In a crisis, the unexpected can happen, as the current war in Ukraine shows only too well: security and political situations can suddenly deteriorate, public health constraints come into play, bureaucratic obstacles are often thrown up by regimes anxious to control access to the region.

Arete is the expert story-telling agency for NGOs, UN bodies and foundations. But, however much we pride ourselves on our track record of going into the most difficult situations – coming out with the stories that really shed light on what is going on, telling those stories with knowledge, courage and integrity – even the most carefully laid plans may need to change, or even be cancelled altogether.

As a situation evolves, it’s obviously important to react quickly, calmly and decisively. Plans may have to be changed, often at very short notice, inconveniencing or disappointing the interviewees. But it’s also important to work with tact and empathy. At Arete, the professionals we work with have years of experience in the field, and that helps us deal with these changes and how they affect the participants with understanding.

Here, with insights from an Arete journalist, we look at what that experience has taught us, and how we try and stay true to our values in the face of challenges.

Why it’s important to ensure people tell their own stories

People’s own stories have power and weight – they reach out directly to the viewer, the reader, humanising and cutting through the fog and distance created by barrages of statistics. And people who have experienced traumatic events are the best qualified to tell their own stories. Modern technology allows these people the opportunity to tell their stories in ways that could not even have been imagined a few decades ago. Enabling people to tell those stories can empower them – and give them back a sense of their own identity. It also helps get to the heart of a story, cutting through the bias, politicisation and inaccuracy which can come with third party spin.

“It is important for my voice to be heard, because I have been exposed to many challenges as a community leader, which many women are faced within our society. And I believe that my voice can add great impact on this subject since our challenges vary from area to area, and that makes the Foundation [Cherie Blair Foundation for Women] a source of empowerment for the world…”

  • Mercy (pictured below), a beneficiary of The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, which works to eliminate barriers to entrepreneurship for women across the world. Arete has worked with the foundation since 2016.



It is Arete’s role to act as a mouthpiece – using our network and technical skills to empower people to tell their own stories to the world. We have an obligation to do those stories justice, to bring them to the world. But it is also our responsibility to make sure that we consider the mental and physical health of those who are sharing their stories with us.

Often the people we interview, photograph and film are in chaotic, stressful or fast-moving situations. If circumstances change and it becomes impossible for us to carry out our planned interviews, or it’s no longer a good time for the person to talk to us, then we have to react. It’s important that we do all we can to work with the people whose stories we tell, re-scheduling for a better time, or exercising good judgement on when to disappoint people, by postponing or cancelling interviews.

Practical Considerations

Arete has developed various tactics which make dealing with this sort of situation easier.

At Arete, we mainly use local consultants. This allows us flexibility. We can reschedule visits more easily to a better time; we can easily return, if the initial visit does not go to plan. Using local consultants also generally leads to lower risk when operating in lawless and threatening environments. It also makes communication easier, as Arete’s photographers, journalists and videographers often have common languages and a cultural affinity with potential beneficiaries.

We always try to go and talk to someone in person, but if, for any reason, it becomes impossible to reach people as planned, modern technology has provided various alternatives. Where the interviewee has internet access, for example, we can talk on video, via Whatsapp, Zoom, Facetime etc. It’s not an ideal way to connect with people and it does require adapting the interview style, but it does help people living in areas that have become inaccessible for whatever reason – security, extreme weather etc – to share their stories that otherwise might remain untold.

The Art of Storytelling

Charlotte Eagar is an award-winning filmmaker, Arete journalist, theatre producer and communications consultant. Over a thirty-year career, Charlotte has worked as a foreign correspondent in, amongst other countries, Ukraine, war-torn Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and with North Korean refugees.

Charlotte Eagar at the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo in 1993

Photo: Paul Lowe


In 2013, using her experience of working with refugees in various conflict zones, Charlotte co-founded the Trojan Women Project (TWP), at the request of Oxfam to publicise the, then, very under reported Syrian refugee crisis.

TWP is an NGO which gives support and a voice to Syrian refugees through therapeutic drama and advocacy, creating both a process – workshops to help refugees overcome trauma and isolation – and a product – critically acclaimed plays in which the refugees work their stories into the text of Euripides’ great anti-war tragedy, The Trojan Women. TWP makes films of their plays as a multiplier of the project’s reach, as films can be seen anywhere by an infinite number of people, while theatre – while extraordinarily intimate and powerful – is confined to a stage and an auditorium. These films and plays produced by TWP with refugee actors and participants combine being of the highest possible artistic standard with a benefit to the refugee and host community participants. Its productions have received awards and praise from critics and viewers all over the world. TWP’s ability to invoke empathy in their audience is shown by the fact that their plays always have a standing ovation.

Rehearsal with Victoria Beesley at Platform Theatre Glasgow 2019


TWP’s projects have toured with the Young Vic, appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, received 5-star reviews and awards and been featured in the global media, from CNN, to Al Jazeera and La Repubblica. The project is studied at various US and UK universities.

Going into difficult situations and empowering people to tell their stores has been a central part of Charlotte’s life:

“Almost everything I have ever written has been around people. When you are working as a foreign correspondent, your job is to cover news, and give the stories behind the news. You hear about events; in order to make these events understandable –  empathetic – to the reader, you have to find the people to whom the event has happened personally. It is all about identification – helping the viewer or reader to empathise with the people at the heart of the story. A million people dead is a statistic, one person dead is a tragedy – you always have to personalise the story.

“Once you have the story, you need to tell it the right way – to do the story justice. In imagery, the person naturally remains at the heart of the story. In print you have to concentrate on an individual to draw the reader in, and not to use sweeping generalisations.

When I was working as a foreign correspondent, I would always initially focus on the individual to catch the readers’ attention, to make them empathise, then broaden the story out with general news coverage and analysis, then bring the story full circle by coming back to the individual once again.”

  • Charlotte Eagar

The Responsibility of a Journalist – “I have a scream I want the world to hear!”

“When someone tells you their story you have a responsibility to treat them with empathy and respect – they are giving you something that is incredibly personal to them.

“It can be quite traumatic for people to tell you these things. If you can – if they want – you should always offer to stay with people a little longer, beyond just getting the story you need.

“Sometimes people are desperate to talk to you. There was a Syrian woman in our first Trojan project in Jordan, a refugee, who said she had been desperate for journalists to come to her suburb of Damascus when she still lived there, so that she could tell them – and the world – what was going on. She said ‘I have a scream I want the world to hear’

“But sometimes, people are more reluctant. That can obviously be quite difficult. As a journalist, you can often feel that it is better for the person and for their cause, in the long term, if they do talk to you; you can reconcile that view with your need to tell their story by encouraging them to share. Once someone starts talking about something traumatic, however, it can sometimes be hard to get them to stop. In that case, you really have to let them talk as much as they want”.

  • Charlotte Eagar


Edinburgh Festival Pleasance EICC production of The Trojans 2019 –

Photo: Charlotte Ginsborg

The Trojan Women Project

“In the Trojan Women Project we allow people the time to tell their stories in a safe space – they get weeks if they want to – to share their stories with the group.

“They then go on stage and share their story with the public through the medium of theatre.”

“TWP was born out of a drama therapy project that we did for Arete in Kenya, nine years ago. Not only did we see the psycho-social benefits the project had on the participants, but also, because of the artistic power of the work they and we created, the project’s reach – the reach of the participants’ stories – was much broader than we could have imagined. That was what inspired us to set up TWP.”.

  • Charlotte Eagar

Learn more about TWP on the website:

TWP takes our philosophy at Arete to new heights. Just as the project literally gives people a platform, a stage, to tell their stories to the world, in very different circumstances and for different media, our work at Arete empowers people to narrate their own experiences.

The notebook of “El Informante” (pseudonym), a Venezuelan reporter, in which. he wrote his anonymous story. He wanted to remain anonymous due to the political situation in his country and the persecution he would face. This photograph was taken during a session about mobile story telling in Colombia, March 7, 2020.
Keoma Zec / GSMA / Arete

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