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How One Community of Female Storytellers Is Bringing Out Each Other’s Best Work: An interview with National Geographic Explorers Laurel Chor and Nicola Sebastian

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating members of the National Geographic community who are expanding the field for more women, like Laurel Chor and Nicola Sebastian. While they’re at different stages in their careers—Laurel is at home in the field, while Nicola is just getting started—since connecting at Explorers Festival Hong Kong, they’ve played an active role in each other’s projects. Laurel, Nicola and several other women who attended Explorers Festival Hong Kong have formed an engaged, long-distance community who bounce ideas off each other, swap stories and advice, and offer support. We asked Laurel and Nicola to share their perspective on lifting up other females in the field, including their advice for women pursuing a career in storytelling.

Tell us about your work!

Laurel Chor:I’m a photographer, writer and filmmaker from Hong Kong who tells stories about China’s impact on the environment around the world.

Nicola Sebastian: I write stories about family, the ocean and what it means to live on an island amongst many islands [in the Philippines]. My hope is that these stories help us all feel a little more at home—in ourselves, with each other and in the world.

Since connecting at Explorers Festival Hong Kong, what have you been able to learn from each other?

Nicola: The women I met during Explorers Festival made me feel far less alone in the world—just by being in their presence and listening to their stories. I realized that there are others doing what I am trying to do, struggling with the same fears, insecurities and doubts, but persevering nonetheless with the knowledge that what they are doing matters in ways both big and small. Seeing them be both vulnerable and bold, baring their hearts on stage, sharing their passion with an audience full of strangers lit a fire inside of me. It felt like the first time I really believed it when I told myself, “I can do this.”

Laurel:Nicola and all the other women I met at Explorers Festival Hong Kong have become a vital community of support. We encourage each other and we share our doubts, fears and failures despite being scattered over the Asian continent. They’ve taught me that it’s OK to be vulnerable and that I don’t have to put on a strong front all the time; I think I sometimes overcompensate for working in male-dominated fields.

Nicola: Laurel is a force of nature. It’s easy to see that she’s very strong and confident, being an athlete and all, and I have always been in awe of her discipline and focus. But she’s more than that: Emotions and vulnerability don’t scare her, either.

She told me to message her anytime I got stuck on a story and needed to make decisions, because she’s good with that, and I told her to message me if she needed help putting things into words, because I’m good at that. Now, we have a group chat with a couple of other women in similar fields (photography, journalism), where we ask each other questions, share our successes and send each other “you can do it” memes. It’s a source of comfort as much as motivation.

It’s so empowering to see two women supporting each other’s work. Have you faced any challenges as women in the field? If so, what has helped you overcome those challenges?

Laurel:Not being taken seriously, and in some situations, feeling acutely aware of my gender as the only woman present. I try to stand up for myself the way I would stand up for someone else, and make sure that my voice is heard and that I’m given respect.

Nicola: A lot of the challenges I’ve experienced come in the form of internal barriers: preconceived notions of what I am capable of, of how seriously my work should be taken.

In many ways, I think we’ve internalized societal expectations to the point that we set our own limits on what we can do. Thankfully, I have a whole gaggle of passionate, talented and opinionated women around me who aren’t afraid to tell me when I’m being silly and to remind me of my own capabilities. They trust me more than I trust myself. The self-doubt never really goes away, but experiencing their confidence in me—not to mention my fielding every idea, sentence or draft with them to see what they think—helps me overcome that boogie monster again and again.

What advice do you have for other women who are pursuing a career in storytelling?

Nicola: Listen to yourself. Listen to yourself the way you wish your amazing wonder-woman of a friend would listen to herself. Trust your own gut; it is filled with a sea of emotion and empathy that will help move others to heal our broken, beautiful world. It’s not a question of whether you can do it; you are already doing it. So, just keep going.

Laurel:When you’re a storyteller, you have to ask questions. And a lot of the times, people don’t like it when women ask or question things. Stand strong and do your job!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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