This year’s winner of the Breakthrough Journalism Award is multimedia journalist Sidrah Fatma Ahmed, a Delhi-based freelancer whose work on climate change and rising temperatures has illuminated the struggles of everyday workers.
Her energetic video production and in-depth reporting have captured the attention of international outlets, including the Financial Times, for which she directed the Pulitzer Center-supported film Can India Adapt to Extreme Heat? alongside grantee Juliet Riddell.
The Breakthrough Award, inaugurated in 2020, is given each year to a freelance journalist who has shown exceptional talent and potential in Center-affiliated work. The $12,000 award seeks to recognize and celebrate the achievements of Pulitzer Center-affiliated freelance journalists who report on underreported issues that affect us all.
A journalist drawn to underreported topics and populations, Ahmed decided several years ago to leave traditional news outlets behind to work as a freelancer. This freedom to explore her journalistic interests led her to stories like Can India Adapt to Extreme Heat? which investigated workplace conditions in an era of intense climate change. Ahmed said it was an issue she was already interested in, so when Riddell approached her with the idea, she dove into the world of climate reporting.
The film surveys a number of workers across different sectors in India dealing with dangerously high temperatures. Ahmed said she and Riddell wanted to strike a balance between examining the role of governmental and economic forces and highlighting the personal stories of their sources. Among their interviewees are scientists and business owners, but also street vendors, schoolchildren, farmers, and domestic workers. They hoped these people's experiences would make the story relatable and revelatory.
Going forward, Ahmed said she hopes the Breakthrough prize will help support her goal of producing longer-form documentaries. She also aims to create films in both English and Hindi, so that the communities she reports on can understand and engage with her work. Pulitzer Center Editorial Intern Alexandra Byrne spoke with Ahmed about her path to journalism, her reporting techniques, and her vision for the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alexandra Byrne: Tell me a bit about how you got into journalism. Who has inspired you along the way?
Sidrah Fatma Ahmed: When we're going from project to project I don't think we get the chance to sit back and think about when you started and where you've come, but this interview has given me the opportunity.
I grew up in rural India, in a small town. My father is a doctor. He has a health practice there. My mother supports him in his work; she works with villagers to help them with health and rights. When I was growing up, I would see her doing a lot of mediation at home. Here in India, it's quite informal. My mother stepped into that role because she had time and she was living around a rural population that had a lot of issues. A lot of those were issues that women had. So they were coming to my house with small, medium, large issues to do with law enforcement or bad marriage or health issues and things like that. We were constantly around our parents discussing developmental issues. We knew that these existed and there was a huge lack of support from the administration and the government. These people are really poor. They're from marginalized communities. So I think I always had that bent of mind.
I saw my interest in developmental issues and my ability to write a report about it converge very early on when I was in school. I decided I would attempt to study media. I don't think at that point I was fully sure what side of communication I would go to. But I knew that that was the direction I was taking.
I studied politics in college, and I was amongst a very diverse group of very intelligent and ambitious women. Since it's an all-women's college, we were quite focused on topics around gender. I saw myself leaning toward gender issues.
After that, I went to journalism college in Delhi. For two years, they taught us different forms of media. It started with print, and then photos, and then radio, and finally converged to television. That course was such that even when we were in college, we were doing a lot of student reporting. It was almost like you were working in a small-time newsroom. I picked up most of my skills from there.
I went on to join a newspaper in Delhi, a 100-year-old Indian newspaper called Hindustan Times. It was turning digital-first, and they had just formed a video team, which felt like a good space for me. At that time, I was not very choosy, so I was ready to fit into a role that would make me learn. Because I was very interested in the film module in college, and I was already interested in news, it seemed like a nice way to converge and start looking into the space of news documentaries.
So I joined Hindustan Times, and I spent two years there as a producer and a video journalist. This was in 2014. Since that newspaper had a lot of heritage journalists that had been with the paper for years, and then they had to step into multimedia, I think my skills came in useful there. In college, I picked up skills in radio; I picked up skills in filming and editing and taking photos. They already had great reporting skills, so I used to tag along with reporters and help them turn their stories into multimedia pieces. A lot of learning happened there.
I was a bit restless because I was spending a lot of time in the office. The whole reason I got into journalism was so that I could be in the field and I could talk to different kinds of people, and I could really explore and engage and dig and be curious. I think a lot of that was not answered in that forum. Although I'm really thankful to have had the opportunity to be in a newsroom, because starting out, I think that was really important. At that point, I turned my career into an independent one and I became a freelancer.
AB: Your reporting places women’s stories at the heart of much of your work—why is this important and how do you think the journalism industry needs to change?
SFA: It's important to me. The basis of it is that when you are documenting a story or talking to your characters, you really need to be able to connect with them and empathize with them, and you really need to place yourself in their lives. As a woman, it's really easy to do that because of the basis of our ambitions—wanting to stay safe, wanting to stay healthy, wanting to have a dignified life, be free, access education, and have opportunities which are equal to men. On all of those levels, we all think in the same way. So it was easy for me to connect with women. I started to go toward those kinds of stories.
It goes without saying that women are underrepresented in the media, and also in visual media. In India, at least at the stage that I went into it, video journalism was just starting out. Technically, there was traditional TV media, but traditional TV media does not do the kind of in-depth reporting that video journalism does. It was almost an untouched space. It was very exciting that not a lot of work had been done in it and you could shape things the way you wanted to and do all kinds of stories.
There are not a lot of video journalists that are women in India, because it's very physical work. Most journalists in India and around the world prefer to have jobs because there's a safety net. When I was stepping into freelance, a lot of people were wondering why I was doing that. A lot of my colleagues in the newspaper office said that you mustn't leave a job until you have another one. When I said that I was freelancing, they were all a bit either cynical or confused. They probably thought I'd fall back into a normal job cycle.
More and more women in India are definitely taking up journalism, as women are taking up every other profession. There are challenges as there are in any field in India. I wouldn't say that journalism has like, way too many challenges. Yeah, we are out working and traveling and meeting a lot of diverse groups of people. But you just have to take it in your stride. I think it just comes with the job.
AB: I want to ask about your project with grantee Juliet Riddell for the Financial Times, Can India Adapt to Extreme Heat? Why is this an important issue?
SFA: All issues that people are reporting on are important. But I think climate change in India is particularly important. We're like the poster child of climate change at the moment. We have droughts, we've got floods, we've got rising temperatures, we've got air pollution.
When I was approached by Juliet to collaborate with her on the story, I was already exploring and in conversation with a few people about how rising temperatures were affecting their lives.
There is one particular subject in the film, who happens to be a young woman who works for me. Her name is Meenakshi, she's in the film for a small part. She's a young mother, she's a domestic worker, she works a couple of houses, and she has two small children. She lives in a small one-bedroom house, where she not only sleeps but also runs a kitchen. She has a shared bathroom with a few of her neighbors. Her children have been really, really unwell because of the heat. She has a small daughter—I think she was three last year—who had been fainting in school and throwing up. She had all of these emergencies going on with her children. And she herself was not keeping very well; she would miss work for a couple of days.
I live in a very insulated environment. I've got air conditioning; I can step out in a taxi or my own car, which has air conditioning. But I was very closely looking at how Meenakshi was battling rising temperatures. Of course, she was just one of the people. Delhi has millions of people, and all of them are obviously not living in the same conditions as me. Some people are living in much worse conditions. That was a very important story to tell because I had already seen firsthand the effects it was having on somebody.
AB: How did you approach the reporting for this video project? How did you find such a wide range of people as sources?
SFA: It was one of my hardest reporting projects in the sense that there was no specific beat to it. Journalists working in traditional media outlets have beats, so there would be a health reporter, crime reporter, and education reporter. I don't have a beat because I'm a freelance video journalist, I do all kinds of stories. But here we are trying to converge a lot of beats, which would require a lot of different sources.
When we started, Juliet and I were pretty much concerned most about people who are working outdoors, which is like 75% of our population. That would be rickshaw pullers, construction workers, street vendors, domestic workers, and delivery guys who depend on the gig economy. These were the main areas we were looking at. I started building that list and started to go out to talk to different kinds of people.
Initially, what happened is that in India, there is no grammar around climate change. So it's really hard to communicate, or to explain to somebody who's uneducated and poor what the story is or what we are trying to explore. Because they have not read anything on climate change, they see rising temperatures as something that is happening, but they're not sure why. A lot of them are so poor and they’re earning day to day, they try to ignore it instead of really sitting with it. Or they try to reject that idea, or they try to deny it. "No, it's not so hard. No, I'm fine." This is the way it is every time. "So what if it's hot? We have to carry on working." Those are the kinds of answers we would get from a lot of people.
We did meet some people who were aware of the subject, and who had probably critically thought it out and discussed it with their colleagues, or maybe people who work in not individualistic jobs, but more in group jobs. For example, there was a street vendor in our film. He was very articulate about what rising temperatures mean for him. They put their stalls in a row on the road. They also are slightly unionized. In India, there's a lack of unions for many unorganized labor jobs. But in some cases, when they unionize, there are more discussions and more awareness of rights and issues.
At the start of the year, we had started to get reports that the wheat harvest in India had failed because there was a sudden spike in temperatures, which meant that India could not export wheat to other countries. We met a farmer in Punjab who spoke to us about the difficulties he had with his corn harvest, and how that ties up to his dairy business. And his dairy business actually, we didn't mention that in the film, is a major supplier to Nestle to make baby food powder.
We have a huge issue going on in our country at the moment because of climate change, failed harvests. Vegetables at the moment are very, very expensive. And people, just like normal people, also, not just the poorest of the poor, are finding it very hard to sustain themselves.
We also wanted to hear what children have to say. I had personally started to hear from some friends that their children are suffering in school. I had heard that from Meenakshi, as well. So we went into that school, which is a sustainable school. They have taken a lot of green action. We spoke to some kids there about what they have faced. You might have heard in the film that they were facing low productivity, and they were not able to just live a student life—sports, studying, having a good time with their friends, going out. All in all, it was really hard for people from all walks of life. But of course, we cannot deny that access to cooling systems, access to homes, and clean water is different for different communities and different people from different strata of society. All of that weaves in and changes the levels of your struggle.
AB: How do you condense such a large issue into less than 20 minutes?
SFA: I think it's really about addressing problems that are close to each of us, you know. It almost ends up feeling like a conversation. What we were really trying to ask people was how is it affecting your day-to-day work. How is it affecting your livelihood? What struggles is it leading to? With every subject that we spoke to, we tried to understand where they are at the moment or what place in life they are, and ask them questions systematically, so that we can really bring to the audience different diverse stories. We were very keen to address this topic through as many voices as we could. If we kept going, there would be a lot more voices in it, but at some point, we had to close the project.
AB: What do you hope people gain from your work?
SFA: Right after I came into freelance journalism, I was doing a lot of positive stories about changemakers. Because not a lot of positive stories came out from India. With India, I think there's always that bad-news bias. I really wanted to put these stories out for people to see. These are changemakers for people to feel inspired. You can't be what you don't see. It's a really good opportunity for people to see and be inspired and to take initiative and do things that benefit others for the larger good.
Later, I started to do some work with development topics like health, nutrition, and maternal health, in particular. So I started to do some work for charities and NGOs. I had a skill, which was to produce, direct, shoot, and edit videos. I can use it for media organizations, but I can also use that to help charities raise funds, or to amplify their voices so that they come to the notice of foundations and people get to know about them.
Recently, I've been doing more long-format work. That was the climate change video, for Financial Times. After that, I directed a documentary for the Financial Times on women in cricket in India. Of course, the audience for this is a Western audience, because these documentaries are also in English. Moving forward, I’d like to do more documentary and reporting work in Hindi. I’m in a space where I don’t have too many places where I can publish it, so the distribution is the gap that I’ll have to bridge.
I could probably take the educational route where I’m making films or videos with the aim of social change. Maybe I make a traveling cinema where I can take the film to the community I want to bring social change in. As a freelancer you’re always trying to make sure you’re able to support yourself, so a lot of the experimenting remains in your mind. It might take time to execute. I have felt throughout my work that the community that the film is about, I’m probably not able to expose that community to the content. Let’s say the climate change film—I shared it, of course, with my subjects, the characters in the film. They may have shared it ahead with 10 more people. I want the film to be shared with a lot more people who are facing those issues so that they can first educate themselves and become aware of what is happening. I know it reaches an educated audience and it reaches policymakers and it reaches governments—that sort of an audience. But I think both audiences are important.
AB: What does winning the 2023 Breakthrough Award mean to you?
SFA: I was very pleasantly surprised and very happy and humbled to hear. Throughout my career, I’ve never entered myself for any awards. I’ve always been like, these are the people I want to tell stories about and that is being done. As a journalist—my adventures and my backstory are irrelevant. But yeah, I’m really thankful for this award.
The award is hugely encouraging for me to continue doing the work I do and do it better. It's a moment to celebrate the people represented in my stories. There are so many stories to be told in India. I hope to use this support to do more in-depth video reporting in the areas of climate justice, gender, and health.
AB: What’s next for you?
SFA: As I’ve been going into my career, I look back on my 10 years and it’s been all about collecting skills, collecting experiences, and traveling to different parts of my country to understand the nuances of different regions. My reporting and filming patterns have also changed. Initially, I was doing a lot of changemaker stories, positive stories. Then I went into looking at developmental issues. I recently had the chance to do the climate film.
My work has also been increasing in length. Initially, I was doing smaller pieces, but now that I have experience and more confidence, I’d like to continue increasing the length of my work. I would probably like to, in the next year or two, do a longer, feature-length documentary. I would like to use that film as a tool for education, to have it in a language that the community understands, and, of course, in English so it can be broadcasted.
I think after the Pulitzer [Center] and FT film, I really got a taste of climate topics. I'd like to explore that more. I think it's a great time in India to do that. Also, I'd like to explore identity politics. I think this is where I'm going. As a freelance journalist, I need to do plenty of work to get through the month. So I will, of course, continue to do work on relevant topics that come up in the news. But I think where I'm definitely steering towards is longer-format documentaries, and I need to figure out the most impactful ways to use film as a tool for change.