Journalist Sonali Prasad is constantly pushing the boundaries of storytelling. Her work on the environment and climate spans across intriguing mediums: video, data, text, audio and even art installations. A former Google News Lab Fellow and Pulitzer Traveling Fellow, she has also worked as an investigative reporter for the Energy and Environment Project after pursuing her Masters at Columbia Journalism School in New York. A more recent achievement is being one of the Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she worked on a sound installation based on school hazard data in high-risk earthquake zones. In a conversation with Ayushi Shah, she delves into some of her projects, discusses the way ahead for environmental journalism and chats about how she still has hope for humanity and our planet.
Sonali remembers being enchanted with nature ever since she was a child. She reminisces finding joy in the temporary, like the tingling sensation of the bright red ladybugs as they crawled on her skin. Growing up, her father would constantly remind her that science is more than a field of practice, it’s a perception of the world, a way of life even. Intrigued by this, she was always focused and fascinated by the idea of macro and micro – how you could see vastness even in droplets of water. And, you zoom out and realise that you have more stars in the universe than you have grains of sand on Earth. “At the same time, nature has also taught me about beautiful devastation – it can be as devastating as it is beautiful. The idea that it can exist in multiple forms and realities at the same time is why I’m so fascinated with nature,” she said to me over a Zoom call.
It has been a journey from studying computer science for her undergraduate, to pursuing a Masters in Journalism and now focusing on reporting around the environment. Sonali looks at this change in trajectory as just a different way of getting to the same goal. “The end goal of creating impact and engaging with science in a beautiful manner is the same. Computer science taught me how to fail massively, get up again and find solutions to these big world problems in very small and tangible ways. And I carry these learnings to my journalism.”
The last few years have seen her lens zooming on stories that intercept the environment with science, art, community, politics and even philosophy. A case in point is Ranger Ranger, a series where she visited six national parks and covered the lesser-known forest heroes in India – the rangers. Among other people, she interviewed the first woman forest ranger of the Desert National Park and even met with orphaned baby rhinos. For RE(ef)SOURCE, a group project aided by the Magic Grant, the team she worked with distributed go-pro cameras (designed to capture fluorescence and multispectral images) to scuba divers in Florida to track coral reef health.
Deeply philosophical, Sonali is wearing her signature green headband and Aflatoon, her favorite plant, gently rests in the background. Excerpts from the interview:
Ayushi Shah (AS): You have experimented with very intriguing mediums: video, data, text, audio, art and installations and refer to yourself as a multiplatform storyteller. I’d love for us to start by discussing your recent data sonification project as a part of the Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT?
Sonali Prasad (SP): I went to MIT with a proposal to study earthquakes. They are the unpredictable natural disasters that we know of. Cyclones can be tracked, storm surges and floods, one can project but with an earthquake, you’re dealing with the most improbable. And how humans deal with that level of uncertainty really tells a lot about us as a civilization and how we deal with the rest of the stuff that’s way more predictable than an earthquake. When I did my conventional research about earthquakes and how school children who die when an earthquake strikes are reduced to a statistic, I had that tingling feeling that I wanted to explore telling the story in a more visceral way. It felt especially important because of the idea that there is a vulnerable section of the population that cannot make decisions on its own – the children. They are relying on the people who build structures and the faculty/ teachers to get them out of such disastrous situations. I saw photos of Sichuan where they called them ‘tofu schools’ because they crumbled during the 2008 quake. The situation was similar in Mexico in 2017. There are worrying projections for poorly constructed schools in high-risk earthquake zones in India, especially up in the Himalayan region.
In one way or another, I wanted to break away from the statistics. So for the first part, what I decided was that I would convert the images from news clippings into sound. I decided not to use the seismic data but the images because of the basic understanding that it’s not the earthquakes that cause massive disasters, it’s the building, the construction. It’s a human decision on the top level that causes disasters.
I converted the pixel data on the images to create a prototype of what a sound piece may look like. That was the basic data sonification project. It sounded very crazy to me when I first proposed it because I have never done anything like this. But the entire discovery was something that I cherish most about the project . But again, it is just a prototype and the idea is to hopefully build more on it and somehow create a music composition. Before the pandemic hit, I was planning to engage with choirs and hopefully make it into a live performance.
AS: It’s such an impactful way to tell a story that might have gotten lost in statistics. What I love is that you bring environmental stories and hard facts to the forefront but put people at the heart of it. So I’d love for us to talk about your experiences while working on the Ranger Ranger series that you did through the Pulitzer Travel Grant. You covered the stories of forest rangers in different national parks in India. I especially enjoyed the poop story ‘Till the little one poops’. Can you tell us more about that story?
A chance conversation with the vet at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam led to the fact that young, orphaned rhinos get supremely constipated once they are rescued because of the separation from their mothers. Having done a few other stories on the hunting aspect of poaching, I wanted something fresh that kind of takes on these threads around poaching and weaves them together within a different framework. Plus, everybody loves a good poop story (laughs).
What surprised me was that out of all the milk portions of the world, the one that works for them is Nestle Lactogen, the milk powder that human babies get. Somebody told me that there was a school where the kids donated their portion of midday meal milk for the rhinos. This fact just lit up on my confidence in making this into a beautiful story. The location was planned (Kaziranga) but the story angle was not, as we have to clear a lot of paperwork and permits for access. There were a lot of moving parts but the final piece really worked for the audience as well as for me. It’s just a different way to get you interested in a very grand issue. While doing the Ranger Ranger series, I realized that to understand the rhythm and the song of the place, a forest or its people, we really need to talk to somebody who’s lived there long enough to somewhat comprehend the ecosystem’s distress or to understand the beauty in the small murmurings that happen. I always try to spend some time on the ground,without doing any reporting, just to get a feel of the place.
Another way we tried to achieve that local understanding is by having a photographer from the region whenever possible. I cannot ever absorb the landscape of the northeast the same way Indrajeet (the photographer from Assam) does or a ranger in Nagaland does. I can only be a part of that experience. The song is never really complete without their rhythm, and neither is the story.
AS: As an environment reporter, especially when you work closely with vulnerable communities, how do you avoid the exploitative gaze?
SP: If you represent an issue in isolation, that itself leads to a very biased construct. Even when I look back and evaluate myself, I realise that there is much more that I could have done in terms of diversity of gender, class or indigenous voices. I think it’s a process of learning as you go along. As a journalist, you’re representing and you are propagating. At the very core, it is acknowledging every human’s existence and what I mean to say is not ‘most humans’ existence, but ‘every’ human’s existence.
It’s very easy for me to say this but I can tell you, my report card is not immaculate when it comes to these either. But now, I try to kind of negotiate with my editor because when it comes to these choices and that open discussion that has led to me being able to represent different, diverse voices. I have learnt that these conversations are not the easiest to have when you’re trying to push a certain mould that has always been there, but we really need to develop the skill of having these really difficult conversations in a very respectful manner.
AS: The current political climate is not the most suitable for environmentalists. We have presidents denying climate change. Journalists have even been shot for reporting. How do you balance that out? Does it ever scare you?
SP: I am not a fearless person. When I report, I have to go to challenging terrains, a jungle or a wetland for a story. I’m not someone who cuts a very graceful picture in the wild. I’m the person who’s whining and crying and still making it through. I am scared at every step and everyone is looking at me like, “This girl is petrified but she’s still doing it”. So fear is inherent. It’s a very innate part of me. But I use it to drive me, excite me.
I use this analogy to say that yes, we are working in a very scary space right now. There are companies who do not want to acknowledge where we are heading and no amount of alarm bells seems to bother them. But I also feel that no matter what happens, there can always be some belief in hope for the next generation. And I remember reading this somewhere – even a broken clock shows the right time twice.
It really stuck with me that even in the worst-case situation, you will find a silver lining. My duty as a storyteller and as a navigator is to steer the next generation into finding that. Because if we give in to the idea that things are hopeless or there is no going forward or there is no alternate reality, then we are doomed there itself. The idea is to believe that no matter what happens, we can push, push, and push. That is all we can do at the end of the day. I interviewed this lady at a mosque that is very inclusive. And she told me “Ki qayamat tak beech bote rehna.” It means that even if you are facing the blight, keep planting, keep sowing seeds. So you do your bit till the very end, no matter how much darkness is gathering around. You need to have that level of compassion. I am fearful every day but I am also hopeful every day.
AS: So, in your opinion, what is currently missing or what can be done better while reporting stories around the subject?
SP: So, no art is perfect. Much like science, art in many aspects is incremental. We build on what has been done in the past. And as a storyteller when you are grateful, when you realize that you have a certain power of storytelling – and it doesn’t matter how big your audience is, it could be an audience of one – you acknowledge that responsibility and go on the correct path. And the other thing I would say is that work on the dualism aspect; stay away from either complete adoration or from showcasing the grotesque nature of the environment or reality. We can find beauty even in devastation. There is always some way we can show both existences together.
Nature is not separate from the human in the story, like you’re not somebody from the outside looking at a mountain. You’re a part of the atmosphere. That is the kind of idea or relationship that I want to bring in that story. And so there was this book called Weather by Jenny Offill. It is a beautiful read and there is a line in the book that says, “There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds. That’s interconnected”.
And when you realize the poetry of that, you realize that as a species we ourselves are ecosystems, we cannot be isolated. So, you have to break away from the mould where the human is trying to save the world or the human is outside the environment. We are very much a part of it. We are connected in a way that if one thing gets hampered, it will eventually result in affecting all of us and that level of interconnectedness is something we should acknowledge.
Lastly, figure out the limits of the language that you’re using. Once you know the limits, then you can be limitless with your craft and the way you express yourself. Work on your moulds of storytelling.
AS: A focal point for you is decentralizing storytelling. You want to be able to give the toolkit to the community to tell their stories. So can you take me through one of your first experimental collaborative projects aided by the ‘Magic Grant’, RE(ef)SOURCE and how decentralizing storytelling has impacted your craft.
SP: RE(ef)SOURCE is all about giving these underwater cameras to divers who were already diving near coral reef spots. The project entailed pulling out coral reef health data from these underwater images. To do that, the team basically converted GoPro cameras into sensors with the help of machine learning in a way that the fluorescence data corresponded to coral reef health.
Instead of waiting for entire reefs to be bleached beyond redemption, we wanted to create a system through which sustained reporting could be done on reef spots so that local conservationists and scientists can take prompt action. As the information is recent, they save time and don’t have to wait for that big headline that says 85% of the reef has bleached. If you work on a shorter deadline, you’re working with much more urgency when it comes. So that was the idea and it was very successful. We were a team of 6 people that came from different backgrounds, and were keen on looking at a community citizen science project.
And decentralising storytelling is something I hold really close to my heart for a simple reason – you have different centers but are using the same core information by moulding it in different regional contexts and then propagating. It gives you stronger feedback chambers as you have smaller, more regional networks and so it is easier to reach out and create effective communication instead of one single, overwhelming channel.
We got many dive groups who wanted to help us with this project. There was a group – Southwest Florida Women’s Dive Club and they were amazing. They were championing fostering new female friendships through ocean conservation. We watched the entire boat filled with women divers giving us a thumbs up! That is something I could have never planned as a storyteller, and I could have probably not imagined as an angle. But when we outsourced the component of storytelling, it just naturally happened as the women and the volunteers started joining. So that gave them a lot of power and by decentralising storytelling, you multiply the impact in ways that you can’t even imagine.
AS: You’ve often spoken about making climate change an Asian issue. After all, we are facing consequences in the present on the continent.
SP: We are living in a world where everyday catastrophes are becoming a numb man’s guessing game. as miseries unfold concurrently in Asia. And that is something that the West does not seem to fully perceive. For us, it is not a projection, or a what will happen if. We are dealing with super cyclones, storms surges, extreme heat (which is so underreported) and the idea that all of it is happening at the same time doesn’t seem to permeate news internationally or locally even. We ourselves have faltered so much because we don’t give enough space to climate casualties. This has been the reality for a while now.
For us, as Indians it’s just a matter of a casual dinner table conversation. But you will have a time when there are multiple fractures. But it may be one trigger point, maybe one bad weather event, but more probably, it’s gonna be these small punctures in different regions that will cause the bigger issue and that is what’s missing from climate change storytelling.
That is one thing. And the other thing is, of course, you cannot know about climate change in Asia without realizing that there are environmentally injustices that when traced back have massive colonial legacies. Now, you look at the way we look at forest businesses. It’s was all put out during the British era. That is how we look at the exploitation of the forest dwellers or the treatment of indigenous people. So, we cannot talk about climate change and the bigger crisis of environmental degradation without realizing that we are dealing with a colonial past where much of this is rooted. Even the ideas around embankment building and management in a cyclone prone area that are built to safeguard the communities that have colonial roots.
AS: You do look at yourself and your role as somebody who is the keeper of story, and not the owner of the story. Does that sentiment in some ways extend to the planet? That you are leaving it to the generation after you and there is a certain sense of responsibility that you have for this planet.
SP: I do extend that to the sentiment to the generation. An example is an upcoming project which is not for my generation. It’s for the generations after. For it, I want to work with the idea of landscape and memory. Almost create a map for further generations with the last sweet drops of memory of the less tarnished land by asking people who have visited the landscape a few decades ago to send in photos and describe it. You don’t know what these landscapes will look like 20 years down the line. I hope that through these memories accumulated, people who contribute to this project can go back and think, ‘Oh, this was a photograph that was taken way back in the 70s of the 80s and the landscape looked like this.’
I want this treasure hunt or degraded treasure hunt if i may say so (laughs) to be this map for them, because when they see the world from two generations before, I hope they get a glimpse of what the world once seemed like. This is not to say it was better or worse, but it has just captured the essence of that place and time.
So yes, when I build stories for two generations ahead of me, I need to have that empathy, that compassion for the future of this planet. Otherwise, why would I do such a project if I thought everything was hopeless? The idea that I’m building something for generations ahead keeps me hopeful. The empathy for the planet comes very easily when you realize that we are all made of the same stuff in our life – the same components.
So you treat the Earth as a sibling, as a part of you…almost an extension of you. Look at the science. In the bigger picture, we are all made of stardust, the same material. So then, how do you treat this planet in a foreign way?”
And I want generations to see that. I don’t want to leave it in such a degraded way. I also realize that I’m a very small figure in the big, big picture of things. If we were to go away as a species, life would still carry on in some form, you know, but it is my hope for my people that we can keep the earth habitable for the ones who come after us.
AS: It reminds me of something that Rumi wrote – you’re not a drop in the ocean, you’re the entire ocean in a drop. And every story that you tell has a ripple effect. But is there any positive change that you’ve seen, you know, it could be within you or around you related to the environment that you hope carries on after the pandemic?
SP: Early on during the stringent lockdown period of the pandemic, there were many stories about nature healing…about air quality being better, rivers being clearer. But these are ephemeral moments of hope. What after the pandemic? The minute we are set free, we will go back to the same things and same polluting ways.
Instead of ephemeral hope, we should aim for sustainability and develop stories that can lead to solutions. I think that is what this conversation is missing.
AS: I think the idea of sustained hope is what we need today. Any positive environment stories, organisations or people on your radar?
SP: Yeah, lots. I read more than I write. So there is a project by Siddharth Agarwal called Veditum Project. He is walking along India’s rivers and does a lot of great work based on ground reporting and slow reporting. His stories are like chapters in a book. I also love Nina MacLaughlin’s six-part series on the sky in the Paris Review. She writes beautifully and delves on one question related to the sky each time. Solution-based stories by BBC Future Planet are refreshing. I’ve also tried diversifying my reading list by focusing on including local storytellers. I loved the film Village Rockstars set in Assam (on the floods)…the idea that a landscape can be the central character in a film is fascinating!
AS: In your opinion, what is the role of an environmental storyteller today?
SP: As a storyteller, for me, one of the most beautiful ways of existence is the propagation of wisdom,or ideas to the next generation. You do this as a process of self-division. In nature, a single living cell divides into two. And then it divides into four, then eight. And then, a beautiful organism is created. In the end, it becomes so infinite that it all becomes one. So the identity of the organism depends on the two, or the four or the eight divisions that emanate from one ‘original’ cell.and that’s how I want to live my life through my storytelling. If I can transmit my understanding of the world, my ideas, my stories to the next generation through two, four or eight readers, who then propagate it further, then I have done my part. That idea of self-division is what I aspire as a storyteller.
When I have to do that propagation, I decide on what art form meets the needs of the story. Every story doesn’t merit the written word, or poetry or fancy graphics.
As reporters, we also need to understand the dual role we play of portraying reality as well as propagating it. Through our pieces, we are saying that this is the reality, but at the same time what we are saying will become a form of reality as well. So there’s a double responsibility and many times these two ideas clash with each other. As a storyteller, you need to walk that thin line. If you steer towards either one, there needs to be a solid reason.
AS: Lastly, the best advice you have received and would like to leave us with?
SP: We stand on the shoulders of giants as storytellers. At the same time, we should never worship our idols blindly. We should be able to question their beliefs, debate with them. We should be able to see through our own pretense. And finally, I think we really need to give ourselves and each other the space to stumble and make mistakes.