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An interview with Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellows, Emily Toner and Jen Guyton

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In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating members of the National Geographic community who are expanding the field for more women, like Explorers Emily Toner and Jen Guyton. While they’re both Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellows, they each take a different approach to storytelling: Emily is a writer focused on land (specifically, soil), while Jen is a photographer who works with wildlife. But when a travel snafu inspired Jen to visit Emily in Ireland, they stumbled into a story and knew they had to tell it together. We asked them to share their perspective on supporting each other in the field, including their advice for women pursuing a career in storytelling.

Tell us about your work!

Emily Toner:I explore the world with soil in mind, asking how soil has impacted culture and how communities are changing the land around them. Right now I am exploring Ireland with the question: How have bogs shaped Irish culture and how are the Irish impacting their bogs?

Jen Guyton: I’m a photographer, using my background in ecology to tell stories about the natural world and the people working to conserve it.

Since connecting through your fellowship, what have you been able to learn from each other?

Emily:I met Jen in July 2018 at our Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling fellowship orientation. Jen shares her experiences and knowledge in a way that allows others to benefit from what she has learned along the way. I also appreciate her focus and drive; Jen’s work ethic makes her a great collaborator.

Jen: I’ve learned so much from Emily about her current subject—peat bogs—but she’s taught me much more than just that. I love seeing the way Emily interacts with people and the way she approaches everything with curiosity and objectivity. Watching her at work has strengthened my own storytelling skills.

Further, as an early career storyteller who has mostly worked solo, it was enlightening for me to experience the power of working together with someone on a project. We were able to bring totally different skills and different perspectives to the work, which made the reporting so much stronger than it would have been if either of us had worked on it alone.

I’m really excited to continue collaborating on this project—and others—with Emily! I’m hugely grateful to her for opening up her story and her field site to me for this collaboration.

What inspired this collaboration?

Emily: Our shared curiosity to explore Ireland’s uniquely biodiverse and threatened landscape, the bog. One of the biggest things I learned from [working with Jen] is how much more can be accomplished working as a team as opposed to working alone, especially with motivated partners who have complimentary skills. I would go back out into the field with Jen anytime.

Jen: Both of us have an interest in the natural world, her through soil and me through wildlife. I was dying to know more about these peat bogs that Emily kept talking about, and I had some spare time thanks to visa delays in my host country. I decided to visit her, and maybe help out by providing some imagery that she could use for her stories. The exact story we ended up covering—snipe hawking, a form of falconry that takes place on the bogs—was total serendipity. We met one of Emily’s contacts for a rather uneventful walk on a bog, he asked if we wanted to come look at some falcons later that day, and that was that. We followed it where it took us, and spent the rest of the week working on that story. I wish we’d had much more time.
It’s so great to see two women supporting each other’s work. What challenges have you faced as a female in your field? What has helped you overcome those challenges?

Emily: Too often the leaders in a field of work, currently and historically, lack female representation. I have made a point to notice and engage with women in my areas of work, and to scrutinize where women aren’t represented, currently or historically. Role models have an important role all our lives, celebrating and learning from female role models, and realizing your own power to set an example, is important.

Jen: Science has shown that men are judged by their perceived potential, while women are judged by what they’ve already accomplished. We have to work harder to prove ourselves.

Overcoming that challenge requires acknowledging that reality, and then focusing on persevering at all costs. It’s not easy, but for me, failure doesn’t feel like an option—I can’t imagine being anything but a photographer.

What advice do you have for other women who are pursuing a career in storytelling?

Emily: Your perspective is valuable. If you are researching and telling a story where you feel at odds with the normal narrative, that does not mean you are out of place, it means your perspective is needed. Keep going, keep working hard, keep believing in yourself and support other women around you to do the same.

Jen: You have to develop a thick skin to break into this industry, no matter your gender. Don’t let rejection deter you. Have faith in yourself, cultivate fearlessness, and remember that a rejection is just one person’s opinion. Learn from it, and then move forward. When that feels difficult, reach out to other women in this industry—there’s a phenomenal support network among female storytellers.

Photo courtesy of Jen Guyton and Emily Toner.

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