We recently had the pleasure of talking to reporter and filmmaker Seyi Rhodes, known for his work on Channel 4’s Unreported World, amongst many other highlights. Seyi is currently fronting the Radio 4 appeal for Practical Action’s Turning the Tables on Climate Change campaign. Click the link to discover how an ingenious five-point plan is creating transformative and lasting change for farming communities in Nepal, helping people not only adapt but to thrive.
We knew that Seyi would be a fantastic person to work with and interview after realising his approach to reporting was similar to the way we approach our work: we both believe that to improve a situation, you need to understand the complexities and to help people you have to make sure their voice is heard. We also both believe that a sustainable approach is key – and building on traditional and local knowledge and adaptation is what makes this approach work.
During our conversation, Seyi opened up to us about his approach to the world, finding ways to share information that works and why he’s a fan of Practical Action!
There’s a consistent philosophy to Seyi’s storytelling
I’m mainly focused on foreign affairs and trying to tell stories – trying to help us, as Westerners and people in developed countries, understand what it’s like for people in less developed countries. For me, that process is about trying to give people a certain amount of dignity, and to allow them to tell their own story. To allow them to explain the complexities of their life so that someone over here might understand. Fundamentally, that’s what my approach to the world has been. I still get excited about going out and finding something new and different and bringing it back to people!
Understanding the complexities of a situation is key to development
We need to try and understand the reasons why somebody might be in the situation that they are in, and the ways in which they can get out. We also need to understand the ways in which we can help, without that ever-so-slightly patronising ‘they don’t get it’ approach. By that, I mean this idea that people in difficult situations just aren’t intelligent enough to be as wealthy as someone like you or me. You know, when you explain the complexities of peoples’ lives, other people are really able to understand and connect a lot better.
Fundamentally, my approach to the world has been trying to get people to explain to me: Why is your life difficult? What are the complexities that I need to understand? What are those small ways in which you are trying to make things better?
“We need to try and understand the reasons why somebody might be in the situation that they are in, and the ways in which they can get out.”
Seyi was nearly a supermarket buyer!
The first that made me want to get into journalism was to see a bit more of the world. I wanted to find out more about different people and I wanted to tell people things they didn’t know yet. I think sharing information was the biggest driver for everything in my career when I was younger and when I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do.
I really enjoy going out and finding something out and then coming back and telling people about it. And I was happy to do that in any in any way, shape or form. I think at one stage I even considered being a supermarket buyer, ’cause I thought that was really cool way of going off and discovering new things – and then you’d be able to see people in the supermarket trying these new flavours that you brought back! Even saying that now, I still get excited about it! And I still get excited when I share stories and see people’s faces as they discover new stories. That’s still an amazing thing to me.
Documentaries can keep a story alive, even years later
One of the difficulties of my job is the process of flying in and flying out of places. You can stay in touch with the people you meet but you won’t ever be as involved with their lives – those days or weeks you spent living with them.
It’s frustrating and it has an implication on a professional level too, because once your documentary goes out, it’s just out there. Though it’s great that people are able to find my documentaries online six or seven years after they went out and they’re able to engage with an issue that might still be ongoing.
“The first that made me want to get into journalism was to see a bit more of the world. I wanted to find out more about different people and I wanted to tell people things they didn’t know yet.”
NGOs (independent, non-profit organisations) are key to creating a lasting impact
Because I can’t stay in one place for too long, that’s where my interests in NGOs comes in. NGOs are the people actively working on the ground, and those that, if they get the funding, can be there to help the long-term. I’m able to stay in touch through NGOs and I’m able to check in and see if a documentary has really made an impact that way. Have we helped raise more money? Have more people come to your local help centre? That’s how I know if things are sustainable.
Balance and understanding are vital when it comes to sharing a story
There’s a balance when it comes to telling a story. It’s easy sometimes, when you’re in the right place at the right time. You can say ‘you’re in this position – do you want to tell people about it?’. And I totally understand when people don’t want to tell their story, when they’re in a tough situation or don’t’ want to talk to me. But nine times out of ten, when you ask people ‘do you want people to see this situation?’ they do. Then it becomes easy enough.
There are difficulties when it comes to being on telly and there are difficulties when you’re on camera or there are cameras following you around and with people asking you difficult, politically-sensitive questions. All of those things are difficult, but if someone wants to tell their story, we can work around all that.
“Have we helped raise more money? Have more people come to your local help centre? That’s how I know if things are sustainable.”
Journalism can change the way you see the world
Journalism has massively changed the way I see the world. When I started out and I was young, I had this simplistic sense that everything could be changed overnight, and now I understand the need for sustainable approaches. I understand more about the complexities of the world. I understand more that some of the things that I once thought were quite desirable aren’t.
A sustainable approach is how you build a world that works for everyone
I once thought that commercial farming was this fantastically great thing, and if all the subsistence farmers in the world could be turned into large-scale, tractor-riding farmers then everything would be fine.
Nowadays I find it uncomfortable when I hear farmers in Africa say they want to farm like we do in Europe – because these farmers have some really good, sustainable ways to farm. I’m sure you’d like to farm better but putting all your money into massive loans for tractors, fertilisers, pesticides and so on isn’t a sustainable approach. People need to find their own way which might involve some of the technology and some of the ways that we do things but, probably mostly involve a lot of their own indigenous kind of adaptations.
“Journalism has massively changed the way I see the world.”
Seyi is a fan of Practical Action’s approach – sharing knowledge that can transform lives
What we need to do is figure out what’s the problem. What’s the suitable technology? What’s the most affordable, quick and easy–to–understand way that we can teach them?
It’s really useful to be able to get people together and say ‘look -here’s some other people in a similar environment to yours. And this is one of the things that they’re doing. Now let’s work together and see if it works for you.’ You guys at Practical Action work this way, and it’s something I love about your approach.
You can be optimistic in the face of climate change
I think human resilience and our propensity to make things work does fill me with optimism. Your approach to climate change is one of things I love about Practical Action, because instead of telling everyone we’re all going to die, you tell them we’ve got some challenges coming and how we might start dealing with those challenges. I love that.
For me, climate change is all about the potential for us to rise to a new set of challenges.