Julie Winokur has been a storyteller for over two decades, first as a magazine writer and then as a documentary filmmaker. She launched Talking Eyes Media in 2002 as a way to focus on creating visual media that catalyzes positive social change. Her work has appeared on PBS (Aging in America, Firestorm), the Documentary Channel (Firestorm), MediaStorm, National Geographic Magazine and Discovery online, as well as in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and MSNBC.com. She has received two Emmy nominations and numerous awards from World Press, Pictures of the Year International and the Society for Professional Journalists. Beyond broadcast and publication, Winokur works extensively with nonprofit organizations to develop their messages and put Talking Eyes’ films to work at the grassroots level. She has been on faculty at Rutgers University-Newark and the International Center of Photography in New York.
I live near the Ironbound, and for many years I have driven over it on my way to and from New York City. Until you get on the ground and witness the impact of having so much industry, the port and airport right next to people’s homes, it’s impossible to grasp the impact. Experiencing this firsthand was so sobering it compelled me to translate what I had seen into film. The Sacrifice Zone is not one neighborhood’s story; it is our story. We benefit immensely from the garbage incinerator, the airport, the sewage treatment facility and the 14,000 trucks that pass through the Ironbound every day transporting goods. Most of us have the luxury of convenient ignorance—out of sight, out of mind—but for environmental justice communities, that is not an option.
For the past five years, I have been producing a Newark-based project called Newest Americans, which looks at immigration and identity. This project has me immersed in the city, understanding its rhythm and flow. My short films for the project have been featured on National Geographic, The New York Times, and the Atlantic, and we have received major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Geographic. Through this work, I have embedded in Newark and have earned the trust of residents of the Ironbound. This is incredibly important because they are weary of outsiders who typically extract what they want and then disappear. This has been the case with industry, journalists, academics, and now gentrification.
Through Newest Americans, I had the opportunity to teach a course called Environmental Justice in the Ironbound at Rutgers-Newark this year. My students had to interview and photograph community members to gain a deeper understanding of the human toll of industrial pollution. Many of the students grew up in the neighborhood and had no idea what they had been exposed to. This made my resolve about the film even greater. EJ communities are often the least informed about their exposure to hazardous chemicals, and the least empowered to act politically.
In addition to Newest Americans, I am also currently producing a short documentary about the Humanities Action Lab, a consortium of over 20 international universities that will examine environmental justice through local perspectives. Each campus has researched a local theme, which will be shared through a traveling exhibition that visits all of the partnering universities over the next three years. The Sacrifice Zone will become an integral part of this traveling exhibition as it tours to over 20 locations.