🎤 Interview: Ruxandra Guidi
Ruxandra Guidi is a co-founder of Fonografia Collective and a member of Homelands Productions. She has been telling stories for more than two decades. Her reporting for public radio, podcasts, magazines, and various multimedia outlets has taken her throughout the United States, the Caribbean, South and Central America, as well as Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border region. Her work has appeared in publications such as BBC World Service, NPR, Guernica Magazine, The New York Times and The Atlantic, among others. She’s a native of Caracas, Venezuela and is currently based in Tucson, Arizona.
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The written version of this audio below has been edited and condensed for clarity, slightly more so than the audio, which was was a rough edit in Descript in case folks wanted to listen. About 4 minutes into the audio there is some background noise that continues for about 20 seconds; apologies!
To start, can you share a little about your journey into storytelling?
I guess I was a late bloomer, in terms of career accomplishments or deciding to call yourself a journalist. But storytelling was always in my life. I discovered journalism as I was about to finish college.
My mentor was a journalist and a novelist, and I really was intrigued by this idea of dealing in nonfiction and then imagine worlds and what it is to tell stories. He really was kind of the first spark for me and took me under his wing. And then I started freelancing, and pretty soon after college I decided I wanted to be working independently. So that's another big, big part that defines me, is wanting to create my own thing and wanting to curve my own path as opposed to being a traditional journalist who takes assignments and like, whose work fits into specific silos.
I always wanted the freedom to write and tell the story I wanted to do and the way that I wanted to do it. Pretty early onI fell in love with audio and much of my career since has been telling audio stories or helping other people tell audio stories and then writing and helping other people with their writing. So I guess, I'm not typical, in terms of having chosen one path and having stuck to one thing.
You could say I'm really scattered. I like to think of myself more as like, I'm a Jack or a Jackie of all trades. I kind of have always wanted to like, get my hands in a different aspect of storytelling because one, I'm a freelancer and I have to like, remain nimble and figure out how to get paid for my work, but also because I'm kind of scattered in that way, and I've always found it really stimulating to learn all aspects of storytelling. So, that's where I am now after 20 plus years.
The company you co-founded, Fonografia Collective, focuses on “empathetic and culturally sensitive documentary storytelling about everyday people around the world.” How did the idea for your company come about?
To be honest, it's not like I set out, or we set out with my husband who's my partner in this, to do a company. It was more like, he's a photographer, I'm a journalist or editor. And we started reporting in Latin America and the US Mexico border pretty much as soon as we met.
I was still in my twenties when we started collaborating and we both identified with, with collaboration, right? Like what can we build? What kind of stories can we tell with both of our sensibilities, both of our eyes, you know, how can we like do stories that challenge stereotypes, that challenge the narrative?
That tells stories about Latin America for an audience in Latin America and in the us. I mean, I think now we seem to question some of these like prevailing narratives a little more, but when we started out, I feel like in the early 2000s there was still this very kind of rigid, foreign correspondent, small model, a lot of parachuting in a lot of like, really, frankly, if you ask me a lot of offensive coverage about a region that I care about a lot, where I come from.
And so we took it upon ourselves, to try to tell stories that really, are more sensitive. This idea of cultural sensitivity, right? How can we tell stories that single out, these people and the places where they're from and their wider cultures as unique as they are?
I think we have a tendency in us mainstream media to like group things together, right? Like, oh, you're from Venezuela. Oh, you're from where that dictator was, you know, 15 years ago. You're from Mexico, you, you know, you must be an undocumented, illegal immigrant. Or, you know, we have these like ideas and, and, and, and they're oftentimes wrong. They're oftentimes simplistic. They're oftentimes offensive.
So that's kind of where the idea started. And we were based abroad in Bolivia for a while, in Ecuador, and worked throughout the region. And the more we did this work, the more we wanted to bring in other people to collaborate with or to be able to mentor others, and to expand our ability to tell those stories. Not just reporting them or documenting them ourselves, but to be able to influence other publications we work with in doing this kind of work.
Now that sounds like a very lofty goal. I don't know that we've achieved it. I don't know that anyone can. But I think by creating Fonografia Collective and being recognized as this pair that works together, that works together with other people that isn't just interested in, in telling stories from mainstream media, but collaborating with, you know, we've done collaborations with arts organizations or with county offices, government offices, like we very much just wanna bring nonfiction storytelling to another realm. So that's how Fonografia Collective came about.
To be honest Fonografia is a word we made up. Now we've seen it in a few other places online, but ‘Fono-’ means sound, right. And ‘Grafia-’, from Latin originally is to write. So like writing with sound writing, you know, that we like the ‘fotografía’ in Spanish is photography. So it felt to us like an all-inclusive term for like documenting real life. So yeah, that's how that came about. But it wasn't really that, it started with wanting to start a company, but just doing the work and then trying to figure out, how can we formalize this thing, right? How can we try to codify it in a way?
What makes a good story about everyday people?
I think for starters, it begins with finding that connection with somebody. I think it's pretty problematic the way we typically work in journalism where we, someone decides, oftentimes someone sitting in an office behind a computer decides, it's Black History Month, let's, you know, let's fill that quota. Let's do our coverage because it's that time of the month, that time of the year, and we need to do it. As opposed to like constantly be covering the Black community and being aware of what matters in that community, for those people, with those people and, and thinking more holistically about what would be the sensitive, the thoughtful approach to telling stories about a Black community somewhere. And I feel like a lot of publications, they go about stories in flawed ways.
I mean, that's my main critique of U.S. journalism, especially in covering communities that they typically neglect. And so I really feel strongly about having a more respectful relationship to the people whose lives we cover, and making sure that they're invested in this coverage, that they feel that they understand the process of the documentation, the coverage, and they feel invested in telling this story.
What we do in journalism is, it's extractive, right? We approach people on a deadline. We ask 'em for what we need, we move on. But for most people sharing of their lives, welcoming you into their home, telling you what they feel, what they think is their very first experience doing, so they have no idea what you're doing with this information. They're trusting you with their lives.
And the more I did that kind of journalism, I felt very conflicted about the whole thing. I still do…and in essence I feel journalism is, is a difficult, ethically complex pursuit and I try to keep that front and center when I do any kind of story constantly. It's like, what am I asking of this people? Have I done as much as I possibly can to try to understand, to try to relate? Is there anything where they might feel wrongly represented where I need to kind of address from the get-go. Is there a better person who would be whom I wouldn't traumatize by asking certain questions?
I think for me it starts with like really identifying the best person who's in a good place to share of their lives, and also really focusing on that person, that place as inherently unique. I think another thing we do a lot in journalism is, well I said it earlier, we make generalizations. We come up with trends so that our stories kind of represent a wider group of people, but oftentimes we're, we're wrong, we're flawed, you know? To me, the process is stressful.
It's very stimulating, but it's also incredibly stressful because I feel such an emotional, ethical weight with it. But I'd like to think that taking longer time, taking my time to really identify that person, to get to know that person or people, you know, pay off.
So inherently that means that I'm really not cut out to do news, right? I don't like that lens. I like to take my time and to be able to figure out, is this the right approach? Is this the right person? Is this the right, right format? And if not, can I afford to, to switch gears? Can I afford to do this more respectful in a different way? So it's tricky. There's a love-hate relationship there with identifying the right way to tell a story.
Your most recent project, The Catch, is a podcast now in its second season. Can you pitch us your show?
The Catch is a podcast about modern day fishing. Some of the countries with economies that depend a lot on fishing basically are in this tricky situation where they're providing a major food source to the U.S., to China, Japan, Europe, but where there aren't really fully developed, supported economies, or social programs to help fishing communities. And we really wanted to take a look at those, and where we in the industrialized, Global North are implicated in that.
The first season was taking a look at squid fishing off the coast of Peru, how, how fishers are trying to organize, the failures of governments. That's kind of the, the norm in all these stories.
The podcast is in both English and Spanish, which I'm really proud of because these are all stories about Mexico, about Peru that I felt like needed to be heard in their original language.
The second season is in Mexico. It's in the Gulf of California. And it's taken a look at the Vaquita, which is, a porpoise that's endemic to the Gulf of California, and then how it intersects with other species, particularly shrimp, which is a very coveted type of shrimp that's consumed here in the U.S.
So it's really taking a very close look at fisheries in these countries and the ways that fishing really ripples out to so many other parts of the country and other many communities that depend on those fisheries.
How does this show connect to everyday people?
I really feel that it's, it's all too easy when telling non-fiction stories, let's focus on non-fiction. When telling non-fiction stories about current events, about policies, about trade deals, about economies, it's all too easy to forget where that all begins, right? It begins with people like you and me who need to put food on the table or who have a passion, right?
Like in telling stories about fishers, you realize that one, they're not against the environment, they're not out to like totally, destroy a fishery just for their own gain. They depend on that ecosystem. They depend on, on these places, on these resources, and they love the ocean. You know, like it's a way of life that most of us in cities just have no concept of whatsoever, right? Like most of us don't even know where, you know, our veggies come from, much less where our seafood comes from. And so I really wanted to communicate this way of seeing the world, this connection to oceans or to seas in that dependency on ecosystems and how complex it is, right?
But still keeping my focus on, on the people on that supply chain, right? We call it supply chain and. And I kind of go out of my way to try to explain what supply chain is in every, almost every episode because most people hear that term. But we don't really know what it means, and we don't really know that when we're talking about supply chain, it all starts with, you know, a fisher who gets up at three in the morning and goes out to fish all day. And works every single day of the year. Does not take holidays, does not like, you know, has to pack their lunch and has to pay for their gas for their motorboat out of pocket. And is, taking a loan from, from the cartels in the case of this community where we focused in Mexico in order to, to go out there to catch fish.
So, I really wanted to focus on this kind of minutia of everyday life, and just as it is, right? Without taking any sides, without showing you, here's a bad guy, here's a good guy. It's complex, it's nuanced. And that's where, that's where The Catch fits into this, I guess philosophy, which is very simple, but it's like, what do people live like, in different parts of the world?
And how can we, how have we been telling the story wrong or maybe not wrong, but how have we been overly simplifying or, or failing to kind of see how it connects to ours, right? Like, we live in a city, we buy our seafood in the supermarket, but we can relate to someone who's like raising a kid and they'd rather send them to college than have them like follow in their footsteps and, and go out fishing every day.
We can relate to that. Most of us can. So how can I tell stories that, that help bring that out? And that's What, I really wanted The Catch to be and what I've been really invested in, in focusing on in this podcast series.
One of the things I love about your podcast is that you talk about people working on solutions to unsustainable fishing practices. Sometimes we hear narrative podcasts functioning much like mainstream news in that they just talk about the problems. Why was it just as important to talk about people actually tackling the problem?
Because I think that's a fair more accurate representation of the world, that there are more people invested in making things work. That's one of my other critiques of the mainstream media, and this is around the world; this isn't just in the U.S. But the headlines that sell traditional news are built on reporting what's wrong and what's broken, and I think that's really shifted our perspective about the world and about each other.
And I think most people are out there, wanting to collaborate, wanting to do right by others, wanting to take personal responsibility or wanting to do, let's say, wanting to do right by their own neighborhood, by their own kids. I have to believe as a journalist and as a human, that most of us are invested in those solutions and I wanted to portray that in the reporting.
If you are willing to look, if you're willing to recast your view of the world and of journalism, I think you end up finding a lot more people who are working together for solutions. So in the case of, of fisheries, like I said earlier, I was honestly surprised to meet so many fishers since I started this project, who are part of sustainability initiatives, who are willing and interested in doing alternative fishing methods, who are trying to pressure the government to do right by them.
In Peru, it was really interesting to see how fishers were organizing to try to like come up with better pay to do right. And they were pressuring the government to get it together so they can work with the proper documentation. So I think most people, especially when it comes to environmental issues, do care. They don't know how, and they feel overwhelmed. And I'm particularly invested in seeing sustainability or just like awareness about climate in the environment go to the forefront.
You know, I want people to care. I want people to know that there's few things they can do. Maybe it's as simple as knowing where you buy your food or talking to others about it or sharing a piece of content that has enlightened you or, knowing who to boy boycott. I think we have a lot more power as consumers and as readers and as like, you know, neighbors that we believe, and so you can call it solutions journalism. I don't really like that term, but I think simply willing to stray from this, tendency to look at current events from a negative lens, from the perspective of what's wrong and what's broken, can really help. And it gives people agency, right? Like not everyone is, willing to be a victim of a broken system.
I believe most of us wouldn't like that characterization. Most of us would wanna be seen as the ones that are fighting to do things better. And I think that cuts across all lines, you know? Class, gender, race, ethnicity. I think most of us would resent that kind of characterization. So I take that seriously in my work.
There are podcasters who are afraid that they might come off as more of an activist than a journalist if they talk about solutions. What advice do you have for podcasters looking to talk about a social issue in a holistic way?
Yeah, I mean that's very real. I mean, I'll tell you real quick, I'm an immigrant from Venezuela and I started covering immigration when I started as a journalist. And I heard this a lot from my editors that I had to be biased. I had to be biased cuz I'm an immigrant myself. And I found it so simplistic and so lowest common denominator. You know, like, are you insulting my intelligence, my ability to recognize my own biases, my ability to see the world in a thoughtful, as you said, holistic way that simply because I'm an immigrant?
You know…first of all, I don't believe in objectivity. So I think, unpacking what objectivity means and represents, and deciding where you stand is super important. You know, the day that I quit journalism and I started doing more non-fiction and kind of really deciding my own unique path in journalism is the day that I said objectivity is bullshit. I don't wanna abide by it. What I stand for and by is a sense of justice, is this just, is this unjust? Okay then that's what my journalism can can dig into and can unpack. But objectivity is not it.
So I think really deciding where do you stand on objectivity and how much are you willing for this concept of objectivity to control the way you see the world to, to shape how you see the world in your work. I mean, unfortunately, many people have jobs in organizations where objectivity is sacrosanct, and they have to abide by that if that's the job you do, and I did for those earlier jobs. So that's a tricky one.
The other one is to be in touch with your editors, and the people who commission you about the importance to include activists voices in your story. You know, there is a definite bias by mainstream outlets, publications, podcasts, against… maybe not so much podcasts; we take some more liberties, but to not include activists, right?
Like activists are kind of like cast aside always. It's like, they're questioned, they're challenged more than, and even more so than power can be challenged, right? Or like powerful institutions. And so I go out of my way to really talk to and include activists, because I feel like their level of commitment and passion is often unparalleled. They know their shit inside and out. You know, they're connectors and they're the people. Oftentimes they're gonna save us, right? Like they're the people who are so invested on some of these issues that we're covering, that we're concerned about.
I wanna know from them, I feel like they're in the frontlines, but I have found it difficult, especially when I was younger to convince my editors to be like, yes, that's a very credible perspective, we need to include it. But there is a bias against activists, in the U.S. I feel.
And then lastly, I would say, that there shouldn't be such a thing as social justice journalism. It should be, our social justice framework should be there always in everything we cover all the time. I mean, as humans we are invested. We need to be invested in looking at everything from a social justice lens. I think that's part of the crisis in, in journalism today too, is I think a lot of publications have been documenting a world that is not the world that most of us live in. Right? A world where there has been just like gross injustice and, and corruption and disparity.
Only in recent years, honestly. I've been doing this for about 20 plus, 22 years now. I feel like only in the last five years is that message that the United States is a country where there's great disparity, great injustice is starting to kind of like bubble up to the top.
Before you know, it was, you look to Latin America to, to read those stories and that is also the thing that would bug me, right? It's like, here we have this kind of very binary view of the world, right? America, the American dream, you know the Global South it's where there's hunger and displacement and, and those are, those are the only narratives that exist in these places.
So, yeah, I mean, I hope that answers your question. Like it was kind of long-winded, but it's a big one for me. This is a social justice perspective on journalism for sure…on storytelling.
After working on a podcast about conservation, what are your hopes for the future of sustainable fishing and consumers?
Wow, that's a big one. I wish I had that magic wand. I definitely feel that we have a lot of power as individuals and as collectives, right? I mean, I would like to see people question more who made the things, who captured the things they eat and how? Right. And I'm not just talking about like, let's all become vegans and let's all shop at Whole Foods. Whole Foods is also problematic, right?
I think we have a lot more power in the decisions we make. I mentioned the word boycott before, I believe in economic boycotts. I believe in strikes. You know, if you want to shape how commerce, how businesses run, you have that power as a consumer, and I would like to see people take that role more, take that stance more.
I also think that like all of this has boils down to information, right? I mean, I can't assume that everyone's suddenly gonna be as invested or interested in the oceans and sustainability in the oceans, but I have seen in the 20 years I've been doing journalism, a growing interest in some of these issues. Suddenly, in the last year, we're looking at polls that say that up to 70% of Americans are just more invested in environmental issues1, and they think that the government should do more, and they're concerned about the climate crisis. I mean, this is how social change begins to happen, but we won't get there without access to information.
I would love to see also just more investment in great storytelling about these issues. I would love to see more podcasts delve into the space. There's a lot of them, but I'd like to see even more of it, right? I mean, clearly podcasts are a way that we’re reaching younger audiences, that we’re reaching more diverse audiences, that more people see as a credible source of information.
I think it's a thriving moment and space to be telling more of these environmental stories and social justice stories.
The following responses were not captured on audio.
What was the last thing you listened to?
I listened to Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative audiobook, narrated by her.
What was the last social impact action you took?
I donated to a family affected by the recent earthquake in southern Turkey.
If you could pass the mic to someone about a social issue you care about, who would it be and what would they talk about?
I’d pass the mic to Drew Berryhill, who started the Drutopia Nursery in an abandoned lot in a historically Black neighborhood in Tucson, where I live. Getting plants from him isn’t a transaction, but it’s really building community.
There were a couple of citations related to 70%; check out the following about perceptions of environmental issues in the past few years.
Pew | February 13, 2020 - As Economic Concerns Recede, Environmental Protection Rises on the Public’s Policy Agenda ; The latest: April 18, 2023 - What the data says about Americans’ views of climate change
Yale Climate Change Communication | September 27, 2021 - Dramatic increase in public beliefs and worries about climate change