INTERVIEW: Maggie Andresen, 2018 Food Sustainability Media Award Winner

by Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 16 January 2019 12:15 GMT

Where did the idea for the story come from? What did you see or hear about that sparked your interest?

The images I have always generally seen associated with childhood malnutrition often depict children with wasting or kwashiorkor, and I really wanted to branch away from harmful and stereotypical representations of food insecurity on the African continent. I had the privilege of covering childhood malnutrition in Rwanda in partnership with a small nonprofit organization that allowed me to look more holistically at some of the systems that contributed to malnutrition, not just the symptoms that result in consequence, so this photo essay was my way of trying to cover the issue in a more in-depth manner.

Your intimate and affecting images from Rwanda must have required a lot of trust from your subjects to shoot. How did you establish that? And did you get a sense that the interventions you saw, to help these families deal with malnutrition, were likely to work – or be scaled up? How intractable are these kind of problems?

There were many challenges that rose during the production of this photo essay, but the most important part was always to ensure that Claudine was comfortable with the process of documentation. “Do no harm” is a core piece of ethical journalism, and so it was essential that she was on board for the duration of the project. There are so many photos not published in this iteration of the essay, hundreds that could have been substituted, that show the quiet family moments I had the privilege of being present for. I think that’s what allowed the trust to build – being happy to just spend time with the whole family.

Generational and childhood chronic malnutrition is usually indicative of other issues that go beyond getting enough to eat, or eating the right things. Poverty, education, gender-based violence, basic hygiene, long distances to health centers that prompt people to seek traditional healing instead of doctor-approved medicine; these challenges are intersectional. The families I met were all educated in these various subjects in addition to nutrition classes and agriculture practicals, and so the approach generally yielded really positive results because it was so comprehensive. In the case of Claudine and her family, the biggest barrier to her children’s health was housing insecurity. Once that changed, her daughters stabilized and are no longer considered malnourished.

Is food sustainability an ongoing interest for you? If so, how did you become interested?

Any subject that illustrates the disparity in resource allocation between groups of people is interesting to me, and food sustainability definitely fits into that category. The gap between people who farm for subsistence and factory farms pushing out all competition, the way we treat the owners of produce companies versus the people preparing our food, it’s an issue that highlights many of the institutional prejudices our societies hold. I absolutely look forward to doing more intersectional reporting in this context.

How well do you think food sustainability issues are covered in the media today? What role do you think journalists can play in addressing the challenges within our food systems?

I feel that it’s essential for journalists to humanize the consequences of the food and climate crisis, because many of these issues are universally relatable. By telling people-centric stories that encapsulate the magnitude of these issues, we can better capture the attention and empathy of readers and viewers. I think we’re going to see a lot more of food sustainability reporting as it relates to climate change going forward, and that’s certainly relevant to our audience, but we have to remember to continue covering all aspects of the issue.  

What are the main obstacles you or others face in reporting on these issues?

Access is definitely one issue that comes to mind. For others, getting the interest of publishers in what some consider a “niche” field instead of an essential reporting beat is what gets in the way. Financial barriers, especially for freelancers like myself, are difficult to navigate as well.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experience since winning the Award?

It was such a privilege to meet the winner in the unpublished written category, Nastasha Alli, as well as the winners in the published categories, Gregg Segal and Helena Bottemiller Evich. The conference was held in Milan, and included the 2018 BCFN YES! cohort of PhD candidates competing for research funding. Watching the diverse projects presented by young researchers from around the globe was very inspiring. It was a very unique opportunity to witness the intersection of media and research!

What’s next for you and your food sustainability coverage? Do you have any plans to cover any other related issues?

I’m actually following up with one of the BCFN YES! candidates who was not successful in the competition to see if there’s potential for a story in Nigeria on the intersection of migration and food security. Additionally I hope to do some reporting on the food industry’s contributions to climate change. Besides that, I will be completing a food sustainability media training course with Reuters next Spring.

See Maggie's winning entry here and visit the Food Sustainability Media Award website.