Please tell us about yourself

Neeta Satam is making a difference in addressing climate change and other environmental issues – both as a photographer and a scientist.

The winner of the first student fellowship from the new Missouri School of Journalism Smith/Patterson Pulitzer partnership, Satam spoke to students in the Science, Health and Environmental Writing class recently about her past and future work.

In her years since arriving in the U.S. in 2001, Missouri School of Journalism student Neeta Satam has completed a master’s degree in environmental sciences from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, worked as an environmental scientist and become a photojournalist who has visually documented rural America, Eastern Europe and Asia. Satam obtained her first master’s degree from St Xavier’s college in geology in India and her second master’s degree in environmental sciences from Southern Illinois University. She will complete her third master’s degree when she graduates this month with a degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri.

Along the way, Satam has been awarded the School’s Duffy Grant to complete a project on the Sikh community in the Midwest.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Prior to pursuing journalism, Satam worked three years as a geologist at TRC Companies and eight years as an environmental scientist in URS Corporation in the United States. In her earlier career, she helped to investigate and clean up Superfund sites, which are some of the most contaminated places in America. The extent of the pollution made her depressed.

“My time working at Superfund sites made me think that human beings are the most selfish and destructive species on planet,” she said. “We always go beyond what we need, and in the process, destroy the planet. I also came to believe that capitalism and consumerism had contributed to the environmental mess we are seeing at a global scale.”

She decided to walk away and travel out West, which led her to her next career. She pursued photography, first as a hobby, and then more seriously. She received a scholarship for a photography workshop at Missouri School of Journalism. Then David Rees, chair of the photojournalism department, encouraged her to apply to the master’s program.

David Rees encouraged me to visit the J-School and sit on a couple of graduate classes,” Satam said. “After doing so, I had no second thoughts on applying to the program. I was drawn towards the intellectual rigor of the curriculum. I saw there was a tremendous potential to learn from J-School initiatives such as the Pictures of the Year International, Missouri Photo Workshop and College Photographer of the Year.”After growing up in India and pursuing other dreams, Satam chose the Missouri School of Journalism and its hands-on method in photojournalism. She received a Jack and Dorothy Fields Scholarship to attend the Missouri Photo Workshop. Participants shoot a story and attend photo critiques and lectures. The rest of her time at the School is history.

Satam’s latest accolade has been the O.O. McIntyre Writing Fellowship, which is the School of Journalism’s highest postgraduate award. The $12,000, one-year award will help cover the continuation of her master’s work on the Himalayas, the third largest body of ice and snow (after the Arctic and Antarctic), and hence is often referred to as the “third pole.”

How was the experience at Missouri?

In her time at the Journalism School, Satam thought about how scientific community often fails at communicating issues. “They are well-informed, but they just cannot humanize an issue, or put a face on an issue,” she said. “It’s always about the data.”

Satam set out to communicate science and environmental issues in a way that people could visualize. In order to show what climate change looks like, she photographed in Kumik, a village in Zanskar, Kashmir, in the northernmost part of India.



Tell us about your grant

“During a trip to St. Louis, I saw a turbaned Sikh in a supermarket,” Satam said. “As an immigrant, I empathize with the pressure some immigrants face to culturally assimilate in the mainstream society. As the man walked past me, I realized this is a story worth telling.”

With the image of the man in the market stuck in her mind, Satam pitched the story idea and won the grant in summer 2014.

Later, she and classmate Ryan Schuessler were published in The Guardian for their work covering the Sikh community in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which had faced a violent hate crime in August 2012.

“The project made me realize that Sikh men not only face the pressure to culturally assimilate in the American society, but also hate crimes in the post 9/11 world,” Satam said.

She credits receiving the Duffy Grant to wanting to further question and broaden her research.

“The advantage of a grant is not only the financial ability it provides to pursue a project but also a sense of personal accountability it creates to complete the project,” Satam said. “Applying to the grant was a great learning experience because it pushed me to research the issue, draft the proposal, carve out time to gain access, finish the project and get it published.”

How does your work benefit the community?

The Zanskar village gets all its water from the nearby Sultan Largo glacier, which is receding due to climate change. The Kumikthu stream has turned into a trickle, depriving villagers of water.  “Soon after spring sets in, villagers ration water from the pond to irrigate their farms. By summer, the snowfields surrounding Kumik disappear,” Satam said.

Farming has become difficult, and many men have left the village to find work elsewhere. Women work in the fields and their children are sometimes left alone. This is why Satam thinks climate change also exacerbates gender inequity.

Satam first went to the village in 2015 and stayed for six weeks, then she went back in 2016 for two weeks. Because of its location, the village is accessible to the outside of the world only during summer and fall. In the winter, people have to rely on walking on the frozen Zanskar River*.

When Satam went there, the village was in the middle of drought. Also, because the village is at 13,000 feet, the elevation made it difficult for her to shoot.

“The issue of climate change in the Indian Himalayas is under-reported in international media because it is a sensitive international border region,” she said. Satam recently returned from Asia to shoot her master’s project on the “resilience and adaptation” of some of the first Himalayan climate refugees in the Zanskar Region. She was embedded in a community that is losing its sole source of water to climate change.

Executing the project in the field was challenging, Satam said. The Zanskar region, formerly a part of western Tibet, is a remote mountainous area in India-administered Kashmir that remains isolated from the world for almost seven months in a year. The area is one of the most militarized parts of the world where journalists are under tremendous scrutiny. Shooting in Zanskar was also challenging, Satam said, because it is an unforgiving terrain as far as the weather and altitude is concerned.

Satam’s project committee, photojournalism faculty Jackie Bell and Rick Shaw, helped her plan the logistics of the field component of her master’s project.

“Their encouragement and support helped me overcome numerous challenges associated with shooting the project,” Satam said.

She was awarded the Correspondents’ Grant and the Richard Oliver Scholarship to complete the project. In just a short amount of time, Satam has found a passion in storytelling and giving a voice to those who cannot be heard.

For her Smith/Patterson fellowship project, Satam will cover the wetland ecosystem of Loktak Lake in India. The Smith/Patterson fellowship grants a $5,000 stipend to cover an underreported science, health and environmental issue anywhere in the world outside the United States.