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Life without Literacy - an Interview with Austin Meyer

© Austin Meyer

Austin Meyer is a documentary filmmaker and photographer from Santa Rosa, California. His films focus on international development, health, and human rights, and have been published by National Geographic, The Atlantic, The New York Times, POLITICO, and Slate among others.

Meyer is a National Geographic Explorer and the 2015 winner of The New York Times’ international reporting trip with Nicholas Kristof competition. He also hosts The Austin Meyer Podcast, on which he interviews the world’s best storytellers in all sorts of genres about how they craft the stories they tell.

2. Why did you decide to become a documentary filmer?

I love telling stories in all mediums. At Stanford University I studied creative writing, and used the written word to tell stories. However, when I became a journalist, I realized that the stories that impacted me the most were in video form. This is a quote that really captures what I love about documentary film making: “Documentary filmmakers have the determination of a journalist, the insights of a historian, the generosity of a counselor, the fury of a political activist, and the warmth and wisdom of a poet.” - Molly Thompson, International Documentary Association

3. Which was the last book you read?

A Place For Us, a novel by Fatima Mirza

4. How does literacy impact your work? 

One thing I love about telling stories through videos and photography is that the story can transcend language. Imagery can communicate a story without the need for words. However, there are many instances where literacy is crucial to my work. Many of the stories I create are filmed in different countries, and the individuals who are featured speak different languages. To share these stories with a global audience, I rely on subtitles. From translating, to subtitling, to sharing the story with an audience online and in theaters, I rely on literacy to connect people from around the world.

5. What would be different in your life if you could not read or write?

If I couldn’t read or write, I would lose crucial opportunities to communicate, connect, and empathize with others.

6. What would you miss the most if you couldn’t read?

See my answer to question #5. Connecting with other people is my absolute favorite thing in the world. And being limited in the ways that I can make those connections would be a huge loss in my life.

Annie Muchemwa, a 19 year old girl who I filmed during a project for National Geographic on maternal health © Austin Meyer

7. How often do you encounter people that are illiterate during your travels? 

In my work as a documentary filmmaker I often encounter people who are illiterate. And the great part about film making and photography is that I can be a vehicle through which those people can share their story.

8. What was the most interesting thing you learned while visiting Zaatari Village?

When I visited Zaatari Village, I was so delighted to learn about the Radio Zaatari program. Here is a mini story that I wrote about that experience on Instagram:

"2 kilometers outside of Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan is a place called Za’atari Village. About 15,000 Syrian refugees live there. However, unlike the refugee camp, where many large organizations have operations, Za’atari Village is largely unsupported by larger NGOs on any permanent basis.

Last week I was fortunate enough to visit the Za'atari Village Centre, a youth educational center in the village supported by Acting for Change International and the Catalyst Foundation for Universal Education. I checked out a couple classrooms and was delighted to find a multimedia storytelling class in progress!

Here is what I saw happening in that class… Students in the Zaatari Radio class were assigned to take photos. Then they had to prepare news reports or personal essays about their photos. Finally, students read those reports on live radio 97.3 FM, broadcasting 10 km out to the surrounding village and camp.

“My family is made of 12 people,” she said. “I took photos of my family because I love them. I like to see them smile.”

Za’atari Radio was established in 2018 and its shows are designed specifically for the war-affected inhabitants of the surrounding village. Programming includes local news information, health messages, and creative radio shows.

I am a big believer in initiatives like this that involve storytelling. Not only does the study of these storytelling disciplines lead to the development of valuable skills, but it also allows people to take control of their own narrative. It is a bottom-up approach to humanitarian innovation where those affected by war are responsible for creating the stories that drive positive change."

Reporting with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in India in 2015 © Austin Meyer

9. How can we raise more awareness?

As a filmmaker, I always believe in the power of storytelling to raise awareness and to affect change. And when telling stories around issues such as illiteracy, it’s important to balance sobering statistics with uplifting hope. I would encourage organizations to tell success stories, of

individuals who learned to read and write later in life, and now are sharing the gift of literacy with others. As individuals, I think we can raise awareness by empathizing with those who are illiterate. There can be a lot of stigma and shame around illiteracy. And that is what keeps the issue in the darkness. I think that if we want to bring this issue into the light, we as individuals need to simply support and uplift without judgment.

For more stories and pictures and pictures, follow Austin's profiles below:

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