Behind “Prom King”: On Journalism and Advocacy with Sophia Nahli Allison
“I know for a fact that I am a human first and storyteller and documentarian second.” — Sophia Nahli Allison
Sophia Nahli Allison captured our hearts with her story of North Carolina transgender teen, Jermanni. She followed Jermanni’s attempts to run for prom king at his conservative high school, where administrators told him if he wanted to qualify for prom court, it would have to be as prom queen.
In her five-minute documentary, which she displays on promkingnc.com alongside resources for transgender youth, Sophia chronicled the challenges of following Jermanni, as school administrators attempted to block the sharing of his story.
Speaking with ViewFind, Sophia confided her conflict between journalistic boundaries and human rights advocacy, recalling how she had to refuse Jermanni a ride to prom, but picked him up from the dance after cameras stopped rolling. — Michelle Robertson
Michelle Robertson: Why did you become a documentary filmmaker ?
Sophia Nahli Allison: I grew up in a family full of art and music, and we lived in South Central [Los Angeles], so I really fell in love with community-based stories and what it meant to tell stories of marginalized communities.
My passion is telling stories that focus around people of color, the LGBTQ community and youth. I try to show positive stories that really empower them and create a platform for their voices to be heard, breaking away from stereotypes, making sure I don’t add negative stereotypes into an industry that has had a lot of privilege.
What spurred this particular story, and how did you meet Jermanni?
With this project, I went into it thinking it would be a happy story. I really wanted to tell a story about LGBTQ youth getting ready for prom.
I reached out to a lot of different organizations and finally, a place called QORDS (Queer Orientated Radical Days of Summer) — an amazing camp for queer and gender non-conforming trans youth — connected me to Jermanni.
We both thought he was going to be able to run for prom king. I thought the school was supportive. Little by little I started losing access with the school. The assistant principal would not speak to me because he was a minor, and then a couple of days later, he was told he could no longer run for prom king. That’s when I realized that my role in this was completely switching.
I realized, when something like this happens, that’s when people need to hear about it.
“My passion is telling stories that focus around people of color, the LGBTQ community and youth.”
Did Jermanni go to prom? How was it?
He took a taxi to prom, went by himself. Actually I picked him up from prom because he did not have a ride. I explained to him why I could not take him to prom. I said, if I take you, I am changing the story, and though I’d love to take you, there are guidelines I have to follow as a journalist. If I take you to prom, I am the reason you’re going to prom and I’m changing the outcome of the story.
I didn’t have a problem picking him up. The story was over at that point.
I’m interested in the boundaries of the photojournalist. On the one hand, journalists must be objective. And on the other hand, no — you have this platform and you have to use it to create viable social change. You spoke to stepping back as a strictly objective journalist to become more of an advocate. How did you grapple with these roles?
From undergrad, you’re taught that you’re objective. You’re supposed to be on the sidelines and document what is happening. But I think that’s such BS; you can’t do that. If you’re in the industry, you’re in it because you care and because you know right from wrong. I’m not losing my objectivity by saying it’s wrong to discriminate. I think that’s just common sense and human nature.
I didn’t ever want my involvement in my story to change the outcome. So it was also that fine line of how do you make sure you get involved without changing the story, but at the same time, realizing Jermanni didn’t have support from home or support from school.
“If you’re in the industry, you’re in it because you care and because you just know right from wrong.”
Myself as an adult…I just couldn’t let that happen to a young person. I’ve worked teaching youth before, and I just care so much about young people having autonomy and having that freedom over their self-expression and understanding that their voice matters. As an adult I just couldn’t stand by and act like I was a documentary filmmaker.
I know for a fact that I am a human first and storyteller and documentarian second. We’re taught we have to be objective and stand on the sideline, but I think the only way we can really see change is when we get involved and we’re more than just a person with a camera.
At ViewFind, we’re always talking about the power of visual storytelling. Why is visual storytelling so impactful?
Visual stories are important because we’re more than just one-dimensional; we go through life seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting. The more we can tap into these senses, the more emotions we [elicit].
The stories we publish on ViewFind are often driven by individual’s narratives. Instead of focusing on covering every member of a community, we often try to tell the story of that community through one individual. Without having it stand in as a representative of an entire population, how do you use an individual’s story to elicit stronger emotions from readers/viewers?
I think when you try to focus on a community as a whole, you start to generalize them, and again, it becomes that stereotype. But by saying this is one person in the community and one struggle that someone has gone through, it helps people relate and connect to them as a human, instead of all of those labels of being trans or being black or being in high school.
I don’t ever want anyone to think Jermanni’s story is the story for all trans youth in North Carolina because I haven’t met all of them or know all of them. But this has happened to one young person, and if it can happen to him it can keep happening.
That’s the importance of focusing in: People see how one person is affected, and it makes it more personal.
“Visual stories are important because we’re more than just one-dimensional; we go through life seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting.”
Especially in light of the recent events in Orlando, sometimes I struggle to maintain a sense of optimism in this climate of hate and violence. How do you maintain hope?
It’s been so heavy seeing all the tragedy, discrimination and heartbreak happening right now. There are times I feel helpless, but my mom told me to always see the light. That’s what we have to do.
We have to realize we’re powerful enough to create change. We want people to understand why our voice and our stories are important. We have to keep treating people with kindness and realizing our work will make a difference.
It gets hard and depressing, and there are times I feel helpless, but I have to realize if I give up, then that means other people will give up. We have to stay strong enough to keep fighting for it.
Sophia Nahli Allison is a video storyteller at the community level and a media arts educator. She was born in South Central Los Angeles and is passionate about stories that examine culture and humanize the voices of youth, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. She believes storytelling is a creative tool for social change. She is currently a Roy H. Park Fellow at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pursuing a master’s degree in visual communication. This summer she will be the visual journalism intern at The Seattle Times.
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