Photo by OCEANS 8 Films
BY HOLLY SANTMAN
Journalistic storytelling can become a method of activism and advocacy, according to Jon Bowermaster, a National Geographic journalist and 1976 Drake University alum.
Bowermaster opened his presentation on April 11 with some advice for current students.
“When I was at Drake, I didn’t really have a minor. I’m sure I was encouraged, I just didn’t do it … Become an expert at something. Study something that helps you going forward and that makes you an expert or a novel person,” Bowermaster said.
Bowermaster has worked for National Geographic as a reporter since 1989, focusing primarily on different environmental issues around the world, and is a six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, according to OCEANS 8 Films’ website.
“My introduction to National Geographic was through Antarctica,” Bowermaster said. “In 1989, I was included as the writer for a project that involved dog sledding across Antarctica.”
In the presentation, Bowermaster showed pictures of people, places and animals to help describe the countries he had traveled to, including Gabon, Africa, Chile, French Polynesia and northern Vietnam.
He said all the stories and adventures were his ideas.
“I would basically pitch them to National Geographic,” Bowermaster said in a phone interview. “I was looking for a place that was under-explored or under-reported-on.”
These pitches resulted in multiple magazine stories, films and books about the environment.
Kathleen Richardson, dean of Drake’s journalism school and former classmate of Bowermaster, said, “His resume from the last 40 years is sort of like a trajectory of the history of the changes in journalism and the media over that time.”
Bowermaster classified his work with National Geographic in the 1980s and 1990s as journalism, and talked about his transition to advocacy through work with his foundation, OCEANS 8, which started in 1999. He said the inspiration behind OCEANS 8 was partly due to his discovery of sea kayaking.
“I feel like I’ve morphed a little bit into as much an activist and an advocate as a journalist, which is a fine line,” Bowermaster said.
He said he believes journalists can be both objective storytellers and advocates as long as they do good, thorough reporting. He said that as long as journalists talk to a lot of people and get every side of a story, becoming an advocate for something could even make them a better journalist.
Bowermaster and OCEANS 8 have made 15 films since 2010, including “Dear Governor Cuomo,” “After the Spill” and “SoLa: Louisiana Water Stories.”
The OCEANS 8 foundation includes stories from all seven oceans plus Oceania, with the goal behind each story to promote a different environmental issue.
“Dear Governor Cuomo,” released in 2012, was made in response to a potential bill in the New York legislature that would make fracking, a method for extracting natural gas from the earth, possible in New York state.
“We’ve done a lot of work—and when I say ‘we’ it’s because making films is not an individual chore, you do it with teams—we’ve made a lot of films about fracking and our fossil fuel and energy future here in the United States based on an experience in New York,” he said.
Bowermaster said the goal of his stories and films was to use “adventure to lure you into the story but then really (club) you over the head about the environmental issues.”
AshleyMarie Dail, a magazine journalism major who attended the lecture, said she hopes other students gain inspiration from Bowermaster’s work and career.
“Here’s this guy, he said he grew up in the Midwest, he went to Drake … but he went out and he did some stuff. And he wasn’t editor of the Times-Delphic and he wasn’t editor of all these things,” Dail said. “Maybe you aren’t the stereotypical top-of-your-class J-school kid, but you can still do something with your life, and you can still do something really powerful.”
Currently, Bowermaster is still working with OCEANS 8 and is helping produce an international documentary about fishing slaves in South Asia, titled “The Ghost Fleet,” due out in June 2018. He is also continuing to direct and produce films within the project, “Hudson River Stories.”