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An activist behind the lens, Tom Laffay ’11

Posted by: andrewst | January 10, 2022 | No Comment |

Tom Laffay (’11) double-majored in political science and Latin American and Caribbean studies, as well as received a minor in Spanish while he attended CofC. His career was heavily influenced by his experiences abroad (Cuba 2009), a summer working on a farm in North Carolina, and his membership in the Portuguese Club. The totality of these experiences awakened the storyteller in Tom, and he now works as a visual journalist in Bogotá, Colombia.

So, how did Tom get from Charleston, SC to Bogotá, Colombia? For starters, he spent a semester abroad in Cuba, where he learned about Latin American socio-political issues unfamiliar to him at the time. Upon his return, he took a job on a North Carolina farm for the summer and worked side-by-side with migrant farmworkers. Laffay considers this period in his life to be the beginning of his “personal, political, and social transformation.” He listened to the frustrations of the migrants and learned how they were forced to live in the shadows of the U.S. legal system. This left Laffay with a nagging feeling and fueled his desire to return to Latin America. He wanted to better understand the reality of the migrant experience and find ways to make an impact. Documentaries, screened frequently in the Portuguese Club at CofC, would later become his medium of choice.

After graduation, Tom started his career in Nicaragua managing the communications team for La Isla Network (LIN), then a small public health and labor rights NGO. This dedicated team of Nicaraguan and international activists was working to bring attention to a kidney disease epidemic affecting agricultural workers by exposing the companies who were exploiting workers and leading health interventions to protect the laborers. “This was an incredible opportunity [for me] and I eventually went on to work with LIN on similar projects in El Salvador. As it turns out, these projects were the first steps of Tom’s career in photojournalism.

In 2016, Tom moved to Bogota, Colombia, and met Bram Ebus, an investigator with expertise in mineral trafficking, and Gustavo Faleiros, a data journalist who runs an online platform focused on storytelling from the Amazon called InfoAmazonia. At the time, Ebus and Faleiros were already conducting an investigation regarding mercury trafficking in Ghana, Venezuela and Brazil. Eventually, the three would work on Laffay’s first freelance documentary Mercury: Chasing the Quicksilver, supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Journalism Fund & IUCN Netherlands. This film follows the health effects of small-scale mercury mining in the Amazon, while also considering how the prohibition of mercury impacts the livelihoods of miners and communities.

Filming Mercury was what Laffay describes as a “22-day road trip across Guyana and Suriname going to gold mining regions to examine the tertiary economies that sprang up around them.” Despite Bram making a few contacts prior to the journey, the investigation was largely “on the fly.” They met people directly affected by the situation – from miners, smugglers, and women affected by the economic crisis – to ecologists conducting research and foreign businesspeople buying the mercury. “We really tried to do a thorough look and make it entertaining as well, in terms of finding interesting characters who were willing to talk about these things.” The multi-lens approach used in the film has already helped transform the way people and governments view and respond to the mercury trade. Canada, for instance, reviewed the amount of gold they were buying after realizing it was mostly smuggled out of Venezuela – an especially jarring fact considering the country’s current economic and humanitarian crisis. Dr. Whip, an ecologist featured in the film, brought some attention to the effects that mercury has not only on the health of the miners, but also on the air and water quality in the region.

Another of Laffay’s projects, Nos Están Matando (They’re Killing Us), started in 2016 after ‘peace’ was declared between the Colombian government and FARC, (then) the largest guerrilla group in the world. Human rights activists and community leaders were being targeted and killed across the country, but the media continued to cover only the ‘peace’ story. So, Laffay decided to follow known-targets Feliciano Valencia and Hector Marino and document the personal sacrifices of just two of the more than 200 people assassinated while trying to create change in a ‘post-war’ society.

Nos Están Matando struck a chord. It earned more than 2 million views following a viral open-source release and was screened to more than 50 groups of Colombians in the diaspora in Europe, the U.S., and South America. “It was incredible that people reached out to us just out of nowhere and wanted to hold screenings at colleges or cafes or wherever, to talk about this issue of violence against civil leaders.”

Laffay’s films have been screened by the United States Congress and the United Nations at Geneva and featured on websites like The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Currently, he’s producing his first feature documentary that follows the Siona Indigenous Nation in the Colombian Amazon, supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center’s Amazon and International Rainforest Journalism Fund.

Laffay’s high job satisfaction comes from seeing the impact his stories have on others, and the quiet moments on the side of the river speaking with elders – “it’s just a really unique way to see the world. It’s those moments where you’re just there, and you look around and check yourself and it’s almost like, how did I get here?”

How indeed? Laffay’s curiosity, passion, and insights, cultivated on and off the CofC campus, allowed the storyteller within to emerge. Tom is remarkably skilled at illuminating stories found in the larger narrative and presenting multi-layers of opinion from a variety of viewpoints. His documentaries are sure to have an impact on the lives of those who are often too invisible to the rest of the world.

You can find out more about Tom Laffay and his projects at https://www.tomlaffay.com/

[This article was written by Rachel Simpson, the office assistant/social media manager for the political science department. Rachel is in her final semester at CofC, pursuing a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Writing, Rhetoric and Publication.]

under: Alumni, Careers

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