There is nothing more rewarding as a storyteller, a journalist or as a filmmaker, if your work has the power to transform, heal and inspire societies through compelling narratives !
Gayatri Parameswaran, our next pathbreaker, Co-Founder at NowHere Media, runs an award-winning immersive storytelling studio in Berlin, that crafts virtual and augmented experiences to create impactful stories that inspire and engage global audiences.
Gayatri talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her global experiences as an independent journalist covering issues related to human rights, war and conflict, that drove her to covering stories that don’t get their due attention in the mainstream media.
For students, you have the choice to either be part of the system and accept things as they are, or go against the flow to bring about a change !
Gayatri, can you take us through your early years?
Hi, my name is Gayatri Parameshwaran. I am co-founder of NowHere media, an immersive production studio that is based in Berlin.
I would love to speak about my background first. I grew up in Dombivli, which is a suburb outside of Bombay.
As a child, I was a swimmer. That was an extracurricular activity that I was really interested in, and I pursued it. I even became a national level swimmer at one point. My mom was a homemaker for most of her life, though she took tuitions, and my father worked in a bank. Very early on, I knew that I was interested in storytelling. I loved listening to stories, and I also loved telling stories as a child. And that’s when I realized that I was good at writing, as well as good at speaking. This was the initial spark.
These were the initial signs of what interested me, Journalism, and I decided to pursue a bachelors in journalism.
What did you study for graduation and post-graduation?
I did a Bachelors in mass media with a specialisation in Journalism.
After finishing my bachelor’s in mass media at Wilson College, I applied for a postgraduate course as part of an Erasmus Mundus program, an MA in Globalization with a focus on Journalism. I got a full scholarship to pursue my master’s in Denmark at the Aarhus University, and then went on to the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. I finally did my specialism in War and Conflict reporting from Swansea University in Wales in the United Kingdom.
What were some of the key influences that led you on such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career path?
I definitely had some key mentors in my life. Apart from my parents, of course, who encouraged and helped me pursue my dreams. I was also heavily influenced and inspired by my professor at Wilson College, Professor Sudhakar Solomon Raj, who pushed me not only to pursue journalism and excel in it, but also inspired me in developing a great interest for nature. Because of him, I ended up not only being part of the nature club, but also part of, heading, chairing the nature club and ended up doing a lot of hikes and tracks, organizing exhibitions, as well as inspiring other younger audiences or younger generations to be caring about nature and raising awareness about climate change.
He also exposed us to a lot of different venues. So, as part of our class visit, we were in Kashmir in 2007, which was a pivotal moment for me to pursue journalism, especially in the space of war and conflict journalism or human rights journalism. That moment during my visit to Kashmir made me very aware of the bias in media, based on what we get to read in newspapers or watch on television sets. It’s heavily biased a lot of the time and it’s not neutral. And there are many gatekeepers who filter the information that reaches us, and that doesn’t reach us. So I became aware of this and it really inspired me to do something independently and that’s how I chose the path towards independent journalism.
The master’s program in War and Conflict reporting gave me a really good basis for continuing on this journey. And right after my Masters, I was also happy to have developed a network of other journalists who were part of this Master’s course. We were 50 journalists who came from 30 different countries. And this gave us a really good network to learn from and also to rely on professionally when I had doubts or when I had questions, and also offered possibilities for collaboration and cooperation.
How did you carve your own career path in the field you currently work in?
So I began with an internship that I did with Radio Netherlands worldwide, which came when I was studying in Amsterdam. Basically, this internship led to a longer cooperation.
Right after that, I did another internship. Right before my master’s final semester, I interned at the Democratic voice of Burma, which was an organization, a news organization, or a journalistic organization, which was based in exile in Chiang Mai in Thailand and reporting on events occurring inside Burma/Myanmar. And this was happening in the context of lack of independent journalism in Burma, which allowed me then to pursue a master’s specialisation, do my master’s thesis in Burma and think about journalism where there is no freedom of press. And, yeah, this also helped me to work. I was working as an undercover journalist in Burma as part of my master’s thesis, and also reporting as a freelancer from the country.
My research involved travelling to different parts of Myanmar and meeting journalists who were risking prison sentences for reporting on the human rights situation in the country. I interviewed a dozen Burmese journalists who were pro-democracy and critical of the military junta. My research concluded that journalism in a non-democratic context such as in Myanmar ends up putting journalists at high risk. This kind of journalism is inspiring yet finds it hard to follow the regular norms of objectivity and accuracy.
I started by being a South Asia correspondent at Radio Netherlands, by reporting in the region. So I was covering India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Maldives,for a radio program, as well as for a website for a web portal. This allowed me to hone my skills in storytelling in radio journalism, as well as in research and finding a humane way to tell complex stories.
Journalism that is broadcast over the radio is called Radio journalism. Today, this form has evolved into podcasts. I continued focusing my work on human rights and conflict in South Asia. For instance, I covered the plight of undocumented Chakma migrants in Arunachal Pradesh, Kashmiri youth turning to rap music to speak out against the Indian government’s occupation of the valley, extrajudicial killings carried out in the Maoist central India and more. I also travelled and lived in Nepal and Bhutan during this period. For me, it has always been important to give a human angle to all my stories.
Later on, I established myself as a self employed journalist or a freelance journalist. I traveled to many different parts of the world, to cover stories, especially related to human rights, war and conflict. So over five years, I was able to travel to over 40 regions or countries, and I was privileged enough or lucky enough to be able to report from the ground. I also ended up reporting from conflict zones like Iraq and Syria, Kashmir, the mountainous regions in India, parts of Central America, the border between the United States and Mexico.
So what really drove me in these times or moments was that there was a lot of injustice that was happening. And people without power are always on the wrong side of justice. And I think this is something that has always bothered me, and whatever I could do to reverse this trend, I wanted to do. Being a journalist actually gave me the tools or the mechanisms or the means to be able to do this. After this, I got a fellowship, called the German Chancellor Fellowship, which allowed me one year to be in Germany and research a subject with a host organization.
I applied to the fellowship through an open call: https://www.humboldt-foundation.de/en/apply/sponsorship-programmes/german-chancellor-fellowship They look for thought leaders from six countries including India, irrespective of your field of work.
I chose to research on global child labor, and the result of this piece is still ongoing. I mean, I’m still working on this project that raises awareness about global child labor.
Finally, in 2017, together with my partner and collaborator, Felix Gaedtke, I co-founded NowHere Media, which is a storytelling studio that focuses on achieving social impact through storytelling. In the last four to five years, we have been focusing on using technology to further our goals, and that has been really, really beneficial in achieving some of the goals that we have wanted to achieve, in terms of building networks. I think what’s really important over here is that every connection that you make might not be beneficial to you, right at that moment, it might be something that comes back to be handy at some other point in your career. So I still go back to the network, from my school, or sometimes from my college for professional help, and collaborations. And this is something that you build over time and over years. So don’t be disappointed if something doesn’t work immediately. You have to be patient and be in it for the long run.
What are some of the challenges you faced and how did you address them?
Today, running a company that is at the intersection of storytelling, technology and achieving social impact is by itself challenging. I think what is challenging on a day to day basis is, you have to be able to raise financing for the kind of work that you’re doing. So having either partners or clients who pay for your work or securing grant funding that can allow you to continue doing the work that you’re passionate about is challenging
Secondly, what is also challenging is that you have to deal with challenges on many different fronts, because you’re wearing a lot of different hats at the same time. So it could be that you end up working on budgets on one day, and then you’re solving technical problems on the other day, and then you’re doing creative work on the third day, or all of these in one day. So I think this is what makes it challenging. But this is also what makes it really, really interesting to do, the work that I do.
Tell us about your work at NowHere Media
At NowHere Media, we start every project with journalistic research and questions. What is happening around us that we feel compelled to talk about and bring attention to? Often these are stories that don’t get covered in mainstream media. Once we have identified a theme or a subject, we dive deeper by going out on the field and doing some ground research. This involves speaking to people, finding collaborators and partners who are affected by the subject or can influence it. Co-creation with communities, NGOs and other journalists, researchers and artists is critical to this stage. Often this leads to envisioning a state of the world that is changed as a result of our work. For example, if we want to focus on the subject of conservation of snow leopards, we may partner with organisations that are involved in the conservation of snow leopards, go to areas where we get to be in the environment and capture the home of the snow leopards and chart out a campaign which is able to raise funding for snow leopard conservation.
What are the skills required for the work you accomplish?
The kind of skills I would say that are necessary in this are multiple, you have to be able to be outward facing. So you have to be able to go out and find your potential investors, clients or funders that are going to trust you and trust in your creative power and in your ability to deliver on what you promise.
Secondly, you have to be good at coordinating and organizing your time, and know how to work in a team. Running a company, a lot of the time, is also just about being organized and making sure that you also have some leadership skills to create an environment that is good for other people to participate in. So as a leader, you’re not only someone running a company, you’re not only looking at what is good for you, or what can get you exposure, but you’re also creating opportunities for other people in the team to get to the goals that they want to get to. So you have to help everyone achieve, identify their goals, and secondly, achieve these goals.
And finally, you have to be able to also keep your cool. I think this is one of the most important things that no one tells you or teaches you. When you work under high pressure, when you have tight deadlines to deliver, when you have financial constraints, stress can get the better of you. And what’s really important to know here is that you have to keep things under control. And you have to understand that even if you had one bad day, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the year is going to be bad, you can just accept that this was a bad day and hope that there will be better days coming.
What’s a typical day like?
I don’t have a typical day. So to say, sometimes I’m working from the office on my desk and doing a lot of calls, networking, organizing and coordinating. Sometimes I’m pitching quite a lot. Sometimes I’m preparing to pitch. I also teach, so I’m also dealing with students and the kind of challenges that they are facing, based on which I design my curriculum.
I also work in the field. So when we are producing projects, there’s a lot of shooting to be done and a lot of work that needs to happen on that front. So it’s a lot of different kinds of days, and there is no one typical day, which is what I love about this job as well. It’s something that never gets me bored. So I’m really thankful and grateful for that, that I’m not clocking a nine to five or, you know, 10 to 6 job where I do monotonous tasks. So it’s quite exciting in that sense and very creative.
How does your work benefit society?
Actually, this is also something that I really, really enjoy about the work is that I’m able to communicate to a large global audience on what’s happening in different parts of the world. So I’m adding value not only on the knowledge side of things as a journalist and as a documentary maker or filmmaker, but I’m also able to shift conversations or discussions and discourses in a certain direction for a desirable outcome. So whether it is the COVID 19 pandemic or the climate crisis, or inequality and injustice that’s happening around the world, I can pick a theme that really inspires me and say that I’m going to dedicate a good chunk of the next year or two working on the subject and give my best to creating a piece that is going to touch people and move the needle when it comes to social change. So if you are interested in that, and if that is something that inspires you, you should definitely consider this track for a career.
A memorable work that you did?
One moment that is very memorable for me in my work happened quite recently, actually, when I was working on a documentary, together with a very special community, a group of indigenous people in Nepal. And when we went to show the film back to the community, some of the audience members had tears in their eyes. They were moved by the work and felt very proud of the work that they had created. For me and my company, there is nothing more rewarding as a storyteller as a journalist, as a filmmaker, if your audience members are moved by your work, and if you’ve changed their way in even in the smallest way possible. So that is something really memorable that happened recently.
Your advice to students?
One thing you really need to be aware of is that sometimes you may feel insecure making a certain decision or not be sure about the kind of direction your career is going in. And you may end up falling into a path that is very ordinary and not extraordinary, even if you plan to have an extraordinary career. It’s good to take a step back and see, strategically as well as emotionally, where do you want to go? Where do you want to be in 10 years? What is it that you want to do? What is the kind of work that is going to give you inner satisfaction? Because, let me tell you, just having a really fat paycheck doesn’t make you the happiest person in the world. Quite the contrary, if you have a fat check, you might want to have a fatter check, you know? So, also think about what value you want to add? And what are you going to be proud of in your career? When you make those decisions, after 15-20 years, what are you going to like telling your children and grandchildren or the next generation? Think about that when you are in this situation.
If you are the kind of person who likes doing things out of the box, if that gives you happiness, then swim upstream. Don’t be scared of going against the stream and picking a career or a job that is going to make you happy even though that might not fit all the boxes, or check all the boxes that your parents or family or relatives expect, but that you are sure that you’re going to be happy with. I did that. I was studying for one year for a Bachelor in Microbiology and I was really unhappy doing that. But I had fallen into some kind of a pattern where everyone around me said, “Hey, I think if you pursued a bachelor’s in science, or if you graduated out of high school in science, it would give you a lot more options. Why don’t you be a doctor”. And then I ended up giving the entrance exams for being a doctor and I did not score so well. Subsequently, I was pushed into pursuing a bachelor’s in microbiology. One year down the line, I thought, Oh, this is really not something I want to do. So I shut myself and then switched career paths and started pursuing a journalism degree. I have to say that just because I was doing something that I really wanted, I performed so much better. So if you’re facing this problem of convincing your parents or your family or your relatives of your career choice, explain to them that if you do something with interest, it’s going to deliver much better results than if you did something without interest and just for the sake of the job.
All the best