“No matter how you do it … stories reach us, and move us, no matter how we publish them, no matter what platform we use. We are successful as storytellers if we make people feel something, if we create empathy, if we create meaning, and if we create an echo.”
At Passion Passport, we’re always seeking to tell better, more meaningful travel stories. We started the Storyteller Series to bring thoughtful travelers to our NYC home, Primary, each month. Our first event in the series discussed travel photography with three talented women and, this December, we invited journalist, photographer, and storyteller Neil Shea — a member of the Passion Passport community and mentor on our Passport to Asia program — to join us for an evening. He has told stories with National Geographic, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Christian Science Monitor, and recently wrote, co-produced, and hosted his first television documentary Fighting Isis. We broke down his discussion with our audience and the key storytelling tips from the night.
During his talk, Neil walked us through his career thus far, his evolving storytelling methods, and what he’s learned from working in some of the world’s most fraught conflict zones. He discussed the lessons he learned from starting out as a rookie journalist in the Arctic Circle to spending four months in Afghanistan covering his generation’s war. He joked about being a lethargic student, but also spoke seriously about the decisions that formed his career, noting, “I didn’t go from covering adventure stories to war because I wanted to go to war. I didn’t want to go to war … but I didn’t want to just accept it. It was something I did not want to accept. I had to go see for myself.” This drive to bear witness and to understand propelled his career forward.
From his background in anthropology, Neil knows how to reflectively immerse himself in different societies and communicate this cultural sensitivity honestly in his writing. Understanding the initial distance between himself and the communities he works in, he immerses himself in the community for a month or more, visiting the same people and asking the same questions to ensure consistency in his reporting. While his job is inherently storytelling, he said, “I hesitate to say ‘tell the story of’ because that’s a first world way to say it” but his job is “to share their story, experience their story, and get to tell it.” The privilege of interaction, of learning to accept the realities of others, and the responsibility of trust are all themes that come across in his work from around the world.
Neil also spoke about the diverse ways he’s shared his stories — from short newspaper articles to longer, more breathable magazine pieces, to the “engaging, beautiful, brief, but true” Instagram posts as part of larger projects in collaboration with world-class photographers. The power of the digital audience, and the intersection of what he considers to be two of the most powerful art forms — words and photography — make Instagram a unique, thrilling space to publish stories that wouldn’t necessarily grace the pages of National Geographic. He called Instagram a “galaxy unto itself” — a resource of limitless possibilities and home to an audience larger than the entire population of the United States. He considers it an important place for experimentation of all kinds. Instagram has the potential to become a home for the many stories we have to tell — stories that don’t become headlines but are, nonetheless, important to share.
During our audience Q&A, we discussed the tensions between image and reality, how to maintain and impart empathy through working in conflict zones, and how to work across cultural differences and deal with bystander guilt.
Neil’s advice for storytellers is simple and specific. While on assignment, he carries around small journals and fills them with notes. He also takes portraits of everyone he talks to and writes notes to go with them, so he can remember their stories.
These methods of gathering inspiration allow us to “train [ourselves] to pay attention to detail.” These observations will also come in handy when you take into account his advice to resist the urge to follow social media trends and make stories primarily about ourselves. Instead, he suggests turning the lens to the world around us, training our observational eye and really listening to others; then, maybe, we can craft even more impactful stories.
After the talk, Neil left us with a sense of renewed empowerment as storytellers and travelers, to better understand and communicate the diverse realities that exist in all cultures.
We would love for you to join us at our Storyteller Series event next month!
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to find out about our next events and join the community.
Photographs by Neil Shea.