This is the first part of our new series called “How Freelancers Make It Work,” where freelancers on the Storyhunter platform talk about what life is like as a freelancer. Recently, we spoke to Sara Escobar who works with Pablo Ramos at Tortugas al Viento, a two-person production house based in Mexico. Sara and Pablo left their jobs in traditional media to address civil rights issues through visual storytelling of struggle and survival in Mexico.
Storyhunter: When did you start freelancing?
Tortugas al Viento: We started out in traditional media — I first worked as a camera woman for two TV channels, and after that as a photographer for a newspaper. In Mexico it’s difficult to do the kind of journalism you want in traditional media because there will always be a corporate person acting as a filter serving different interests. So maybe you take a great photo, but they will cut it if they need the story to lean a certain way.
After six years of working like that, Pablo and I decided to take a chance and work by ourselves. At first it was really difficult and it has taken us around three years to feel like it was going well.
S: Why were your photos censored?
TV: The last year I was at the newspaper an assignment came in on narco-traffic work. Not only was there the political issue of what the newspaper was going to take out and what they were going to keep, but there was the question of security for our subjects — we were covering news about drug trafficking without being able to tell the entire context of the situation. You need to be really ethical with that because it’s not something simple. I think newspapers and TV channels are serving the interests of politicians and private companies -information and public responsibility are the last things on their minds. That’s the reason we decided to get out of that world.
S: As newly minted freelance journalists, what stories do you most like to cover?
The themes we like most are social issues. About how people live and how they confront the various situations in this country. There are people here in Mexico struggling, and we need to talk about it.
S: How do you balance your personal projects with assignments?
TV: Before working as freelancers, we created a documentary collective called Dospasosabajo. Dospasosabajo is a space for creation and solidarity with independent filmmakers.
When we decided to work as freelancers, we also decided to keep the two worlds of freelancing and the collective separate, so we founded Tortugas al Viento just for commissioned assignments. We think the three most indispensable things for personal projects and for assignments are to be happy with what you do, tell things you think are important for building better societies, and always keep learning.
Our assignments support our private projects, but we try to give all our free time to our collective.That’s how we have found a balance: being autonomous in our work and not losing sight of projects we really want to work on, even if we don’t have funding.
S: What personal projects are you currently working on?
TV: We are starting a new project on medical negligence in the the Mexican medical system. We’re working with some people who have faced that problem, including myself. It stems from my father’s death two months ago. He had cancer and they didn’t tell him anything for eight months and by then it was too late. Right now we are working on the pre-production of that documentary and we will start production for that in two or three months.
S: I hope it goes well. Is it hard being your own boss when it comes to managing freelance assignments and projects like that?
TV: Yes, it is really hard. It’s easy to get lost in a project and forget about other responsibilities — like when you realize you have to budget your money because you don’t have the assurance of receiving a salary every two weeks. But it’s a good experience deciding what projects you want to work and how you want to organize your time.
S: You recently shot a documentary on location in Guerrero. What was it about?
TV: In the 1970s there were guerillas there called Partida de los Pobres-“the poor people’s party.” The movement was a threat to the government, so the government decided to start a low-profile war, disappearing and murdering a lot of people in Guerrero. An organization dedicated to finding these missing persons hired us to do a documentary about their research and to go with them to find those bodies and record everything on those journeys.
It was an important project for us because it’s important for Mexico’s civil rights. It was also important to us personally because we discovered another aspect to journalism and one that nobody talks about. In journalism school you are taught to be objective. But sometimes we make mistakes about being objective. We are human, not robots, and we need to pay attention to our emotions when we document a thing like that. In our films, we try and let the story speak for itself, but we would never say that a story has nothing to do with our own history. Just the fact of choosing a story means it moves something inside you. Otherwise, why are you spending two years working on it?
S: What would you say about the safety level for journalists in Mexico and what do you do to keep safe?
TV: A lot of journalists have been killed here in Mexico in recent years. We thought we were safer in Mexico City, but one of our partners, a photojournalist who was escaping from another state, was recently killed in downtown Mexico City. For us — and I’m speaking for all the journalists and photographers in Mexico — it was sad and terrible. When that happened, we as a community decided that we had to do something. We all decided that we needed to establish a protocol to take care of each other when we were in the field or when we were working on difficult story. It’s a really simple protocol — we just let everyone know where we are going to work, when we are going to be there, and our insurance numbers.
Pablo and I have never experienced a real problem with security, but we feel safe if a friend knows where we are. For example, when we were on the US-Mexico border making a video about it, someone came and asked us what we were doing there. We didn’t know at the time where we were standing was a heavy drug trafficking area. Our taxi driver had to tell them, “No, they are my friends, they are with me. Don’t worry, they are not going to talk about you.” So we had to run, but the good thing was we were going to Brownsville, Texas, that day, so we just crossed the border. If anything had happened, the person who was was expecting our call could have reacted.
S: How do you find a stories like the ones you’ve mentioned?
TV: We are always reading newspapers and checking our social networks, but we think talking to people is the best way to find stories. For our documentary movie, Causar Alta (“To enlist”), we discovered our main character because he was our bus driver while we were travelling in Oaxaca. If we hadn’t talked to him, we would never have known how to find the other soldiers for our film.
SH: Do you have any advice for other freelancers out there?
TV: The most important thing in this job is to realize that we are working with real people. We have to respect them, prioritize their well-being, and be always honest with them, because after our video ends their lives continue. A video or a photo will never be more important than a human life.
By Jindalae Suh, Writer at Storyhunter