When Kat Russell traveled to Turkey with ieiMedia’s Istanbul Project in 2011 she didn’t just find an interesting place to spend a summer. She felt she had found a home. Now, as Kat finishes her degree in journalism at California State University, Northridge she dreams of building a life and career in the exotic city where the East and West collide. Russell has returned to Istanbul twice since her ieiMedia experience to travel, to visit with friends and to research putting down future roots in Turkey. (See Kat’s photographs of Istanbul on her website.)
We caught up with Kat recently as she was about to finish her final semester at CSU Northridge, where she is the multimedia editor for the Daily Sundial.
What prompted you to sign up for the Istanbul Project?
I chose to sign up for The Istanbul Project for two main reasons: First, I wanted to gain foreign correspondence experience and to learn how to produce multimedia pieces. Second, I had never been to Turkey, nor any other predominantly Muslim culture and I really wanted to experience what that was like. Coming from a country where Muslims are regarded with suspicion and hate, I wanted to gain my own perspective and understanding.
Tell me about the story you produced there. How did you find the pantomime artist you interviewed? What challenges did the story present and how did you overcome them?
I had come to Turkey with the idea of writing about street kids in the city – an often overlooked and underemphasized problem. I envisioned working with local NGOs and social workers and the kids themselves. However, I quickly realized that this was not an easy task to execute and that it was quite a bit bigger than the program’s time frame would allow.
A week before the multimedia project was due, my project fell apart. I realized that I was going to have to find a new project and start over from scratch. That same day, my interpreter, Bürde, and I hit the pavement in search of a new subject. We were walking down Istikal (in Taksim), where there are tons of street performers, when we saw Janset – the pantomime. As we stood and watched her performance, I got excited – it was visually interesting, photogenic and she was compelling. When she finished, we approached her, introduced ourselves and asked her if we could do a piece on her and she agreed.
Once we found Janset, the rest was easy. The biggest obstacles I faced were the time pressure and my own internal barriers – having never done multimedia before, I found it to be incredibly intimidating and struggled with a lot of doubt and fear of failure. However, I have a mantra that I use in the face of fear – one foot in front of the other, just keep going – and so that’s what I did; I just kept going. I also worked closely with our multimedia advisor, Brent Foster – he was an amazing asset – and I asked for help when I felt lost or confused or doubtful. In the end, I managed to produce a piece that I am incredibly proud of.
What kind of reaction have you gotten to the piece you produced?
When I returned to the states I received a lot of praise for the pantomime piece. My advisor now uses it as a example of student work in his multimedia classes. The editorial staff of the Daily Sundial, our college newspaper, asked if I would be willing to write a weekly column chronicling my experiences in Turkey. Finally, the publisher of the Sundial, Melissa Lalum, wanted to enter my pantomime piece and some of my photographs from Turkey in several college journalism competitions. In January of this year, I was actually in Turkey again, and I received word from my publisher that my pantomime piece had placed 8th in the nation in the Hearst Journalism Awards multimedia competition. That was an unbelievable honor. This past week, I also received word that my piece received an honorable mention in the Associated Collegiate Press 2012 Multimedia Story of the Year competition – a national competition for college journalists. Again, it is an incredible honor.
Tell me about your love affair with Istanbul. What captivates you so about the place?
I have been asked so many times about my love for Istanbul and about why I feel such a connection to this city. Honestly, I have struggled to find adequate words to describe my feelings. When I first traveled to Istanbul last summer (2011), I never expected to find what I found there. I found a city that was teeming with vibrancy and life. I found oddities, contradictions, idiosyncrasies, rich culture and beautiful traditions. The hardest thing for me to explain is that I found what felt like home in Istanbul. In all my travels, this idea of searching for a place to call home had always been present in my mind – Istanbul is the first place where I felt like I had found that home. I don’t know why Istanbul is the place or what it is specifically that makes me want to live there – the only answer I have been able to give is that my heart as never felt so full and happy as it does when I am there.
How has your experience in the Istanbul Project affected your life/career plans?
My time in Istanbul has helped me to define what it is I really want to do in journalism and where it is that I really want to work and live. I have always had an interest in the Middle East, in Arabic countries and in Muslim cultures, but my experiences in Istanbul (a Near East country) really helped to ground me in those interests and really define those interests.
Istanbul also reignited my love for and interest in languages and in learning languages and since then I have been taking Turkish lessons and am looking forward to starting Arabic lessons next semester. When I returned from Istanbul, I knew where I wanted to live and what I wanted to do with my future.
Multimedia will play a large role in what is yet to come for me after I graduate from CSUN. Over the past two semesters, I have furthered my study and practice in producing multimedia pieces and worked to build a portfolio of my work. I have discovered that I am really partial to the realm of feature and documentary work as opposed to hard news. Although I love reporting and I am always interested in what is currently happening in the world, I find that I am more interested in the stories of the people impacted by world events and less interested in the fact, statistics and numbers of the event. I’ve discovered that I really enjoy sitting down with people and getting to know them, their lives and their struggles and that I love to give them the opportunity to voice those things.
Additionally, my time with ieiMedia introduced me to multimedia work and gave me a strong foundation in shooting and editing video, while igniting a new found passion. At first I found the multimedia to be really intimidating. I had never shot or edited video before – I am a still photographer normally – and I was doubtful of my ability in this new field. I owe a lot of my success and my newfound passion for multimedia work to Brent Foster – our multimedia instructor for the 2011 session. He worked closely with me, gave me instructions, helped me choose clips, edit my piece and find the narrative within the literal hours of footage I had collected. He showed me how to find usable seconds within a clip when all I saw was something I couldn’t use. He taught me to take the clips in moments rather than its entirety – something I now teach my multimedia students.
Today I am the multimedia editor for the Daily Sundial, the CSUN college paper. My job consists mostly of teaching students how to produce multimedia pieces for themselves. I teach them the way I was taught. I sit down with them and discuss the methodology, I review their footage with them, I show them what they did that was great and where/how they can improve. It’s something that I am really enjoying doing and it reaffirms for me, on a daily basis, my love for and my capability in what I do.
What advice do you have for students considering an ieiMedia program or other study-abroad experience?
The advice that I have to give to future Istanbul Project students is the same advice I give to my current group of students at CSUN: keep going in the face of doubt, frustration and fear.
Istanbul is an amazing place, but also a frustrating place to work in. One of the things that I learned early on while there is that it is better to show up than to call or email. Turks are not as prone to responding to phone messages or emails as we are here in the States. Be persistent – show up at the office of the person you want to interview, approach people face to face instead of emailing or calling; you will get better results this way.
Another thing I learned was to be flexible with my vision. When my original idea for the multimedia project fell through, I had to let it go and find something else and ultimately I walked away with a piece that has earned me national recognition and a sense of pride. Since then I have walked into scores of situations, which have required an ability to be flexible and adaptable. I now try to go into shooting without expectation of what the final product will look like and I find it much easier to work that way.
Also, keep in mind that your interpreters are assets. They are not assistants or people who happen to speak the language – they know the city, they know the cultural nuances and they can help you gain access to people an places that you might not able to on your own. Don’t just use them, work with them, befriend them and take into consideration that they have given up their valuable time to be of service to you.
Finally, Turkey is an amazingly beautiful and complex place, but it is extremely different from us – culturally and socially. Be respectful of that fact – adhere to what is socially acceptable there. Turks will appreciate your presence more if you show them respect and they are not afraid to let you know when they do not appreciate something. It is also important to understand that foreigners are held to a different standard than natives and to remember that things we wouldn’t think twice about here in the States may not be appreciated there. I guess what I am trying to say is that being respectful of their culture and their social traditions will lead to you having a much deeper and meaningful journey – at least that was my own experience.
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by Stephanie Henkel, California State University, Northridge, Istanbul Project 2014