Meet the OPC Members: Q&A With Roopa Gogineni

By Chad Bouchard

Roopa Gogineni is a freelance photographer and filmmaker who has worked around the globe, covering a range of issues including health care in India, food shortages in Sudan and turmoil in Somalia. She is based in Nairobi and Paris, and has completed first aid and hostile environment training. In 2017 she received Firelight Media’s Short Film Grant, which she used to find a documentary on Sudanese political satire for The New York Times. Her work has also appeared in VICE, NPR, CNN, Al Jazeera, PRI and The Guardian. In 2016, Gogineni traveled to South Sudan with OPC member Nicholas Kristof to help document “killing fields” for The New York Times.

Hometown: Charleston, WV.

Education: BA Diplomatic History & African Studies, University of Pennsylvania; MSc African Studies, University of Oxford.

Languages you speak: French, Spanish, Telugu, deteriorating Arabic and Swahili.

First job in journalism: Photographing West African and South Asian migrant workers fleeing Libya during the Arab Spring.

Countries reported from: Somalia, Sudan, Chad, South Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, India, Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Spain, USA.

When and why did you join the OPC? Joined in 2017. I’ve been a member of the Foreign Correspondents Association of East Africa for many years, which has been an amazingly supportive community and resource. I’m now working in other parts of the world and wanted to join a broader community of colleagues.

How did you become interested in reporting from Kenya?

I wanted to be near Somalia. It wasn’t feasible to live in Mogadishu at that time, so I moved to Nairobi to get close.

Major challenge as a journalist:
As a freelancer, funding is always a challenge. I’m bad at pursuing grants, or pitching big projects, and tend to sink lots of my money in offbeat stories before anyone is convinced by them.

Best journalism advice received:

Don’t wait for someone to send you somewhere. Carry oral rehydration salts. Dump cards every night and religiously backup hard drives.

Worst experience as a journalist:
I’ve had a couple bad experiences with commissioning editors who had certain ideas of what a story from Somalia or Chad should look like, and pushed me and my fixers into dangerous situations. In general, media has become more risk averse when sending foreign correspondents to cover war, but I’m always frustrated that there’s not the same regard for the local journalists or fixers.

When traveling, you like to… visit grocery stores (or the equivalent). It’s an old habit, and I don’t buy anything, but I love looking at what’s on or not on the shelves, watching checkout culture, reading headlines in local newspapers.

Hardest story: Reporting on a massacre in the Tana River Delta in Kenya, during a spate of violence between Pokomo farmers and Orma pastoralists. This particular attack (carried out with machetes) left 38 dead, many of them women and children. I arrived shortly after it had happened and the survivors were in a daze. The hardest part for me was seeing the impermanence of the story in the news. There was no greater war, or geopolitical relevance, and that impacted the news value of this unconscionable violence. That calculus continues to be hard.

Journalism heroes: As of today – Everardo Gonzalez, Jihan El-Tahri, Raymond Depardon, Homai Vyarawalla, Joe Sacco, Ofeibea Quist–Arcton.

Advice for journalists who want to work overseas: Move somewhere for a while. There’s no substitute to living in a place with your ear to the ground. There are ways to support yourself that may not be so obvious from home in the US. I got a gig writing art reviews for a Kenyan newspaper, then photographed for an airline industry magazine. It was not the work I had set out to do, but it I learned from the experience and paid my bills.

Dream job: I’ve always dreamed of making a Jean Rouch-esque ethnographic film of the UN/humanitarian tribe.

Favorite quote: Primum non nocere (First, do no harm). It’s the aphorism taught in medical school, but could equally inform the practice of journalism.

Most over-the-top assignment: Producing a Somalia Idol TV series (a departure from journalism…)

Most common mistake you’ve seen: Seeking “human” moments, raw emotion, at the expense of someone’s emotional wellbeing. We’re not psychologists, and there’s a limit to our cultural competency. I think we have a responsibility to not further someone’s trauma in the course of making a story. More generally, a lack of self-awareness.

Country you most want to return to: Mozambique.

Instagram handle: @roopagogineni