Faculty Spotlight: Sylvia Johnson
January 27, 2023 - Marsella Macias
Sylvia Johnson is an artist, filmmaker, and impact strategist, who recently became one of the University of New Mexico’s newest associate professors in the Department of Film & Digital Arts for the 2022-23 academic year. Johnson is also a Fulbright Scholar and a National Geographic Explorer whose work is exhibited globally at film festivals with appearances at Aspen Shortsfest, Telluride Mountainfilm, the International Documentary Association awards, the Jackson Wild Media Awards, Raindance, Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and the DC Environmental Film Festival. Her first film “Alagados” was a thesis project based in a Brazilian ghetto and was supported by a Fulbright grant. The success of the documentary resulted in the establishment of a college scholarship fund for local students living in the area where she filmed in Brazil. Johnson serves as Creative Director of Free Roaming Studios, producing visual storytelling to inspire action. She works with organizations, advocates, scientists, makers, artists, and small businesses to create films that drive positive change, foster human connection, and support equity, sustainability, and justice.
Born in Bolivia and raised throughout South, Central and North America, Johnson describes herself a Third Culture Kid, “which basically means that I grew up moving in and out of different countries and cultures, and that my identity is transnational as a result.” Her extensive Latin American (and other global) experiences profoundly shaped her transcultural perspective of how she views the world. Johnson is a changemaker and humanitarian whose work focuses on designing impact campaigns to facilitate action, and humanizing stories of injustice and hope while collaborating with local community organizations.
She holds an MFA in Film and Media Arts from American University, a Certificate in International Development and Social Change from the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, and a BA in International Studies from Middlebury College. Sylvia has also taught film at the Corcoran College of Art + Design and the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
Recently she discussed the challenges and triumphs of her film work, as well as her thoughts about the academic world and the role it plays in global communities.
Your field work and documentaries seem to often result in tangible, impactful actions and outcomes involving your projects’ participants and communities. Can you describe the components you consider when designing impact campaigns for your projects?
I always work closely with the community and the people who are involved with the issue to develop impact campaigns. Listening is the main component - finding out what the needs are, what the demands or desires are for the people that the story is about, or the community in which they live. It's listening, understanding, and participating to get a feel for what's happening and what the needs are, to be able to construct a story that can help move people around that issue. Then, we can really figure out where the strategic pressure points are and where there is leverage for change. Where could we actually push this issue forward? And how can we then translate that into concrete action that people could take, after they watch the film, that would then come back and help the community.
When you say “we” who exactly are you referring to?
It depends, every project is different. I often take on many different roles, and I also work with different community partners and different members on the team, depending on each project, where we are, and what we're doing. For example, working on the Mermaids Against Plastic project in Mexico, I had a local team of women there that I was working with, and then also the creative team, some of whom were coming from the U.S. With the “Refuge(e)” film project, I was deeply embedded in an immigration legal services organization. I worked very closely with the attorneys who were working on a lot of these cases, with the Detention Watch Network, another national organization working on immigration issues, and with local community groups and educators who we organized around our action campaign. For the wild horse film “Roaming Wild" it was the organizations featured in the film as well as the Humane Society of the United States and working with them to figure it out. It really varies depending on the project, but I always collaborate with local organizations or individuals in the community.
Your approach toward your work encompasses recurring strategies. Do most of your projects have to plan on engaging in impact strategies - root cause problem solving, community engagement and positive social change - for you to consider participating in them? Are those criteria that you heavily consider?
Yes, absolutely, those are core elements of the projects that I take on and lead. I believe in the power of filmmaking to help change human hearts and minds, and to envision a better world that we want to build. Filmmaking is a ton of work. Generally, for me to feel like a film is worth the work it will take to bring it into reality, it needs to be tied to an impact strategy.
I think a lot of it is, Does it resonate with me? Does it connect with me in a way that I feel moved by it and feel like it's an important story that is worth telling? And, to feel like I have enough of a connection to it that I am an appropriate person to be telling that story. Often film projects take on a whole life of their own and take much longer than you ever expected. You become much more involved, and it becomes a huge part of your life. So now having been on several projects, I think one of the biggest criteria is, Is this something that I care enough about? Am I an appropriate person to tell it? Is it a story of hope that can help bring about positive change? Can I focus my life on this for an extended time?
** Interviewer’s note: “’Johnson used her documentary ‘Refuge(e)' in collaboration with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project to launch a successful campaign to get the New Mexico Educational Retirment Board to divest from private prison corporations - the first educator pension fund in the Southwest to do so.” Read more about it here.
Thinking about subjective aspects like justice, trust, equity and the imbalance of power that can exist in interviewer/interviewee relationships, how do you keep that relationship and interaction fair? Is that your aim?
It’s definitely my aim. There is always a power dynamic in any interview situation when you come in to make a film about someone. The fundamental pillar to the work that I do is building trust with the people I'm working with and having, what I like to call continuous consent, that just because someone agrees in the beginning to an idea does not mean that they are always going to be in agreement as it develops. I try to engage people in the process as much as possible, and always keep that conversation going and keep checking in along the way to make sure that people are still feeling comfortable with what's happening. I try to give as much power and ownership to the people who are participating in the project as I can. I always have the people featured in a film watch it before it goes out in the world to make sure they are okay with it before it gets seen by anyone else. So that if there is any significant content they are uncomfortable with, we can address it first. But that’s never happened, everyone has always said it's okay. I feel like that's a really important piece - to let people see how their stories are being told before it becomes public.
A good example I would give, is when I was working with the immigration legal services organization there were a lot of transgender refugees that were coming through. I ended up making a story about one of them (“Trans Asylum Seekers: The Horrific Untold Story of Trans ICE Detention”) who for many reasons, was in a very precarious situation. The Atlantic wanted to pick it up and put it on a big platform. That was a project where there was a lot of back and forth at that stage of: Are you actually comfortable with your story being this public at this point in your life? We talked to lawyers, we changed her name, we did a lot of things to try to protect her. I wasn't sure if she was going to say yes, and if she had said no, we would have respected that and not released it. In the end, she did say yes, and it then actually helped generate a lot of funding to help other trans refugees. It was definitely a whole process of negotiation where I had to fight really hard. Basically I was like the middleman fighting for her to have the space to make the decision of whether she wanted that (exposure) or not.
I know every situation is different, but can you speak to the quickest or longest period of time it took you to build a solid relationship and establish trust with a project participant?
When I worked in Brazil, and I was making my first film “Alagados” it was my thesis film in grad school. I was in a marginalized Afro Brazilian ghetto community, and the leader of the organization I was collaborating with, and I were already friends, so I had his support and access. However, there were a few women who were very involved with the local Black Power movements who at first were like, "We want nothing to do with her. Nothing." A year later, Patricia, the woman who was most vocal in her attempts to remove me, and I had become really good friends. It just took time; it took time for her to see who I was and that what I was doing was real.
While she wasn't in the film, she was a member of the organization that I was based out of while making the film. I ended up starting a small nonprofit, which aims to help first generation college students go to college as a way of breaking out of poverty and Patricia basically ran that organization over a 10-year period. I would go once a year for around a month to three months, but she did all the groundwork.
So, The Alagados Project nonprofit is a direct result of your Fulbright-supported thesis film project, correct?
Yes. I made the film then I came back to the U.S., and it was doing quite well at film festivals. I was at an event in Malibu and this guy approached me and he said he really liked what I was doing and wanted to help this (Brazilian) community. He asked what he could fund, and my response was that I didn’t know but that I’d ask them. So, I went back to the community and asked what they wanted - their reply was that they wanted the ability to attend college and get degrees. So, he then funded a lot of scholarships for them to go to college, and we started The Alagados Project.
Those are the moments that make it all worth it and I have to remember that sometimes. It's not always that you're really going for big change like policy change, or shutting down an incarceration system, or whatever it is. Sometimes I think: No, those 10 students that graduated from college, and now their kids are going to college, that was worth it. Or Maria, who now has her papers and can live in the U.S. and be safe with her family, that was worth it. I just try to remember the individuals too.
Do you think that there's a moral obligation on the part of the researcher/interviewer to empathize with and empower the participant/interviewee?
I think you always need to empathize with human beings, everyone has a human side. Some people hold a lot of power, and sometimes you're questioning their power or the way that they're enacting their power in the world. I think those people you still need to empathize with as human beings. However, if you're working with someone who is in a much more vulnerable situation, which I often do, absolutely, they deserve all the respect in the world. I don't think you can empower someone else though. A philosophy of mine from some of the development work that my dad did and courses that I've done is that I think you can remove barriers to empowerment and then people can empower themselves. You can help get obstacles that have kept people back for centuries out of the way and create clear pathways for people to have access. People empower themselves - they choose to take action and engage.
Various forms of academic field work rarely seem to give back to its participants and their communities, potentially affecting how communities engage with future researchers. What are some important aspects that new-to-the-field researchers must consider if they wish to carry out their research with communities in a more meaningful, impactful way?
It's always about building relationships. That’s where it starts, is building strong relationships with other human beings. I think it's about not coming in with a pre-set agenda, but rather really being willing to go in and listen to what the needs are on the ground, and then co-develop what the research agenda is, which is almost never what happens. Generally, people have an idea of what they want to research, and they go to a place, and they tell people that's what they want so people try to accommodate that. Especially when there are power dynamics. Figure out ways to be reciprocal, both in how you think about and approach developing an idea, and consider if what are you creating or offering is giving back to the people that you're working with. Think about that from the outset, not as an afterthought once you've already created a project.
On the theme of academics and giving back to communities that become a part of academic research. How do you give back? Do you ever struggle with what's enough giving back?
I think there are always ways to give back and I think it varies very much on the project. I think there are a lot of different ways to do it. It really depends on the project and your relationship with the people, you just have to find that line. If you are already truly in a relationship with people, and there is open conversation, you know when you're doing enough, giving enough. You also have to remember, we're just individual people too. There are limits to what we can all give; you give what you can.
We were talking about this in my documentary class last night, actually; with two students - one who's doing a project about Roe v. Wade and working with a local organization, and another student who is working with an indigenous farming collective that is very activist as well. The students were having a hard time communicating with the organizations and I suggested thinking about how it can be a more reciprocal project and for the students to have a conversation with them about what they're also giving back. Frame it not just as you're taking their time, but how the tool that you create - the media, the story - can be useful to them if community members engage and participate in that process, too. People have to understand that that's possible, and then they must be engaged in a way that feels authentic to them for that to be real. Stories can raise tons of money for organizations, they can help advance causes, they can do lots of things. That's a lot of giving back too.
More of Sylvia Johnson’s work:
“Wild Horse Warriors" - War veterans haunted by PTSD from what they experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan are transformed by learning to gentle wild horses. Like forging new rivers through stone, this is a story about profound courage and transformation.”
“Roaming Wild" - A feature length documentary that humanizes the controversy over wild horses on public lands in the American West with a look at new solutions. Directed, produced, and shot by Sylvia Johnson with an all-female production crew and editing team.”