Conversations | Ambika Samarthya-Howard
“Without seeing yourself and your stories reflected around you, you do not find the freedom to pursue your true identity and calling.”
Born in India and raised in the United States, Ambika Samarthya-Howard is an artist, film producer, and also a mentor in our Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program: Performing and Literary Arts and Head of Communications at WITNESS, where she combines her passion for film and social change. She received her MFA in Film at Columbia University and has done art and media projects in Japan, Bollywood, and West Africa.
NYFA: You said once that “visibility is the first stepping stone to justice.” How does this advice relate to artists who are immigrants, international, or multicultural?
Ambika Samarthya-Howard: While I had always been drawn to the arts, I veered towards international affairs and legal studies as a means for social change. It was only after a study abroad program in London, where I was exposed to the British Asian arts scene, that I felt inspired to make art that reflected my interests and identity. I created a theatre company when I returned from the United Kingdom in the Bay Area, Arth, and when we sold out our first show to 400 people, I realized the audience was there. People were interested in my stories. That’s when I decided to pursue a career in film.
I think without seeing yourself and your stories reflected around you, you do not find the freedom to pursue your true identity and calling.
NYFA: Can you share with us some ways in which you have collaborated with other multidisciplinary artists? Were these collaborations important in furthering your career as an artist?
ASH: I love collaborating across disciplines, and find it profoundly rewarding both as an artist and as a professional. I had the opportunity to work with multi-media artist Monica Bose in filming her performance art in Miami, and I really feel part of a larger community when I get to work across disciplines. I’ve been trained in Indian classical dance and love incorporating dance into my film work. I also really enjoy writing and sharing about the process behind documentary creation.
I think people from different disciplines have a way of seeing the same content in a different dimension and that gives additional depth to the work.
NYFA: Do you have any advice for artists who are looking to share their personal story in the hopes of inspiring large social change but who do not know where to start?
ASH: I think the hardest part of sharing your personal story is that when people reject it, it feels like they are rejecting you. This is true if you are a writer or a video producer or a painter. Art is always hard because it’s a reflection of your identity in so many ways, but it’s even harder when it’s a personal story that’s already fraught with vulnerability, like stories of trauma.
My advice is to first step back and ask yourself if you want/need to tell this story. I’ve often found telling my story to be key to personal growth and very cathartic and so whether it’s accepted in a film festival or publication, I was happy to tell it.
Second, do you want to put this story out there? Artists can have personal projects that they don’t share and I think it’s worth asking especially with sensitive subject matters if it makes sense to put this out into the public. How would a public critique or rude comment on YouTube make you feel?
Lastly, connecting to community and other artists can often make this process easier and help through the journey of not only producing the work, but also the much harder process of sharing it and finding the right channels for distribution.
NYFA: Tell us about your role at WITNESS. What projects are you working on?
ASH: I currently lead communications at WITNESS. It’s incredibly exciting to work with a team of like-minded people globally who are using video for social change. The role of video and tech has changed so much over the last few decades, and it’s both fun and challenging to be on top of the wave.
I’m currently working on designing and drawing more attention to our reports and research on deepfakes, misinformation, and AI. I’m also excited to be working with the Equal Voice Network in the Rio Grande, to film stories of activists in the border community. As an immigrant, it’s work I’m quite interested in, but also an area of the country and immigrant history I am unfamiliar with so I’m learning a lot. So many of the issues people in those areas face have nothing to do with being an immigrant but are issues of people in neglected areas in the country that have had one-dimensional media attention. So rather than just talking about visas and deportation, there are very deep historic injustices around education and housing that particularly affect those border communities. I am excited to learn more and share with you in the future.
– Interview Conducted by Alicia Ehni, Program Officer at NYFA Learning
About Ambika Samarthya-Howard
Ambika Samarthya-Howard is a video producer and currently Head of Communications at WITNESS. She was formerly the Head of Communications for Praekelt.org. She worked as a senior producer in community television in Brooklyn, with the BBC Media Action in Nigeria as a broadcast TV Trainer and with UNICEF as a Communications Specialist. She led the content curation and writing for the Medium Publication Mobile For Good, and has spoken about social good projects and inclusivity at a range of conferences globally, winning best poster at the recent University of London’s Behavior Change Conference. She co-authored two chapters in the recently published book Affordability Issues Surrounding the Use of ICT for Development and Poverty Reduction.
This interview is part of the ConEdison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter #117. Subscribe to this free monthly e-mail for artist’s features, opportunities, and events.
Photos from top to bottom: Behind the scenes shot of Jalobayu during Art Basel-Miami Beach, Photo by Peter Samarthya-Howard; Courtesy of Ambika Samarthya-Howard