Sara Penrhyn Jones
Through participatory filmmaking, Sara Penrhyn Jones, Senior Lecturer in Media at Bath Spa University, is addressing issues of climate change in communities across the globe.
Throughout my career, I’ve always been interested in giving a voice to the voiceless. After graduating in English literature, I worked at a feminist television company where they trained women to do conventionally male jobs, such as camera work. I started by making observational documentaries that addressed issues of social injustice, but over time I became more interested in participatory projects – what people could gain from the process of filmmaking itself. For example, one project worked with formerly incarcerated women to make videos about their own lives. I then took an opportunity to become a lecturer in media.
At a UN climate change conference I met a woman from the island nation of Kiribati, who made me cry when she described how she didn’t see a future for her community due to rising sea levels. It stayed with me, and when the UK suffered fierce winter storms in 2013/14, I was inspired to look at how our coastal communities were dealing with their vulnerability, compared with this island in the Pacific. The project, Troubled Waters, was a truly collaborative effort from a group of women, including academics in the UK and also a core group of women in Kiribati. They have since gone on to tackle other environmental issues in their community, such as waste. The project empowered us all in a way that was mutually beneficial – together we were far greater than the sum of our parts.
In my work it’s very important to be able to listen. If you are going into a vulnerable community, your work needs to be based on true understanding and respect. The projects I have been involved in have worked because of the enormous amount of energy the team and I have put into building relationships. Women tend to be good at this, but it is very labour-intensive. These skills are not always valued as much as they should be.
If you want to do creative work it’s really important to upskill yourself. Don’t be daunted by a lack of technical know-how; find out what skills you need, and then learn through experience or training. The same goes for the projects you want to work on. There is now a lot of interest in how the arts and humanities can contribute to global challenges, such as climate change, but there wasn’t when I first started, so I found my own opportunities and sought funding. Don’t think you’re not ready; everyone learns through trial and error.
I can’t help but feel there’s an irony in my ‘achievements’. In one sense, I’ve successfully fast-tracked through the academy via an unconventional route, to lead many research projects that I believe have had a positive social impact. Yet at the same time I am in an economically precarious position, where I’m reliant on finding funding for my work. I am fortunate to do a job I love in a very supportive institution, but I experience both the positive and negative effects of being on a fractional contract. Generally, women have to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously as men. There are still structural and societal issues to address in the UK, for women to achieve their full potential.