Asha Stuart wields filmmaking as a means of social, racial justice
The anthropologist and documentarian wants to ‘wake people up’ to issues disproportionately affecting people of color
As she remembers it, National Geographic Explorer Asha Stuart was nine years old when an indelible image was etched into her memory. Though uninterested in baseball, she found herself at a Braves game with her grandfather, who halted their walk from the Atlanta arena’s halls to their stadium seats to appreciate a moment in history.
“We walk in, and he’s like, ‘before we go in there, I want to show you something,” Stuart recounts. A photography exhibit was on display that day.
“You see these stoic African American baseball players, and you see these white people just throwing stuff at them and they’re still smiling.” The stills tell the story of a time when African Americans were barred from major leagues. “It ended up being the United Negro baseball team,” Stuart recalls. “When I walked into that stadium I was so proud. I was like ‘this is what we overcame.’ Those pictures were ingrained in my memory.” In retrospect, she says the experience fueled her interest in social justice and awakened her to the lasting impact of visual storytelling.
Right now, Stuart is waiting on a storm. She’s preparing “mentally, physically, and logistically,” for the early stages of filming her latest work—a documentary spotlighting the disproportionate effects of climate-related disasters on communities of color. “It’s crazy because where I’m sitting, across the street is where the United Negro team used to play,” Stuart laughs. For the anthropologist and documentarian, the upcoming project, like all of her work, is rooted in a personal connection.
“As a Black woman, I can only speak from my perspective. I think a lot of the time the stories of Black people do not humanize us in a way that is accurate about who we are as people and who we are as a culture,” Stuart shares. “I think the climate crisis, when it comes to African American communities, is heavily underreported.”
Like the plight of people living in the Gullah Geechee Corridor, a coastal stretch in the southeastern United States where the descendants of African slaves have maintained their cultural heritage and have cultivated a deep connection with the land. After a storm in the area, Stuart landed promptly in the aftermath to document extreme flooding: a disastrous outcome for the community of farmers.
Now she waits, confident in the somber reality that a storm will make landfall in America’s Deep South again in due time. When it does, she plans to capture the phenomenon of climate gentrification in Miami, where the sea-level rise is expected to hit communities of color the hardest. Stuart will also record stories from “Cancer Alley,” an industrial hub along the Mississippi River drenched in petrochemicals responsible for doubling the cancer risk of its mostly African American community. The collective testimonies will complete Stuart’s documentary film, supported by a partnership between the National Geographic Society and The Climate Pledge, which funds global climate storytelling.
“I’m trying to highlight this issue to wake people up, to get them to see it,” Stuart says of the African American community’s particular vulnerability to climate change. She’s intentional about developing a “genuine human connection” with the people whose stories she tells. “When you do this I think that beautiful things happen.”
Stuart’s family instilled in her a set of values: “Be social justice oriented. Care about your community. Treat others with respect.” Her late aunt had a long and successful career with the Public Broadcasting Service, marked by a determination to understand dynamic issues and the human experience, which she imparted onto Stuart. “From a young age, Barbara Stuart really played a significant role in my life.”
Stuart’s grandparents had a home in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward District during her childhood. “It’s really where the civil rights movement kind of spawned. It was an area where a lot of activists, entrepreneurs, artists lived during that era,” Stuart says.
Her passion for culture, societies, and human behavior led her to pursue an anthropology degree. Stuart trained herself to become an expert in videography, which became the visual vehicle through which she communicates her anthropological ideas.
“I would say, the most powerful storytelling tool that anybody has is their ability to be themselves authentically...”—Asha Stuart
The beautiful thing about her work, she says, is that it is the natural result of interacting with people from all walks of life.
“I think that each place I go, I pick up a little bit from each person.” Every engagement, she explains, is an opportunity “to learn, to grow, and to take these preconceived notions that we all have and shake them up.”
Stuart has picked up a little bit from people around the world. She’s traveled to Bangladesh to tell stories of the harrowing journeys made by Rohingya climate migrants and documented the problem of gender-based violence in Southern Africa. Her first Society-funded film captured a rare look at the Siddi people, a reclusive African diaspora community struggling for visibility and against racism in the villages they reside in across India.
Stuart’s story interests are centered around marginalized communities facing injustice, nevertheless, her storytelling transmits an unignorable resilience. Her short film on the Siddi people concludes with flashes of cultural celebration and pride, not unlike the smiles on the walls in that Atlanta stadium that left a lasting impression on her.
For Stuart, powerful images have this effect. “When I was a little girl, looking at that photo essay of the United Negro team, those images stayed with me.” In her case, it fueled her interest to create impactful images herself. She insists the key to authentic storytelling lies in the heart.
“I would say, the most powerful storytelling tool that anybody has is their ability to be themselves authentically,” she says, “and go after stories that really are what you want to tell.”
Stuart will produce a documentary film portraying climate-related justice themes as part of a collaboration between the National Geographic Society and The Climate Pledge, launched in May 2022. The partnership supports National Geographic Explorers documenting the global climate crisis as part of the Society’s Global Storytellers Fund.
ABOUT THE WRITER
For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.