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Roberta Staley and Tallulah of Tallulah Photography have been working tirelessly together to illuminate the oft-untold stories of the Global South. Their collaborative project, Journeys to the Edge (or J2E), is not just highly engaging, narrative-based journalism; as a fundraising organization, it also seeks to support emerging journalists working internationally, encouraging independent and objective reporting from the field.
On Thursday, June 27th, Staley and Tallulah will be hosting Afghanistan Rising at Chapel Arts, a fundraiser that will showcase the work produced by J2E as well as that of Dr. Lauryn Oates, the projects director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. Guests will be introduced to a roster of fascinating individuals, including “world champion Qu’ran singer Ahmad Reshad Mamozai, a female politician who is fighting for gender equality and rule of law, members of Afghanistan women’s boxing team, and an Afghan-Canadian cardiologist who treats everyone for free – even ex-Taliban.” Additionally, a portion of the money raised will go to Young Women for Change, a youth organization in Kabul working to transform deeply entrenched misogynistic attitudes.
Intrigued by Tallulah’s and Staley’s keenly observant style of reporting, I spoke with Staley about her motivations, experiences in the field, and views about the state of journalism today.
VIA: What was the motivation behind you embarking on this project?
Roberta Staley: Last year, J2E co-founder Tallulah Photography and I received contracts with ELLE Canada and Trek magazines to cover the work of the NGO Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan). Run entirely by volunteers, CW4WAfghan has contributed significantly to the development of Afghanistan, especially Afghan women, who were brutalized under the Taliban regime, which ruled from 1996 to 2001.
Into this shattered nation with its traumatized populace stepped Dr. Lauryn Oates of Burnaby, the projects director with CW4WAfghan. The organization, with funding from Ottawa as well as Canadian donors, has done yeoman’s work helping rebuild Afghanistan’s decimated education system and initiating gender equality projects and teacher training programs. I felt that it was important to disseminate to a broad Canadian audience the positive work that Oates and Cw4WAfghan were doing. There has been so much negative publicity over the years about the fallacy of keeping NATO troops in Afghanistan. Yet their presence as a security force allowed huge advances to take place for women and civil society.
Our presentation, “Afghanistan Rising,” will showcase the resurgence of culture, politics, education and gender equality since 2001. It is important that the public realize how much will be lost — and how much effort and lives would have gone to waste — should the Taliban regain power following the withdrawal of Western troops in 2014.
VIA: Your website, Journeys To The Edge, presents narratives that are charming, intimate, and frank in equal measure. It’s a refreshing move away from some of the more clichéd representations of Afghanistan in mainstream media. Could you speak to me more about your particular modes of storytelling, and the importance that this holds for you?
RS: For me, good reporting and storytelling is about communicating the effect of events — environmental, political or economic — on individuals. This involves capturing what some in mainstream media might consider the smaller, less dramatic, or less ‘newsworthy’ stories. If you are telling the story of a nation, in this case Afghanistan, then it is important to communicate that farmers can now bring their harvest vegetables to the open-air markets and be safe from insurgent attacks. It is important to know that girls from conservative, rural families attend school, take national exams and apply to university. Such stories are just as telling as the dramatic, blood-soaked ones, for they are indicators of the efficacy of international aid and foreign diplomacy.
VIA: What do you hope to achieve through introducing this project to a Canadian audience? In your view, how do you think people will respond to your project and these narratives?
RS: I hope that “Afghanistan Rising” will give the audience a broader understanding of Afghan society and an awareness of the struggles and achievements of its citizens. I also hope that the audience understands that it is in the best interests of the West to maintain military, economic and political assistance to Afghanistan to ensure it doesn’t slip back into the hands of the Taliban, a major destabilizing force in the region. The Taliban continue to be a threat in Afghanistan; they have set up shadow governments in 33 of the 34 provinces and continue brutal acts of intimidation. Recently, Taliban members beheaded two children in Kandahar province as a warning to villagers not to cooperate with the national government. It is a legitimate fear that women MPs, students, teachers and athletes would be persecuted once again if the Taliban regains power.
“Afghanistan Rising” is also a showcase for the magnificent photography of Tallulah. The audience will be entertained as well as informed about Afghanistan’s geopolitical and national complexities.
VIA: A large part of your project is connected to your collaboration with journalism schools across the world, and your advocation for strong independent journalism internationally. How do you feel about the state of journalism today? Has working with emerging journalists changed your opinions about your profession?
RS: Venerable North American media outlets are in decline due to the speed and reach of the Internet. Smaller budgets mean that foreign reporting by media corporations has been cut. In light of these circumstances, it is vital that North American media cultivate relations with journalists on the ground in other parts of the world, so that we continue to have access to good, reputable reporting of international events. Media outlets in other parts of the world are dynamic and growing. Canada has deep expertise in journalism thanks to our j-schools and institutions like the CBC. We should be generous and set up programs to train and nurture emerging young journalists from the developing world. This will help benefit the global citizenry as a whole and ensure that Canadians have access to credible foreign news. I don’t think that we can — or should — depend upon social media for information from abroad. Twitter and Facebook cannot replace objective reporting.
Through Journeys to the Edge, which has the mandate to support the development of emerging journalists, I hosted a student, Sebastian Petion, from Haiti last year. Petion attended the Langara College Digital Film Program in Vancouver. This effort emphasized for me the value of promoting journalism abroad, as Petion now works as a video journalist and is an active member of the Haitian media.
VIA: What was the most important lesson that you learned on your travels?
RS: I have learned that preparation and caution will keep you safe, whether it’s in a war zone or a place devoid of such basics as electricity or food. I have also learned never to underestimate the sense of wellbeing that a small package of dried fruit and nuts, clean water, a scented candle and a good, cheap murder mystery can generate when stuck in a hotel room at night, listening to the sound of strange booms off in the distance.
Purchase tickets to Afghanistan Rising at Eventbrite.
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