Isobel Yeung takes her viewers inside worlds they may not otherwise be able to access. Whether she’s going behind bars to interview a 15-year-old girl accused of murdering her abusive father, exploring the lives of the bootleggers who pedal alcohol in temperance-driven Iraq, or delving into the fight for gender equality under an oppressive theocracy in Afghanistan, the correspondent and producer for HBO’s documentary news series VICE strives to tell the stories you won’t be hearing anywhere else.
Originally from the U.K., Yeung has always had a global perspective, due in part to the fact that her father immigrated to England from Hong Kong in search of a better life. After completing her studies, Yeung then lived and worked in China, using her experience producing segments for state-run Chinese television as an example of the type of biased work she was striving to eradicate from the world of journalism. In her current role with VICE, the now New York-based reporter works tirelessly to examine multiple facets of a story, a capability the long-form style of the show facilitates more easily than mere news clips.
We recently chatted with Yeung about her start in journalism, what draws her to the underreported stories she tells, and why she thinks about herself as a reporter who happens to be a woman rather than as a ‘woman reporter.’ Read on to learn more of her inspiring journey.
The Window: People are often shaped for later success by something in their childhood. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Isobel Yeung: I grew up in southern England in a town called Salisbury, which is a very white, middle-class area. My dad is actually from Hong Kong—he’s Chinese—and my mum is English. Both of them really instilled in me the need to get an education—neither of them come from a particularly well-off background—and also the need to work really, really hard. Even though neither of them has a very good education themselves, they taught me to be incredibly curious about the world. Dad came from the far-off land that I didn’t really know much about, and my mum just knows a little bit about everything when it comes to the world and how it works. That was the biggest factor in terms of what influenced me moving forward.
A good sense of curiosity is always helpful to a journalist! When you were younger, did you have any role models that you looked up to?
At that time, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a journalist. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I think that you draw role models from the people who are in your life. So for me, my dad was really my role model. He was this guy who’d come over in the 1980s from a very poor background in Hong Kong, where he didn’t really have anything. He came over, fresh off the boat, and set up a small Chinese restaurant that he and my mum ran together. It was very much the story of an immigrant who came to a little English town in the countryside. He would work six days a week, all hours of the day, and slog it out in order to get my brother, my sister, and me through school and to live the dream that he always wanted. He was really my idol in terms of work ethic. It wasn’t until later that I decided I wanted to be a journalist, and then I looked to people like Christiane Amanpour. She was really at the top of her game at the time when I was growing up, and I just thought she was the most amazing woman, calling out injustices and holding people accountable. She was an incredible inspiration to me.
Was there one light bulb moment when you knew that you wanted to become a journalist?
It was more a series of events that led up to that realization. Right after I graduated, I moved to China, and I was working for the state-run TV network when I came to realization that I wasn’t doing anything that was very fulfilling to me. When I was covering the Hong Kong protests, I spent a lot of time with protesters who were so passionate about their cause. Spending so much time with them confirmed my feeling that I wanted to do long-form documentary filmmaking, which is what VICE is all about. So that story that I ended up doing for VICE News back in 2014, I think it was, was one in a series of turning points for me.
So how did you take that realization grow into what you’re doing now?
I was still living in China at the time, but I started pitching a lot of stories to VICE and to other TV and broadcast channels. I researched my stories a lot. I figured out what kind of stories I wanted to do. And I was just super persistent. I badgered everyone!
So, lessons so far: persistence and curiosity. Got it! How is it that you do decide what stories you want to do?
It’s mostly instinctual. It has to be a story that moves me or that I think is important. Often, those are the types of stories that are underreported—stories that you don’t see much coverage on or that have fallen out of favor with the mainstream media. It has to be something that’s moving and that will bring something new to the conversation.
While you do cover a range of topics, many of your stories focus on making women’s voices heard, whether that’s women in prison or the women’s rights movement in Afghanistan. Why is it particularly important to you to tell those stories?
Women’s rights around the world are a good indicator of global wellbeing and a pretty accurate reflection of where a society stands. Often, women and children are the most forgotten and the most vulnerable. Gender equality is crucial for economic, social, and political advancement. Obviously, we haven’t yet reached that equality, but in documenting those inadequacies is a really important part of that struggle, both around the world and in the US.
Speaking of your travels around the world, you do spend time in a lot of places where women are treated inequitably, or in some cases are subjugated. What’s that experience like, coming from what we often think of as the more liberated Western world?
It really gives you an amazing perspective. Yes, obviously, there are times when you meet these women who have been subjugated, but surprisingly, what comes across most often is an incredible resilience. I actually just came back from a trip to South Sudan, and we were with these women living in sites that have been established for internally displaced people within the region. They’re provided with food and some resources, but never enough. It’s the women’s role to go out and collect firewood. We were with them as they walked ten hours a day to go pick up firewood so that they have enough fuel to cook for their families. They do this every day. It’s sweltering hot, and more often than not, they come across government soldiers who attack them, beat them, steal their belongings, and rape them. The fact that they’re faced with that choice, and they still choose to go out and collect firewood, it just shows an incredible difference in perspective and the mind-blowing resilience that they have. That’s just one example out of so many women I’ve met that display that kind of courage.
It has to be emotional to see situations like that. How do you remain impartial or try to keep your own personal emotions out of your reportage when covering a story like that?
It’s a fine line—you don’t want to be one of those people who are just crying on camera, because then the story becomes about you and what you’re going through, and it shouldn’t be about that at all. It’s good to maintain a certain level of distance. On the other hand, one of the reasons that people enjoy watching VICE is because you’re able to join the journey and experience some of the things that I’m experiencing. It’s important to maintain impartiality, but at the same time, I think it’s OK to talk to people on their level, to feel the things they’re going through, and to empathize with them. A big part of our jobs is to show empathy, because that’s what allows your subject to really open up to you.
In previous interviews, you’ve referred to yourself as a ‘reporter who happens to be a woman,’ rather than a ‘woman reporter.’ Can you speak a bit to that distinction?
That’s one thing that irks me, because people talk about ‘woman reporters’ like the female part is priority, whereas male reporters are just ‘reporters.’ I recognize that there are differences in the way women might approach stories or in the way I might approach or tell a story because I’m a woman. But at the end of the day, good reporting is good reporting, which is why that phrase gets to me a bit.
You want the focus to be on your work rather than your gender.
Right, and I think that the incredible team of women that we work worth have all gotten there because of their work. They’re incredibly passionate; they put the hours in and work really, really hard to get those documentaries made. I think the emphasis should be on those credentials.
What would you say at the top three characteristics that have contributed to your own success?
Curiosity, for sure. I wouldn’t be doing this job unless I was fascinated by what goes on in the world, how the world works, and how people play into that. Empathy—you have to be able to try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to understand what they might be going through in order to tell these stories well. Also, work really, really hard—I don’t often sleep. So, definitely a strong work ethic.
Those are the skills that have helped you overcome challenges, but let’s talk about those challenges. Is there any moment in your professional life that, if you could do it over again, you’d do differently?
There are so many! That’s the curse of making films: You’re constantly watching things back, you’re watching yourself, how things play out, and you’re constantly thinking, ‘Why didn’t we do that?’ or ‘Why didn’t we spend longer with this character?’ I don’t know if I can point to one particular thing that I’d do differently, more just a general level of retrospect and looking at how I could have made each story better.
Part of that comes from holding yourself to a certain standard though, no?
Certainly—you have to be self-critical and able to recognize your flaws. It’s just that, in making documentaries, those flaws are there for everyone to see. It does make it a really great way to improve, though, since you are able to look back and point out things that you could have done better. It’s a great medium for self-criticism.
Beyond that, have there been any challenges that you’ve faced as your career has progressed?
Professionally, it can be a challenge to fight for the stories that you want to do, when your bosses or your peers don’t necessarily think that those stories are important. You have to be very passionate and you have to be really clued up on what the subject is. It can often be quite a fight to get those stories on air. On the more personal level, managing relationships can be difficult. I’m traveling all the time, so figuring out how to spend time with my boyfriend, my family, or my friends can be challenging. I’ve missed so many birthdays, weddings, and the birth of my brother’s first child. That can be really tough. I’d like to say that it allows you to appreciate that much more the time that you do get with those people, but it’s still tough.
On a lighter note, since you do travel so much, do you have any favorite destinations?
I should have a better answer for this, since people ask me this question all the time, but it always depends on where I’ve just gotten back from. I personally have a soft spot for China. As I mentioned, I lived there for several years, and I think it’s a fascinating part of the world. It’s changed so drastically over the last several decades, and following that change is always going to be really important for me. Plus, the food is incredible.
Lastly, what advise would you offer to someone who’s seen the amazing work you do and perhaps wants to follow in your footsteps?
Be really clued up on the stories you want to do, what it is you want to get out of it, and why you want to be doing it. Also, you can never be prepared enough for a story or an interview. After that, just work very hard.