some more personal essays that I have coming out and am interested in watching my photography evolve and grow a bit more. I’m also excited for some upcoming stories I have from northern Nigeria and Kinshasa.
Jessica: As a professional, how do you keep your human desire to help separate from your journalistic duty to not interfere with the story?
Gaestel: That’s something that’s also changed over time. I think that being fully present with someone can be a healing experience for people and I try to only do interviews in that way. It’s very important to me that the work I do is not extractive, but people have the desire to be sharing with me, so they are. That is one way that I try to make it a positive experience for everyone involved. The question of help is complicated. I think I’m becoming ever-more human and constantly evolving my awareness to have a more nuanced understanding of myself and my privileges, and the ways that it is possible to help and the ways that it is not. When you are dealing with an entire context of poverty, I don’t have enough money to help in the way that people would expect me to. I have to be honest and try to be as human as possible with people. I always try to feel when it makes sense.
Jessica: What advice do you have for aspiring young journalists?
Gaestel: Yay! Shift your centers. Shift your center to wherever you are writing about. Read widely. Question standard narratives. If you can expect your story, or write your story before you’ve started, then you’re probably missing what’s actually going on, because the “meat” of it is always complicated, nuanced, and unexpected. Stay open for something you’ve never heard before. There’s no need to write cliché. I find that when you get to the heart of a story, they’re always inspiring for people until you get to that point.
Want more Allyn? You can check out her website at allyngaestel.com/.