Ten years ago I read a story in the New York Times that moved me. It told of the transforming power of art and photography for a group of young Guatemalans. The story, which you can read here, moved me to such a degree that I emailed the author and told him.
This is what I wrote:
“I wanted to tell you how encouraged I have been by your stories over the past couple years. A (long) while ago you wrote a story about a New Yorker who started a library in Panajachel that later burnt down. That story struck a chord with me, in part because I had been to Panajachel, but more because it told the story of someone who used their skills and abilities to reach out and it really did make a difference. Since then I've noted your name and the sort of lyrical style of your writing and read your features with interest. Today's article about the Fotokids was just as inspiring and uplifting.
Having moved to Australia just out of college two and a half years ago I've felt a long way away from my upstate NY home at times-- so The Times has been my link in a way I guess.
I am a journalist too, and though most of my work has ended up in trade magazines or press releases, I keep interviewing and writing about the people and issues I care about as much as I can. I hope someday my words will encourage others as yours have encouraged me.”
The journalist sent a thoughtful reply that concluded with this advice:
“I hope you find the time and place to write about what you care for most deeply. Whenever you can, do it with care, compassion and fun (NEVER forget fun). Never lose sight of the people (though make sure not to piss off your editors too much!).”
In the years that followed, I did find success. In fact, only a few months after sending that email, my freelance career took flight. I got to write stories I was genuinely fascinated by, and people actually read them! I won some awards, I stopped having to seek out work and instead got to turn some down. Sometimes, I even got thank you letters of my own.
But slowly and insidiously my experience changed over the last few years. Space constraints tightened. Editors increasingly prioritised speed over quality. Headlines were increasingly sensational, and the content itself was increasingly influenced by advertisers or the political agenda of the publishers. At times I filed carefully crafted stories only to find that the meaning and tone had been changed in a last minute edit. I no longer felt like I had creative control. I no longer felt proud of my work.
Beyond The Map is my personal quest to reclaim the storytelling and reporting I love, and to do it in a way that inspires and encourages.
This time I won’t lose sight of the people. And I will most certainly not forget to have fun.