The Storyteller

My dream is to make documentaries that give people a voice.

Kevin Pham

Class of 2017

Interactive Media Arts, 
NYU Shanghai

Storytelling is Kevin Pham’s passion. “You don’t truly know what someone’s going through unless you talk to them,” says the NYU Shanghai senior who hails from Washington State. “It’s easy to judge someone and assume things about them, but it’s much more rewarding to give people a chance to explain to you what their story is about. That’s why telling stories is important. It helps you look at people as unique individuals.”

Kevin Pham

Kevin uses his parents as an example: “When you listen to my parents speak English, you can tell right away that they’re not from the States, and it’s easy to simply dismiss them as immigrants. But if you take the time to ask them about their story, you would learn, for instance, that it took my father 13 attempts to escape from Vietnam during a time when government oppression was quite bad. His family could only afford to pay a smuggler to bring one person to the States, and my dad was the youngest, so they sent him. He came to this country without a penny, without knowing English, and without a single friend or contact, and he wound up graduating from college and starting a new life.”

Kevin is still in awe of dad for the sacrifices he and his mother made to create a better life for themselves and for him, but it’s not something Kevin’s dad is comfortable discussing. “He isn’t the type to talk about himself,” says Kevin. “I only found out about his past by asking him lots of questions. That’s how I learned the importance of listening to people.” And that’s a lesson Kevin has relied on as he pursues his dream of becoming a multimedia storyteller.

Storytelling 101

Kevin Pham

As a first-year student, Kevin discovered that he preferred using video and photography to capture the essence of someone. He feels these media give “real-life exposure to a real-time moment,” he says. “Not only do I get to capture moments in which people are experiencing things, but there’s something about seeing other people enjoy the work that I have done. They’re immortalized in a moment in time. It’s important to document these moments. There’s something very satisfying about seeing people enjoy your work.”

Kevin’s first exposure to digital storytelling came when he took Communications Lab, a course that had a video production component. “I found that I really enjoyed how editing video let me craft a story in whatever way I wanted,” he says. That’s also why Kevin chose Interactive Media Arts (IMA) as his major. He explains, “IMA gives me the opportunity to understand other people using different types of media.” For example, in the course Street Food and Urban Farming, Kevin used audio and video recording to explore Shanghai’s vibrant food scene, but he became most interested in the vendors’ own stories. “These were people with entire lives, not just salespeople with whom I was conducting business transactions,” he says.

Kevin Pham

Mastering His Craft

Since every student at NYU Shanghai studies abroad in their junior year, Kevin had the chance to try his hand at storytelling at NYU Accra. He interned at e.TV Ghana and worked as a news gatherer. “I would go out and talk to people and find stories,” he says, a process that he once found difficult. “From my experience living in China, I learned not to be afraid of starting conversations with strangers. I can attribute that to being put in a place outside my comfort zone.” But Kevin says NYU Accra turned out to be a valuable experience for him on several levels. “Talking to people and seeing new places really helped me put my own thoughts and feelings into perspective. It was such a special experience for me. It did exactly what I wanted it to do. It pushed me into someplace completely different.”

Through his internship, Kevin learned to gather the facts, but it wasn’t until he took the course Documenting the African City that he figured out how to get to the heart of a story. “My professor encouraged us to let our sources guide what the story is about,” he says. For a class project, Kevin produced a documentary about James Town, a settlement that, although home to more than 1,000 people, was not legally recognized by the government. James Town’s residents were displaced because the land was sold to a developer. “Making the documentary wasn’t as simple as presenting the facts,” Kevin says. “I had to learn how to let people speak for themselves in order to tell a more nuanced story.”

Another of Kevin’s video tells the story of Abigail, a young Ghanaian woman who was struggling to find the money to continue her schooling by running a taxi stand, a job routinely held by men. “When I first ran into Abigail, she immediately stood out to us because of her job,” says Kevin. “It’s very uncommon to see a woman in charge of that kind of operation, and I felt it was incredibly important to tell her story. To hear Abigail talk about the dreams she has of going to school to help people one day made me embarrassed about the things I complain about. My worries just pale in comparison to what Abigail and others go through. It may seem fairly simple, but who am I to judge her for that and to say that isn’t a dream? There are people in this world who are just looking simply to live. It reminds me that I need to do my best to live simply.”

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So what does the future hold for Kevin? “My dream is to make documentaries that give people a voice,” he says. “There’s often much more to a person than you realize—you just have to take the time to find out. You have to ask questions and assume you don’t know anything. If you are to document someone else, let them tell their story. It’s their right to tell it as they see it.”