From theatre actress to passionate storyteller – Teirra Kamolvattanavith
“I’ve always been a huge believer in the power of storytelling, by seeing the world through another person’s perspective or another person’s point of view, or seeing the world a little differently… and I just saw what a difference one person’s voice can make, and there’s so much transformative power in telling true stories.”
Teirra “Yam” Kamolvattanavith, describes the power of telling true stories, which inspired her to become a freelance journalist and documentary producer.
-From theatre actress to journalist-
In fact, this wasn’t the career she ever imagined. Initially, Teirra’s childhood dream was to become a theatre actress. She participated in a number of school plays and even won roles in larger-scale musicals while she was studying in the United States.
As much as she loved acting and diving into a different world and into the character’s ways of thinking, unfortunately things didn’t turn out that way. As Teirra explains, the more she got into the industry, the more disillusioned she became, particularly as she ended up with roles stereotyping Asian women, which is something she has never believed in.
“I felt like I was reiterating the same kind of thought patterns and often I found myself articulating words that I didn’t necessarily believe in or agree with,” Teirra explains.
“As an Asian in the theatre industry, I felt that I was going after the same types of roles. You know, I was very typecast. I wanted to be in theatre to break glass ceilings, to break boundaries, to offer different perspectives but, instead, I kept going in for nerd roles, or prostitutes, or something that’s kind of stereotypical of my type, of who I am, what I look like on the surface.”
Another thing she noticed was the resurgence of Broadway or musical revivals. Despite tremendous success for each revival, Teirra felt that most of the storylines did not necessarily reflect people’s lives and communities today. Later on, she started to fall in love with true stories, particularly with news and documentaries, where she noticed a massive difference between one person telling a true story and a script that has been written for actors to articulate.
“I really wanted to be in the forefront of change-making conversations, meaningful conversations about stuff that is really happening in our communities and in our society and, for the most part, I wasn’t able to do that [in theatre].”
After being in theatre for many years, Teirra decided to switch gears to journalism and documentary production. In 2018, Teirra returned to Thailand and began her journalistic career at Coconuts.co.
One of her most notable works was a news documentary on the plastic pollution crisis on Thailand’s Koh Larn, which won the Best Single News Story from Thailand by the Asian Academy Creative Awards. Later on, she moved to Thisrupt, to spearhead the multimedia and video department. Unfortunately, many projects fell through due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teirra then decided to become a freelance reporter for international news agencies, before she established her own production company, Third Kulture Productions, focusing on non-fiction content, with most of their works featured on the BBC World Service, Vice World News, and Deutsche Welle.
Despite how difficult it was to switch directions from theatre to journalism, Teirra feelsthat this is her “true-calling”.
“Like I’ve said, I always love storytelling,” she said. “I love getting to know people, getting to know their unique perspectives. That’s one thing that I really love doing; meeting these amazing people whose stories or voices that haven’t been heard very much and hearing their perspectives, no matter who they are, in what walks of life they are, or what they’re doing. I feel like there’s so much to learn from everyone you meet.”
Along the way, the most difficult lesson that she has learnt for herself is to overcome the failures as quickly as possible, regardless of how big or small those failures are.
“Being in journalism and production, a lot of things can go wrong. I had experiences where people pulled out at the very last minute or stories you’ve been working on for weeks and months just fall through. It can be very discouraging, but what I had to learn is not to dwell on those failures so much or those little miss-steps, but learning what you could have been done differently and getting up and moving forward in the most efficient way possible.”
Gender bias against female journalists
Even though female news reporters are common in Thailand, many of them are still facing gender bias and are often stereotyped as not being capable or strong enough to cover certain types of stories. Unfortunately, Teirra was one of them.
“I hear all the time, like you’re a woman, why are you reporting on something so serious, like don’t you want to report on fashion or beauty, or something like that? You know, when I do something on politics or crime, I’m really passionate about doing the deeper, darker stuff sometimes, even if it is investigative reporting. I get a lot of ‘hmm’, that’s so serious, why are you doing that, you’re a girl, or that’s so dangerous, why don’t you leave it to someone stronger or more capable. So, I think those kinds of stereotypes and those ceilings are still imposed on Thai women in many ways because of this patriarchal society we are in.”
Another gender bias that Teirra noticed ever since she started her journalistic career was how women are treated compared to men in Thai culture. One of them is women being called “nhoo” (as in ‘you’ when talking to children) or “nong” (also ‘you’ when talking to someone younger) by people who are senior to her or with higher authority, while men, who are in a similar position as her, are treated with more respect by being called “khun” (the most formal way of saying ‘you’).
“When you call someone “nhoo”, you automatically put them in a lower position or in a position that is a little bit more demeaning. There are some clear dynamics, in that [those who called me “nhoo”] automatically establish themselves that they’re on top, when some of my male counterparts don’t get the same kind of treatment or the same kind of language used with them.”
Another difficult part for her at the beginning of her career was dealing with promising work opportunities that come, with a hidden agenda, from people in positions of power and authority, which Teirra finds manipulative and puts female journalists in a compromising situation.
“Sometimes I have this experience where I’ve been interviewing someone and then they asked me out, which is something I don’t hear a lot that my male colleagues experience, so it was definitely a little difficult to navigate in the beginning. Now, I just try to stick to my ethics, stick to my values and set more boundaries for myself. No matter how promising the opportunity is, if it comes with a “but”, “and”, or if it comes tied to anything that I don’t find appropriate, I will walk away from it, despite it being a promising opportunity.”
Considering the existing gender bias against female journalists, Teirra also noticed that there are not enough women in senior editorial positions. Therefore, she hopes to see more women taking up decision-making roles, to shape the media industry so that Thai society will shift towards a gender-equal perspective.
“Mass media is still very male-centric, like a male gaze. If you turn on Thai TV, if you see the lakorn (soap operas), they have a male-centric, male-dominated kind of perspective. If more women are in more positions of power, I think we will be able to shape the conversation towards something that can be more empowering for women. It will benefit and uplift women, instead of just confining or submitting to or feeling like they have to play into certain roles which society expects them to. I want to see women challenge those roles.”
Don’t let anyone tell you what you cannot do
“Many Thai women are told to be quiet, to submit, to obey, to follow the rules without question. That’s one thing that I think is really destructive.”
Having grown up in a Thai-Chinese family, where daughters are often told to be silent, obedient and submissive towards men, Teirra feels lucky to have been exposed to the progressive ways of thinking in the Western culture, where women can take control of their own lives and are willing to demand what they really want and the fundamental rights they deserve.
“So, for me, empowering Thai women means promoting self-worth, self-confidence, their self-value, and encouraging them to take control of their lives, no matter what people say. It’s uplifting them, supporting them and empowering them to shatter glass ceilings and these traditional, archaic, old-fashioned gender norms.”
Meanwhile, Teirra also hopes to see more female role models, to inspire the younger generation to break glass ceilings, redefine the gender roles and shape society to become more gender-equal.
“Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do just because of who you are,” this is Teirra’s final encouragement for all women.
By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World