Humanitarian Filmmaker Kate Lord on Involving Beneficiaries in the Filmmaking Process
Kate Lord is a humanitarian filmmaker and photographer based in New York City. She started her career working for The Wall Street Journal as a photo editor and a multimedia producer at NBC Universal. She became a freelancer three years ago so that she could tell more uplifting stories. She is the official photographer and filmmaker for She’s the First, a nonprofit that supports girls’ education worldwide. She works primarily with nonprofits to tell their stories.
Hi Kate! Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. You’ve worked with She’s the First since 2009 as their official filmmaker and storyteller. How did you get involved with their nonprofit?
Awesome! I love everything you guys are doing. We definitely have the same values and storytelling perspective. So I’m very happy to do it.
After I moved to New York, I met Tammy and Christen, who are the co-founders of She’s the First. I built their first website, and then I volunteered to go on a trip for them to Guatemala. Since then, I’ve been to ten countries with them, sometimes multiple times. I document their work, document the girls, teach the girls [photography], and do short films and photography for them.
I decided about three years ago that I wanted to leave news and get back to telling uplifting stories. I love telling stories for nonprofits and doing it in a way that really represents how the people in the images would want their stories to be told.
Does She’s the First have any specific ethical guidelines for their media?
She’s the First has more than 200 campus chapters across the U.S. Every summer, we have a leadership summit in New York City where we bring representatives from all those chapters together. Last year, we did a panel about ethical storytelling. The campus chapters are posting on social media about the scholars that they support and send scholarships to.
[We told the students that] we want to make sure that when they are posting about their scholars, that they are doing it in a way that the scholar could be proud of. Our main guideline is, “Would the scholar be proud and excited by the story and images that you shared about her?”
Our scholars are people. They definitely have challenges. But it’s about dignity. It’s about making sure that when you tell the story about their challenges, it’s in a way that they feel fully represented.
During the editing process, you send the girls early cuts of your videos and receive feedback from the scholars helped by She’s the First on how they want to be represented. Can you tell us more about the process?
Christen and I do a lot of our storytelling together, especially with the videos. We are co-directors on films. We come up with interview questions together. During the interview process, we let the girls know that we are going to ask a broad range of questions and we are going to go into topics that are probably uncomfortable. They don’t have to answer any question they are uncomfortable with. But if they choose to answer, they will have the option to decide later what they want included in the film.
We want to make sure that the scholar feels comfortable and in control of the process. I spend several days with her documenting her life prior to the interview. By the time we interview her she already knows us and feels more comfortable discussing her life with us.
Once we get home, I go through the footage, transcribe the interviews, and we create a script. Then we make our first cut and we sent it to the scholar. I send her a link on Facebook. Most of the girls have access to a mobile phone but they cannot download something on email. We send the early version to her so she can watch it and say yes or no. She decides if she is ok with how we edited it and what she said. It’s a collaborative process. We take her feedback on Whatsapp.
One of the greatest moments was last year when we did a film, Unbroken, about a girl named Elly in Tanzania. It was a very difficult story. She was raped by her brother-in-law. That’s the beginning of the story, and then we show how she overcame this. This is definitely a story where we needed to make sure she was ok with sharing all aspects of the story and how it was edited.
There was a really wonderful moment after she saw the final version. We had been messaging back and forth. She sent us an audio message on Whatsapp, and she was crying happy tears. She felt empowered by the process. She was really in charge of telling her own story the way she wanted to tell it.
Say a girl comes back to you and she wants something included or taken out of the film. How do you implement her feedback? How do you balance what the girl wants along with your own storytelling and timeline restrictions?
We always take out what a girl decides she doesn’t want to share. It’s very personal and if they’ve decided that they don’t want to share something anymore, then we respect that decision. Sometimes there is a way to add something they want back in. If it’s not working with the story arch, then we will sometimes make a separate shorter video about just that certain thing. Or we will mention it in a social media post with a photo of her with that tidbit she wanted mentioned.
More often, it’s about making sure she is comfortable with everything that is in the film. If we are having an issue with the edit, we discuss it with the girl. With Elly, we had a few things that weren’t working. And we just explained it to her. She gets it. It’s about including her in the process– explaining how everything works and why we make the decisions that we make.
This is such a great way to approach collaborative work. It also addresses the question of power that many nonprofit and storytellers are asking. Does a beneficiary who is receiving a direct benefit from a nonprofit feel like they have the autonomy to stay yes or no to having photos taken? By taking this approach, perhaps the power dynamic is distributed more appropriately.
She’s the First is a very special organization. I know that not all organizations would want to or be able to take the time to work one on one with each of their beneficiaries. We have 754 scholars and we want to make sure that we provide enough funding to get each of them to graduation and give them a well-rounded education.
We don’t just give her a pencil, notebook, textbook and send her to school. We match her with a mentor and give her training in reproductive health, financial education, and entrepreneurship skills. It makes sense within She’s the First philosophy that it is important for the girls to understand that they have a voice in how they are represented and how other people see them.
What advice would you give nonprofits who are just starting this process and haven’t collaborated with beneficiaries but would like to start?
I work with a lot of different organizations and She’s the First has really made it a priority to include the beneficiaries. It takes time to do it this way. You need to make sure that you are willing to spend more time with the person you are filming so they feel comfortable. It’s your job to help them feel like their concerns are valid. When you do the edit, it sometimes takes awhile for them to get back to you because they are dealing with Internet issues. I’d recommend being patient. Remembering what your ultimate goal as an organization is to benefit people, so you obviously want to make sure that you are creating something that whoever is being featured will be pleased with and will be proud to share their families.
It just goes back to the basic idea of an NGO or a nonprofit– you go to the community and ask the community what they need. What does the community need? In this case, the person that you are creating a film about – what does he/she need and what story does he/she need to tell?
That was the case with Elly. She had this really horrible, traumatic experience but by being able to claim her own story, it’s hers. It’s not [only about] what happened to her. It’s her story that she now owns. She had control over how it was created and how it was shared with the world. She wanted to share it because this something that happens to a lot of young women. She wanted to show these young women what you could overcome, and how you could overcome it. By being able to be in charge of how it was told, it was an empowering experience for her.