By Mari Megias
October 1, 2020

Nancy Farese MC/MPA 2016 sitting on a ledge in a garden.Clickbait. Sensationalized headlines. The news in 280 characters.

How news is presented has shifted in recent years, but the power of visual communication has not. To elevate this potent method, Nancy Farese MC/MPA 2016 founded CatchLight, a nonprofit whose mission is to discover, develop, and amplify the visual leaders who use art to promote a more just and compassionate world.

Visual storytelling as an access point

“I come from a business background,” says Farese, who formerly worked in the metals manufacturing industry in the rural South before becoming a social entrepreneur in California.  “So much of the media is headlines, sensationalized, and reduced to a Twitter feed—and we feel like visual storytelling is a powerful way to bring people into the complexity of issues. CatchLight finds the voices and storytellers with amazing stories, and it becomes an entry point into a vastly intricate subject.”

Jim Bildner MC/MPA 2011, adjunct lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School, was an acquaintance of Farese’s—and he urged her to apply to Harvard Kennedy School. “He knew I was interested not just in social development but political justice issues, political ethics, and philosophy. I hadn’t been to school in 30 years, but I began to visualize myself as a student going back to school.” 

She loved her time at HKS. “It was incredibly stimulating to be back in an academic environment, especially one so intellectually dynamic and hard. The leadership classes, the public speaking classes, the more political classes—I didn’t take anything that I didn’t love.” 

Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, working with the UN High Commission on Refugees, image by Nancy Farese

While at HKS, she studied social entrepreneurship with Bildner. “This began to shape the idea of what I could create,” she says. “As the photojournalism industry has shifted, people aren’t sure where the funding models are. At CatchLight, we are positioning ourselves to figure this out. The philanthropy world has been very comfortable in the space of documentary films, so the opportunity for CatchLight and our partners is to define the visual storytelling space broadly and see where the gaps are. We have some terrific partners who are helping us think this through, for example, the Open Society Foundation, the International Center of Photography, and Report for America, which is an interesting model—like Teach For America—working with small, local news agencies to bring journalists into those spaces. We’ve partnered with them in two pilots, one in the San Francisco Bay Area, the other in Chicago.”

Based in San Francisco, CatchLight has offered grants to visual storytellers since 2017. Known as Leadership Fellows, individuals who receive grants work on complicated topics such as migration, gender, and incarceration. This year’s fellows hail from Egypt, Mexico, Spain, and the United States. Says Farese, “The life of a photojournalist is very lonely, scrappy, and economically extremely hard, so we feel like the opportunity to convene these fellows, surround them with a network of leaders in the field, and create opportunities for them will help them use their talents to help us understand the nuances of difficult issues.”

The fellows become part of a lifetime cohort. “We surround them with resources that can amplify their voice and nurture them. Some include personal resources like coaching, editors, and mentorship; there are also financial and networking resources that can help them be more effective,” says Farese.

Ethiopian children playing by the roadside, image by Nancy Farese

Future projects

In 2019, Farese came back to Cambridge as a Shorenstein Fellow. “I’m really interested in how to bring visual storytelling tools into a closer relationship with the policy and academic conversation. Visual journalism is a fundamental way we are communicating now, and it seems like this should be embedded in a systematic way at the Kennedy School.”

Today, in addition to chairing the board of CatchLight, Farese is working on a project to document children’s play both through photography and writing. “I’ve photographed in 14 different countries exploring the use of  play in different cultures, the impact of technology, and consumerism. Her recent articles explore play, creativity, and constraints in an era of quarantines and at a time of social unrest. She makes an analogy between play and the basic foundations of democracy, where we set rules for inclusion and fairness, with the objective being the perpetuation of the game.   She expects to publish her book, Potential Space: A Serious Look at Child’s Play, in 2021.

Farese says, “We’re in a revolution of visual communication.” Her goal is to tap into this energy for political, policy, and academic conversations in a opportunistic and systematic way. “We are living in such a complex time. The thing that gives me great hope is the people who show up—HKS is full of such people—to help make our democracy more fair. People are protesting, challenging the notion of a level playing field, against the ubiquitous impact of COVID, which doesn’t care about economics or geography—and I think we can tell the visual story of this challenge in ways that push back on bumper-sticker narratives. I see it all in our time with our fellows.”