Interview with Sandra Ristovska

Sandra Ristovska is a documentary filmmaker and a Ph.D candidate in communication at Annenberg. In addition to her involvement with other Annenberg organizations and affiliate positions at Columbia and Central European University, Sandra has worked closely with CGCS and Professor Monroe Price since beginning her time at Annenberg. Her interests in the role of visuals in achieving social change and human rights are culminating in a dissertation project examining the institutionalization and professionalization of video advocacy by human rights organizations as facilitated by unfolding changes in technology, journalism and law. CGCS’s upcoming  Honing the Visual conference is largely inspired by Sandra’s dissertation work. As she prepares for her final semester at Penn, Sandra reflects on her time at CGCS and how it has impacted her work.

How did you initially become interested in/involved with the work that CGCS does? How has that evolved?

In September 2010, I had just started my graduate studies at the Annenberg School when I attended the CGCS reception for the first-year cohort. I vividly remember Proffessor Monroe Price asking each student about her research interests and suggesting ways in which they can be involved with CGCS. When I told him I’m from Macedonia, and I’m interested in the contested historical narratives in the Balkans, his response was that he’s been waiting for so long for someone to write a paper on the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece. He then helped me arrange an interview with the UN mediator in the dispute. I will never forget the excitement. It’s how my research journey began. And no matter what I studied—whether collective memory in the former Yugoslavia, Roma’s experiences in the Holocaust, or my current dissertation work on human rights video activism—CGCS and Proffessor Price have been central to my graduate studies. For example, I first got to know the work of WITNESS in June 2011 at a summer school at the Central European University in Budapest, which CGCS helps organize every year. Sam Gregory, the Program Director of the organization, was one of the lecturers. A few years later, WITNESS became one of the case studies for my dissertation.


How has your work at CGCS affected your conceptualization of issues within the field?

CGCS is a truly interdisciplinary center and one that fosters a dialogue between academics and practitioners. As a graduate student and a documentary filmmaker, I often seek to bridge the theory/practice divide in my scholarly engagements. CGCS has been among the key spaces at Penn to show me that there is room in academia for those who are interested in crossing these boundaries. Also, I owe my interest in law to Professor Price. Anyone who has taken a class with him or read his work knows his passion for understanding how legal structures affect our media environment. A number of CGCS events deal with these issues too. I don’t think I would have ended up studying how the work of the International Criminal Court and the Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia affect the work of human rights activists, if I were not previously exposed to fascinating work that tackles law’s implications on society.


What project/event/work are you most proud of?

I’m indebted to Professor Price and the entire CGCS staff for giving me an opportunity to help develop and organize a conference on visual technologies and human rights. The conference theme is not only dear to my heart but it is also directly relevant to my dissertation. We have just finalized the agenda, and I’m looking forward to the conference in January.


How will your work here shape your academic/professional future?

Learning how to do research is an ongoing process that involves work in and outside of class. CGCS has given me ample opportunity to learn outside of the classroom from scholars, policy makers, and media professionals through the yearly lecture series, workshops, conferences and summer programs. It has helped me learn how to conduct research and to understand what kind of work a grant entails—whether through my involvement as a research assistant to Professor Price or my work on the BBC Media Action grant about the relevance of communication and media research in development projects.


What advice would you give to a first year doctoral student who was considering working with CGCS?

Get involved. Don’t be afraid to learn new ideas, theories and set of skills. Being a graduate student and learning how to do research is a process that is most rewarding when you are part of it with an open mind and willingness to play with various ideas. Go to a talk even if the topic does not quite fit your research interests. CGCS always has opportunities for you to work as a research assistant or as part of a summer project. See what sounds interesting and get involved. I applied to the summer school in Budapest out of curiosity. Little did I know that those two weeks would lead to a dissertation project and a visiting fellowship!

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