At Oliberté, we believe that the only way to continually bring pride and prosperity in Africa is if it is a joint effort by several persons, brands and partners. “Ambassadors” will feature subjects who are directly or indirectly working with non-profit or social good organizations or those who exemplify a passion for Africa and its citizens.
Adam Sjöberg is based in Downtown Los Angeles, but he is rarely there. Instead, he can be found in one country after another, from Uganda to Yemen, working as a documentary videographer/storyteller for a select number of nonprofits and socially conscious ventures including Warby Parker and Troy Palomalu’s nonprofit football camp in American Samoa. On the side, for the last couple of years, he has been putting together a documentary that he tells us more about below, Shake the Dust, which is on the cusp of release. We, for one, are pretty stoked to see it.
Tell us a bit about your background? How did you get into documenting?
I’ve always been creatively curious. When I was a kid I used to run around with my grandfather’s giant home video camera and make documentaries about my family and horror movies with my friends. After graduating with a degree in Fine Art, I began traveling extensively. It was on these trips that my curiosity and eagerness to learn provided my greatest education yet. I’m constantly a student of the world, anxiously desiring to listen, learn, and ultimately provide an avenue for other people to tell their own story, rather than projecting their story onto them.
Based on your experience, what advice would you give to someone who wants to do photo/video documenting for non profit or social justice?
The list is long. But the gist of it is this: We often go into foreign situations full of opinions and our own perspectives. This is, in some ways, unavoidable. But the job of a photographer or filmmaker should be (in this order): listen, ask meaningful questions, build meaningful relationships, and then turn on the camera. This takes more time, but is so much more exciting and energizing and ultimately produces far more interesting and honest stories.
What sort of challenges do you face on a daily basis?
I’m regularly working on how to stay centered and balanced when my world is constantly shifting. When I’m working on a project internationally, I can never predict how it will affect me – both emotionally and physically. Spending so much time on airplanes, dealing with varying climates and socio-political situations can be exhausting. In order to do my job well, and be productive on the road, I have to give myself free time and space to process what I’m seeing, while also maintaining a schedule that keeps me balanced and productive.
What is the most rewarding accomplishment you’ve done in your career/life?
My ongoing project, which is coming to completion in 2013, has been a feature documentary about break-dancing and hip-hop in post-conflict areas. This project, Shake the Dust, has taught me so much and been so rewarding. Apart from the general good press the project has received (TEDx, BBC World News, GOOD magazine among others), it has been so personally rewarding. I’m almost dreading its completion because I’ve built such amazing relationships around the globe because of the project.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Africa today?
There are many, unfortunately. And Africa is a complicated place, so it’s hard to not over-simplify its problems. But we in the West tend to look at Africa and see starving people, children with flies on their faces, child soldiers, and despair. That is a sad and limiting perspective to take on any people group – especially such a massive continent with so many cultures and people groups comprising it. My biggest lesson has been this: The definition of poverty is relative. Poverty is less about material possessions and more about a mentality (often coupled with poor education), along with limited access to basic human necessities and rights. I have learned far more from my African friends then I’ve taught them. If we approached the continent of Africa with an inquisitive mind (i.e., “What are your needs?” “What can you teach me?” “How can we work together?”) we would find that we have far more in common and that the African people are capable and excited to work to improve their situation.
What can companies do to serve third world countries better than just giving money?
The best companies working in the developing world are companies that are building long-term partnerships where there is mutual respect and value given to the people of these countries. Companies of every kind would go far to help places that face economic challenges by creating sustainable jobs, with upward mobility, and investing in the country, rather than just robbing it of its plentiful resources and sending all of the profits of these jobs elsewhere. We don’t understand that sometimes “giving” is a complicated word. Giving can sometimes mean buying. Dignifying someone by trading resources (i.e. cash for goods) is treating people (like Africans) as we would treat any American.
When does Shake The Dust come out?
Shake the Dust is in the process of finishing production. Post-production wraps in September. More exciting details pending.
If you could have a one hour sit-down conversation with anyone in the world, living or deceased, who would it be and why?
Mother Theresa. I realize it’s a cliché, but she lived such a dynamic life and threw her whole heart into her work, often putting herself in grave danger in preference for the poor and sick. I would love to observe her, listen to her stories, and understand what it means to live so sacrificially.
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Interview by Nate Poekert, photography by Sherman Thomas