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Back From the Field: The 2018-2019 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows

Check out what our 2018-2019 Fulbright-National Geographic Fellows have been up to the past year in the field.

Over the last year, our 2018-2019 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows have been in the field undertaking an in-depth exploration of globally relevant issues using a variety of digital storytelling tools and media, including blogs, photography, podcasts and video.

We recently heard from these five magnificent scientists, photographers and filmmakers to learn about their inspiring and insightful stories from a year spent in the field.

Photo Credit: Canal de Panama

Jennifer Gil

I study microscopic photosynthetic organisms known as microalgae. Microalgae are very important for the planet because half of the oxygen we breathe comes from these small photosynthetic microorganisms. They are also primary producers, meaning that they are at the bottom of the food chain. Microalgae even have the potential to be sources of renewable energy or feed for livestock. Truly, anything you can think of has microalgae involved in some way.

As a Fulbright Fellow I collected microalgae from three major bodies of water: Lake Gatun, the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific. While collecting in these places, I not only collected different types of microalgae but also different stories. My favorite place to collect microalgae was in Lake Gatun, which I reached by traveling up the Panama Canal. On the way there I scraped algae off the locks, which are over 100 years old. One of the best stories I collected was from the captain of the boat. He told me that he had taken many scientists up the river to collect microalgae, but I was the first one to actually show him what the algae looked like under the microscope. In that moment I realized why it is imperative to communicate the importance of microalgae without excluding anyone. It was here that I realized what my fellowship was all about.

All of the stories from my fellowship showed me that microalgae are not exclusively for scientists, microalgae are for everyone and are everywhere that there is sun and water. I would have never thought that collecting microalgae with a net would connect me to so many unexpected experiences.

Photo credit: Jen GuytoN

Jen Guyton

As I worked on my Ph.D. in ecology in Gorongosa National Park, I realized that conservation science, though critical, can’t solve our current conservation crisis alone. In many cases, we already know the threats to wild places and wild things, and we already know how those threats can be quelled. What we lack is the social and political will to change; we’re paralyzed by inertia. That’s where storytelling comes in. Visual storytelling has the power to evoke strong emotions in people. It can even make someone fall in love; for conservation to work, it needs the support of the public, and people will only protect what they know and love.

During my Fulbright Fellowship, I focused on portraying biodiversity and species interactions in Gorongosa’s recovering ecosystem. The idea of “biodiversity” is a difficult concept to capture in a still image. To do this, I focused on resource hotspots, which could include watering holes, flowers, carcasses, or even patches of shade under the scorching African sun. To get a snapshot of the biodiversity that uses each one of those resources, I set out camera traps, which are either triggered by the motion of an animal or that take photos at a predetermined interval. Then, I take all the photos from a certain time frame and stack them on top of each other, showing all the species that visited that resource in a given period of time.

I hope that these composite images will allow people to instantly and intuitively understand the value of this ecosystem for a huge variety of species, from tiny beetles to towering elephants. I hope that these images will help people understand Gorongosa’s ecosystem on a deeper level. Most importantly, I hope these images will make people love this place as much as I do.

Photo credit: John Troye

Katie Thornton

Graveyards are public libraries of stories. They tell of love, loss, migration, industry, epidemics and changing family structures. They tell us about the living — how and where we have allocated valuable real estate for memory, and who is (and isn’t) represented in these spaces.

I am a podcaster, writer, and historian. As a Fulbright Fellow I traveled to the United Kingdom and Singapore, where urbanization, multiculturalism and digital documentation has already fomented major changes in memorial landscapes — from graveside Augmented Reality, to the transformation of cemeteries into city parks, to the total erasure of some recent cemeteries from the urban landscape. I collected audio interviews about how and where we remember the dead in our changing world. I spoke with office-workers-turned-gravediggers who talked about the natural beauty of cemeteries, young undertakers whose disconnection from funeral processes led them to pursue the surprising career, urban planners who build memorial spaces for a diversifying United Kingdom, historians who live off their savings to help families locate their dead loved ones before cemeteries are cleared for development, digital designers who create virtual memorials, religious leaders who taught me how land strain has led to changes in approaches to burial, and many others.

Death rituals — and the spaces in which they take place — are not fixed. They are always changing, slowly, adapting to their environments and technology. But right now, our social and physical environments are changing so rapidly that ritual and memorial space must evolve quickly or risk disappearing. My work showcases the people who are creatively adapting their memorial spaces and practices, encouraging conversation about the difficult topic before we’re left without places to honor our personal and collective memories.

Emily Toner

Photo credit: Aisling Murphy

Soil is something that shapes all of our lives. How we plan and build our communities, the food we are able to grow and eat, the color of a dirt road. These things vary around the world and are heavily influenced by soil. As a soil geographer, my interest is studying the mutually influential relationship between people and the soil around them.

As a Fulbright Fellow I came to Ireland to research how the soil under bogs — peat soil — is embedded in Irish culture and in turn how the Irish are impacting their peat. Peat soil blankets 20 percent of Ireland and is a ubiquitous landscape feature and one of the only indigenous fuel sources. Peat soil can be used as a fuel because it is rich in organic carbon and a precursor to coal. As Ireland grapples with the carbon emissions from drained bogs and the awareness that less than 15 percent of their bogs are in good condition, the journey to conserve Irish peatlands is a rich, complicated and contentious one.

To study the relationship between Irish people and peat soil, I have used written, audio and visual documentation. I listened to scientists, turf cutters, artists, politicians, writers, community organizers, researchers, youth, homeowners, bog rangers, hunters, conservationists, farmers and peat extractors explain what the bog means to them. It isn’t always straightforward. It might be like asking someone about their relationship with air — it’s just there. But we all have a strong and crucial relationship to the air, just like we have to our soil, and just as Irish people do to their bogs.

Photo credit: William TyneR

William Tyner

To reinterpret my own understandings of “technology,” I have spent the last year collaborating with members of Code for Romania (Code4Ro). I’ve interviewed politicians, sociologists, Romanian citizens, and artists to develop a documentary that explores the role of civic technology in Romania’s current anti-corruption protest movement. The documentary explores how technology might function as a tool for political and personal liberation in Romania; how it helps communities cast into a diaspora negotiate displacement, transcend material conditions, and ultimately construct new identities. This film is as much personal as it is ethnographic. In Code4Ro’s work, I oddly enough, see my own story reflected. I grew up feeling displaced and used technology to transcend the confining limitations of blackness. After moving to the isolating cornfields of Ohio where I was one of the few black boys at school, I was criminalized, apathologized and often felt devalued. But my favorite technology tools like my Casio Camera Wrist Watch and my Palm Pilot challenged the stereotypes that often defined me — that I was undisciplined, unintelligent and deviant. Instead, I used technology to imagine my own narrative and future; to communicate that I was enterprising, technologically advanced, expertly skilled, and black. Through my lens as a person of color and the lens of Romanian civic technologists, this film seeks to explore two seemingly different relationships with technology that actually have a lot in common. My ultimate goal is to explore these commonalities and tell a story about the power of technology from the point of view of people and communities that are not historically associated with modernity and technological advancement. At this time when our societal relationships to technology grow more complicated, the film aims to remind us that technology does have the potential to be a tool for liberation — but it depends on the eyes through which you see it.


To hear more about the thought-provoking work that comes from this fellowship, join the 2018-2019 class of Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows who will be featured in the upcoming Nat Geo Nights event, Stories From the World, on Thursday, July 18, 2019 at National Geographic’s headquarters. They will be discussing their inspiring and insightful stories from a year spent in the field.

We'll be introducing our 2019-2020 class of Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows this Thursday, July 18.

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