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Guest speaker Sarah Stillman lectures about the anthropological techniques in journalism

By Audrey Kemp

Sarah Stillman, a staff writer at the New Yorker, visited UC Irvine on Jan. 24 to present “Guerrilla Tactics,” a lecture on the benefits of anthropological techniques in journalism.


The free event was part of UCI’s Illuminations Author Series, co-sponsored by the Chancellor’s Arts and Culture Initiative and the department of English.


Founder and director of the literary journalism program at UC Irvine, Barry Siegel noted Stillman’s work is of great value in the current climate of absolutes and unwavering opinions. As Siegel welcomed Stillman to the stage, he said of her work, “Sarah relies instead on the powers of storytelling, on reporting-based narrative to make an impact on public perceptions, and to help shape the national discussion about issues that matter.”


Prior to the New Yorker, Stillman wrote for the “Washington Post,” the Nation, the New Republic, Slate magazine and the Atlantic. Her prolific work covers a range of topics — some of which include exposing human trafficking on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and the dangers of being a young confidential informant in the war on drugs — and has received various awards, including the MacArthur Genius Grant, the National Magazine Award and the Overseas Press Club Award, among others, for her work.


Siegel said Stillman’s work, which has most recently tackled immigration and criminal justice,  reflects an interest in entirely overlooked issues. “She’s after what we’re missing — as she puts it, ‘something crucial that is unfolding off to the side,’” he added.


According to Stillman, her anthropology background, specifically with ethnography —  the anthropological study of people and cultures — has trained her to pursue the formidable rather than the sensational. One such technique is learning to look for stories heuristically: “Journalism too often has a bias for anomaly, for the crazy, awful, catastrophic, traumatic moments in peoples’ lives,” she said. “Anthropology has taught me how to look at the moments of the everyday.”


As a migration reporter, Stillman said stepping into the shoes of her subjects has helped her to understand them; this involves mastery of the ride-along — accompanying them to church or while they shop for groceries. Stillman put that skill to use in her piece “Kidnapped at the Border,” which involved the abductions of undocumented migrants attempting to get to the United States. “I really think it was being in the church service with them, giving them a sense that I actually cared about those parts of their lives that had some meaning in the reporting process,” she said.


Apart from her journalistic pursuits, Stillman teaches literary nonfiction writing at Yale. She also directs the Global Migration Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she teaches a course on covering immigration and refugee issues with ethnographic methods, specifically cultivation and analysis of original data. Her New Yorker piece, “When Deportation is a Death Sentence” highlights a database of over 60 cases of asylum seekers who were deported to their deaths, a joint-effort by her and a dozen of her graduate students.


Stillman’s other storytelling strategy is framing an individual’s story to illuminate larger systemic injustices, as in the case of five-year-old Helen, who was detained at the border, separated from her grandmother and persuaded to sign away her rights.


When an attendee asked her about the journalist trope of “giving a voice to the voiceless,” Stillman said she views it as a construct she has never been comfortable with, as it reinforces the stereotype that certain groups of people cannot speak for themselves. Rather, what she would like to see in the future of immigration reporting is an elimination of the extreme xenophobic-empathetic binary. According to Stillman, the media has a tendency to make it seem that an immigrant in America is either the hyper-victim or the super exceptional, for example, the valedictorian DACA recipient.


“When we start to see people strictly through the lens of victimization, or strictly through the lens of trauma,” she said. “We are actually reinforcing the things we are trying to undo and challenge.”


Stillman closed her speech with a quote from Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska which she connected to long-form investigative reporting, arguing that its demand is higher than ever, as it can counter today’s fast-paced, sensational media climate.


“In daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like ‘the ordinary world,’ ‘ordinary life,’” Stillman continued. “But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal.”