Interviewer: Peter Houston
Peter Houston: Why did you start Shado?
Hannah Robathan: We started Shado in 2019 out of frustration at mainstream media. There didn’t seem to be much centring of voices of those who have lived experience. I was coming at it from quite an international development point of view because my co-founder and I had done master’s degrees in the development sector.
I think something that we learned while we were in the whole bubble of academia is that there doesn’t seem to be much of a trickle-down, but also the damaging way that the media can portray issues that we were really passionate about, such as rights of people who have been forced into the refugee experience.
We didn’t have any experience with media, but we decided that we would create Shado as a platform for people to take control of their own narrative, to tell their own stories. That started with our first issue, which was on migration to Europe. A majority of the contributors, whether it was the artists or the writers, were of refugee or asylum-seeking status themselves, just because we were tired of mainstream media’s lack of representation
That idea of lived experience is really interesting. To find a journalist, a freelance journalist, to write about immigration or whatever is probably fairly easy, but to find someone who’s actually been there, done that, that must be quite a challenge.
The thing is, I don’t think it’s necessarily a challenge, because there are so many people who are out there doing the work, ready to tell their story, but they just don’t have the platform for it.
I think the issue, when you’re taking a microscopic view of topics, is that if someone who hasn’t been through the experience then starts writing about it, it can really feed into this culture of misunderstanding. There are really obvious examples of that, if we’re talking right-wing rags and stuff, but it’s pretty insidious as well, even in more centre and left press. I think the biggest issue is, the lack of people being given the platform to tell their own stories.
When you’ve got a contributor, you’ve identified someone or someone’s come to you and said ‘I’ve got a story to tell’, how do you make sure you get something that works for the magazine?
When we first started, I think it was actually a blessing that we didn’t have any experience in media. Because obviously, you can have an editorial voice and you can change people’s words to make it sound a bit better, but we didn’t really know that. So we developed this collaborative methodology, where we kept everyone’s voices as authentic as possible. It’s quite nice, now that we’ve been going for a few years, people know the sort of style that we have. It’s not too prescribed, basically.
One of the things I love about independents, indy magazines, is the idea of people learning as they go along. They had a vision of ‘we want to do this’, so they just do it and then they figure out the magazine craft aspect of it behind it. Wha are the big learnings in terms of how you actually do it?
I think our big learning is that most of the work is already out there. Most of the really exciting stuff is already out there. It’s just collating it in a way that makes it bring a bigger impact. I think that also goes back to why we started Shado in the first place, that there were so many brilliant people doing very important work across the arts, across activism, in research, but when they’re working in isolation, it didn’t have as much impact, when actually a lot of these topics that we’re looking at are so interconnected.
Key learnings from the youth issue, actually, which is the upcoming issue, is that there are so many different ways that people are using media spaces and online spaces to create change. We’ve got a piece written by a young author in Manchester, who is looking at alternative spaces for online activism.
It includes the gamer community, who are embedding code into different games as a way of communicating with each other. It happened in Animal Crossing, which was a phase of lockdown number one, and Fortnite and all these other alternative spaces. It’s just about creating a space that works for you.
So this is your fourth issue coming out, it’s coming out at the end of the month. It’s a youth issue, is that right?
What’s the sort of stuff that you’ve got going on in it?
With all of our issues, we take a really global approach to a topic. We’re lucky to work with people from over 60 countries around the world, which is really exciting. The same goes for our youth issue. We have such a range of different pieces, from protests in Peru and Thailand to the youth leading the charge on TikTok. It’s a whole range of really exciting young people.
We were talking about Shado as a print magazine, which it is, but it’s way more than that. You’ve got your website, you’ve got events, you’re on Instagram. How do all those things work together? What’s the relationship there?
We’ve always seen print as the cornerstone of everything we do. I would say that there are three main strands to Shadow, which is the print and online publication, and then events and projects as well. But when it comes to the print, that guides our content.
We release a print magazine twice a year, and then that guides our content, in terms of what we do for our events and what we do for our projects. The whole point of Shadow is to disrupt the media space. I know disruptive magazines is a bit of a buzzword, but it’s about implanting stories where they’re not usually shown.
I think when you have the print magazine, there’s something really nice about having a physical issue, which can be stocked in the Tate, which is a space which is historically white, but then you’re planting in these new voices. I think that’s something that’s really exciting about print.
The other stuff, though, that you’ve got going on: twice a year is this print issue, but then your website is updating constantly and Instagram is updating constantly. What goes into those spaces?
When it comes to the website, that’s where we have a bit more space to explore topics that aren’t necessarily being focused on in print. That gives us a chance to have a bit of a broader brief, rather than a theme.
When it comes to Instagram, we’re pretty active on that. We are always aware that it can never be the be-all and end-all. It’s been really useful for us, especially as a global publication, in terms of finding people to contribute and people finding us. But we are aware that it does need to go further than the old infographic industrial complex.
I do think Instagram and social media are very legitimate spaces for activism, but that’s why we also have the print magazine, we also have the website, because it’s further resources. You can learn more about the topics that you might scroll past on Instagram.
That idea of resources, I think is interesting. I looked at the website and you’ve got that glossary there. I’m an older white guy. Some of the stuff in there was brand new to me and it was fascinating, just the breadth of stuff that’s in your glossary. Where did the idea for that come from?
I’ve got to give a shout out to Avi Dixon, who is someone who has recently started volunteering with us. What you and I were talking about just before we started recording, about trying to break out of a bubble of an echo chamber and not assuming that everybody knows or has come across certain terms before.
We created the glossary because we are trying to make topics as accessible as possible, but that doesn’t work if you’ve got an article that’s full of words that people might not have heard of. That was the thought behind that. That’s actually quite a new addition and something that will get continually added to and probably changed.
That’s another thing: we think it’s important that people can change their opinion about something when they’re presented with new information. Certainly, that’s how we see our role as well: we’re learning constantly.
I think that’s such an interesting thing for someone who publishes a magazine to say because, nine times out of ten, a magazine adopts a position, usually because it’s a commercially viable position, but they adopt this position and then they just hammer until it’s not worth hammering anymore. To hear you say that it’s okay to change your mind like that, I think, is fascinating. Is that inherent in the space that you’re working in, that you’re getting all this new stuff all the time?
I think so. Shado can afford to be quite fluid because it’s never been about our editorial voice, because we’ve always seen ourselves as a platform for other people’s voices anyway. In that respect, maybe we have that privilege where another magazine might not. I do understand that it is important to have a stance. It’s just that if we’re platforming new voices and new opinions, then that is fluid as well.
I guess that’s the stance, isn’t it? Your role is to platform new voices. How do you decide what your issue is going to be about? This one’s about youth – how do you choose your themes?
The first theme was a bit of a no-brainer for us in that we really wanted to platform migration. Then our following issues have come naturally, because you realise, when you’re doing a deep dive into a topic, everything is so connected anyway.
Our previous issue was on climate justice, and that was a real look at reframing the climate crisis as something which is political and social, and affects different people in different ways. It’s not just melting ice caps and animal rights, it’s a much bigger, socially-connected thing.
There are so many young people who are leading the charge. There’s Friday’s for Future, there are all these different organizations around the world. It’s mainly young people who are creating the change there. So it was a really natural progression for us to then do an issue focusing specifically on youth, on young people.
So Shado, your name, is an acronym of ‘See, hear, act, do’; where did that come from? What does it mean to you?
For us, it encompasses all the different ways that people are creating change. There are mediums across the arts, different ways of people using their skills and their actions. We really believe that everyone has a role in creating change and so it’s just using whatever tools are at people’s disposal to do that.
I got the sense of what you’re looking for from your contributors, you’ve got that lived experience, you want them to basically tell their own stories. What sort of expectations have you got of your readers? Do you want them to be activists? Do you want them to become activists because of what you’re doing?
I think it goes back to changing your mind about something and being willing to take on new information and apply that to real life. I think we want people to come with a willingness to learn from other people’s experience, but also we recognize that people are on different journeys and at different stages of their learning and different levels of pre-existing knowledge. We want to make our content accessible, and so people can absorb what they want from it.
I’ve asked about contributors, but who is your perfect reader?
We want our perfect reader to read some of the things that are written and become angry, or become hopeful, or enact some sort of change from what they’ve learned. We want to inspire action of our readers.
I think that’s what I was, maybe clumsily. trying to get at is that is Shado a stepping off point in that sense?
Yeah. I think that’s exactly it. I also think that we want to be a springboard into new topics and new methods of understanding. We’re not ever going to claim that we’ve got all the knowledge or we’ve got all the resources, but we want people to learn something from Shado and then go on from that to learn more about a topic.
One of the things that you’ve got going on is webinars. Is that part of that?
Yeah, definitely. In pre-pandemic times, we’d do a lot of events and do panel discussions. In COVID, obviously, they’ve moved online and we’ve moved to the webinar format, and that has actually been amazing. We’ve been able to have speakers and listeners from all around the world. That’s something that’s been really good for our audience as well, in terms of us trying to offer an introduction to a topic.
Then within the conversation, there’s a space where the audience can ask questions to the panellists, and also we really encourage the sharing of resources. You’re right, the webinars are exactly just a different way of sharing information, to then act as a springboard to go on to other learning.
If I met you, we were sat at a conference or whatever, and I said to you ‘what do you do’, how would you describe it?
I would describe Shado as a community-led platform, which drives change at the intersection of arts, activism, and research. That’s my pitch. That’s my elevator pitch.
Sign me up. I was talking to Paul Cheal last week, and he talked about impact. The Big Issue just did a huge study on the impact that the changes that they made had had on the way they supported vendors. I think that’s a really interesting metric for the publisher: what impact did you have? What change did you make? In that sense, what does success look like for you guys? What does success look like for Shado?
I think success and impact become quite interchangeable. For us, it’s creating real-life change. We really want to encourage culture-led system change. Whether that’s starting small, reading an article that we might have in our magazine that takes you on to change your opinion, or do something with whatever emotion that you might have got from the issue.
I think success looks like real-life change, hearing that our work has moved someone, has led them to do something differently. We’ve been really lucky throughout the couple of years that we’ve been active to have met incredible people and done a lot of exciting stuff.
But I think still one of the highlights of Shado for me was back in January 2019, when we were just setting up. One of our contributors was a young Syrian photographer called Abdulazez Dukhan. He lives in Brussels now with his family and documents people who have also been through the refugee experience. I think he himself was sick of the the way that mainstream media was portraying people in refugee camps.
He wanted to change that and he did that with his photography, with his camera. We commissioned him for the magazine. In our launch event, we had some of his photos up and we were like, ‘God, we really want him to be here. We really, really want him to be able to be here, to be at his first exhibition’. And so we, on his behalf, went to a law firm in London, and asked them to sort out a visa for him – and they did.
They did, that’s a big shout out to Mishcon de Reya. They did some pro bono work for us, got him a visa to the UK, and so then he could come to London for the first time. It’s still something that will stuck with me, I think, for a long time.
It definitely seems like making connections is your big thing, bringing people together and amplifying these kinds of voices. If I can be crass and commercial for a second, how do you pay the bills?
We are reliant on grant funding, at the moment. Also, we’re painfully aware that, even with our grant funding, we’re not able to pay the industry average or what people deserve. We’re currently funded by Arts Council and Sustainability. That goes towards the payment of our artists and our writers.
So people need to get out and buy your next issue, right?
When is it, March 26?
Yes, on Friday.
The frustration that you feel with – I don’t like the phrase ‘mainstream media’ because I think there’s a lot under that umbrella – but how would you boil down that frustration, just from your point of view?
I suppose the main frustration is when it feeds into a bigger and basically untrue image of something. It contributes, willfully or not, to a culture of misunderstanding, and that in itself brings about fear or anger, this whole fear of the unknown. It doesn’t have to be there, if the so-called unknown voices are actually given a platform.
I’ve got an interesting relationship with the word ‘activist’ because I think, in some ways, it’s very important and if people self-identify as an activist, then that’s brilliant. But I know a lot of people who are branded as activists, but they’re like, ‘oh, I don’t see myself as being an activist, I’m just doing what I can to be alive and be safe’. Until people don’t have to fight for their existence. it’s important to give a platform to people.