77. Elena Rossini: Using creativity for social good

Sue Stockdale talks to Elena Rossini, an Italian artist, writer and activist who uses creativity to improve representation. Elena describes why she feels compelled to focuses on issues of social justice, media representation, and the empowerment of women and girls.

Her most notable project is the critically acclaimed documentary The Illusionists, about the globalisation of beauty ideals, which Rossini shot in eight countries, across four continents. The film has been featured in Vogue Italy, New York Magazine, NPR, FOX and NBC Baltimore, amongst others.

Rossini is the creator of hundreds of GIFs depicting professional women – which have dominated GIF search results, accruing 1.6 billion views.   She is also the creator of the multimedia platform No Country for Young Women, which showcases over 120 interviews with inspiring women representing five continents, seven decades and over two dozen professions.

Most recently, Elena is working on another documentary, The Realists – about the dark side of Big Tech.

She lives in Paris, France with her husband and daughter. Find out more about Elena Rossini  via website or Twitter 

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Key Quotes

‘The common thread throughout all my projects is using creativity for social good.

‘The educational version of my film The Illusionists came out in 2015, and my distributor tell me that it’s been a top seller every single quarter since then.’

‘Women write to me and say how the film has impacted them and how now they see advertising in a completely different way ever since watching it.’

‘Curiosity is one of the most important things that any creative could have.’

‘I try to hone observation and curiosity and to live as much as I can in the real world, away from screens and away from algorithmic recommendations.’ 

‘I’ve always made it a point every day to find something new that gives me a sense of wonder and awe.’

‘The biggest illusion in our culture today is that you have to share as much as you can in order to be successful, to be liked, to be popular, to be lovable.’ 

‘I want to show people examples of individuals that are using technology in a mindful way, but they’re not being used by it.’

‘When you look up ‘cinematographer’ all the animated GIFs of cinematographers, their mine and they’re all women.’

‘I love that film and photography can almost act like time machines, they can crystallize a moment.’ 

‘I don’t think that there are many visible examples out there to be a working female artist who’s a mother.’

‘I think it’s incredibly powerful and cathartic to turn frustrations into opportunities for creativity.’

Elena Rossini Transcription

[00:00:00] Sue: Hello, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the access to inspiration podcast. The show where you can be inspired by people who may be unlike. We hope their experiences and insights cause you to reflect on your own perspectives about the world and make you think. My guest today is Elena Rossini, an Italian artist, writer, and activist who uses creativity to improve representation. Her most notable project is the critically acclaimed documentary the Illusionists about the globalization of beauty ideals, which has been featured in Vogue, Italy, New York magazine and NPR. And perhaps even more interesting is that Elena is a creator of hundreds of GIFs depicting professional women, which have dominated GIF search results, accruing 1.6 billion views. Welcome to the podcast, Elena.

[00:01:10] Elena: It’s amazing to speak to you, Sue. Thank you so much for having me.

[00:01:13] Sue: I’m fascinated to know how you would describe yourself because you are multi talented Elena.

[00:01:18] Elena: So I would describe myself as a filmmaker, a photographer. A blogger and an activist for representation.

[00:01:29] Sue: Wow. Well, that’s a very amazing mix of talents to bring together. And maybe I should ask, how do you do that? Do you bring them all together in one kind of activity?

[00:01:39] Elena: Yes. So I have always lots of projects going on at the same time, just because my interests are so varied, but the common thread throughout all my projects is using creativity for social good. So I’ve always been drawn to photography ever since I was a little girl, and writing. And so with filmmaking, I loved combining the two. So a passion for visuals and a passion for writing and writing. Also, I have to say from the point of view of a woman, who is a feminist and who is really passionate about social justice. So for example, a few years ago, I made a film called The Illusionists that is probably the project that I’m best known for. And at the time, when I knew that I wanted to make a documentary, I began digging up my old textbooks from university, from gender studies classes and the common thread that I would see about a topic that really I was passionate about was this idea that the [00:03:00] world we live in put so many limits on women and so many insecurities, and there are many companies that profit from those insecurities. And I remember looking around that other documentaries that were out there and none had a global perspective. Now I’m Italian, I’m fluent in Italian, English, and French. I have friends all over the world because I’m very fortunate to have gone to school in the United States.

And I’m sitting in touch with people from all over the world. And so I remember thinking I wanna tackle this topic, but from a global perspective, and if I don’t do it, who is going to do it because my story is so unique and my passions are so unique. So I almost felt a duty to start working on that.

[00:03:48] Sue: So I love hearing about where that impetus, that catalyst comes from for you to begin your work. How did you make it then happen? Because lots of people have ideas and things they would like to do. Of course, our podcast is about inspiration and we hope inspiration turns into action. How did you act on your ideas?

[00:04:08] Elena: So initially I began to talk about the idea for the film to people that I knew in Paris that were in the TV and film industry. And they told me that France was an incredible country where it was easy to get funding for documentary. If you had a script that was good enough. And if you were talented and I managed to get a producer who was a very well known filmmaker and he kind of took me under his swing and he helped me set up a lot of meetings with TV networks, for funding, and every meeting that I went to, I would hear it’s a fantastic idea, but we don’t believe you have this in you as a film director. Can we help you find a director for this. The way that they said that, you know, French has masculine, feminine pronouns and all that. So they were actually asking me ‘Est-ce que on peut essayer de trouver un realisator’ (in French) it’s male director. I would be réalisatrice. And I remember being really upset by that, but that was the catalyst for me to think I can do this on my own.

[00:05:23] Sue: So there’s something about somebody telling you that you can’t or perhaps subtly hinting that, that, that becomes the motivation.

[00:05:29] Elena: Oh, exactly. That was the fire, the fuel for me to really go on and do the project. And I had started a blog in the very early days when I was doing research for the film and the blog got a lot of attention back then. So I already had a community of people that was really invested in the message of the film being that unattainable beauty ideals and how there are many industries that exacerbate [00:06:00] women’s fears about their bodies for profit. So I had people from far away places as United States and India and Australia that I’ve been following the blog for years. And when I decided to do it on my. I did a crowdfunding campaign and I got a lot of support that way.

[00:06:23] Sue: So the journey began way before even the film idea existed by creating a community through a blog.

[00:06:30] Elena: Yes.

[00:06:31] Sue: And that then helped to support you to fund the film.

[00:06:34] Elena: Exactly.

[00:06:35] Sue: And then there’s one thing making a film and then there’s another thing distributing it and enabling people to see it. How did that work out?

[00:06:43] Elena: Okay. So the film exists in two different versions. So there is a long version an hour and a half that I’ve been distributing myself, marketing myself, and then there’s a shorter version for schools. And I was very lucky because at the time when I was doing the blog and when the blog was creating a little bit of a buzz. I got an email from an educational distributor in the us said that they were interested in watching the film when it was complete. And I sent to them, they loved it. They became my distributor and they had been promoting it for years now.

I mean, the film came out in 2015, the educational version, and they tell me that it’s been a top seller every single quarter since 2015, still like in 2022 now. So I’m very lucky that my film got under their radar and that they’ve been really advocating for it. So, what they would do is they have a catalog that they distribute to hundreds of high schools and universities and nonprofits across United States. And when the film just came out, they put it on the cover and then they would advertise it prominently. And that’s how the film became known in the educational circuit, in the US.

[00:08:11] Sue: Wow. It’s wonderful. When you find a partner or another business or organization that actually can help you to spread the word and distribute it more widely. It also makes me think Elena, around valuation of success, how do you measure your success?

[00:08:27] Elena: It’s a great question. So I’ve had a lot of serendipitous moments ever since the film was released. So I suppose that my measure of success was it just one anecdote? This must have been two years ago. I got connected to a group of women from the Washington DC area that were in Paris for a conference, and they were doing a lot of work about women’s empowerment. So they asked me where to have dinner. I suggested a restaurant, they [00:09:00] invited me and the daughter of one of those women. She was there too. And when I began talking about my work, she said to me, oh, I’ve seen it in school. And I was really surprised by that. And this is something that has happened over and over again, I guess. I was most surprised to receive a delightful email that I got was from a teenage girl from Kuwait wrote to me to say, my mom went to college with you and I watched your film in school. And my mom told me that she knows you and this happening in Kuwait absolutely blew my mind. So I suppose that’s my measure of success. How far and wide the message of the film can spread. Even if it’s not on Netflix or Amazon prime.

[00:09:49] Sue: It strikes me. It’s the moment to moment human connections.

[00:09:52] Elena: Yes.

[00:09:53] Sue: And the way that you get those messages back, that seem to be impactful and give you a sense of satisfaction.

[00:09:59] Elena: Absolutely. Also, because there’s always a personal touch to those messages that I get, where the women write to me. It’s often women there are men too, but often women where they say how the film has impacted. And how now they see advertising in a completely different way ever since watching it. So that to me is like the biggest gift, because I remember that I went through possibly six or seven years of daily rejections when I was trying to get funding for the film for TV networks or to get the film, to get important ambassadors for it.

I was always very close to getting something big and then it didn’t. And I remember thinking I need to keep going. If this film changes the views of even one person, I know that it’s gonna be impactful. And so that kept me going, and I know that it changed the views of definitely more than one person. So I’m very happy about.

[00:11:03] Sue: Well, it sounds like you should definitely be proud of your work. And it takes us to the direction of observation you’re describing there, that somebody watching your work then observes the world in a different way as a result. And that skill of observation is very vital for a filmmaker to have. How do you go about honing your skill of observation?

[00:11:25] Elena: I think that curiosity is one of the most important things that any creative could have. And the way that I try to hone observation and curiosity is to live as much as I can in the real world, away from screens and away from algorithmic recommendations. For example, I love to go to libraries and go to a section, figure out what the topic is, and then [00:12:00] randomly browse through books, for example.

And it’s something that I think in this day and age, we are losing as humans because we get so used to algorithms, making choices for us, making recommendations based. Something that we watched or something that we read, and that is contributing to us, losing a sense of, again, curiosity and serendipity and finding things that maybe we didn’t even know that we were interested in.

So yeah. I try to stay away from screens as much as I can. I go for walks every day with my daughter in the park. And I remember that one of the essays that has affected me. The most was one by Helen Keller called three days to see. And if people are not familiar with Helen Keller, so she lost her sight and her hearing when she was a toddler and so she went for life out those two senses, but actually she’s one of the most inspiring humans that I can think of. She became an incredible writer, like activist really, really accomplished in her career. And she wrote beautifully. And in three days to see she imagined what she would want to see if she had sight for three days and one of the passages says that she had a friend going to see her and she asked her friend, what was the most striking thing that you saw today? And the friend couldn’t even answer that. So ever since I read the essay, I’ve always made it a point every day to find something new. That gives me a sense of wonder and awe, even if I’m always in the same neighborhood, because I have a little child , but I’m always trying to observe it as much as I can and find something that inspires me.

[00:14:01] Sue: Well, that’s a wonderful practical tip for our listener, Elena, to look at the world almost with fresh eyes and to be able to notice something new

[00:14:10] Elena: yeah, because we take so much for granted that we don’t even realize.

[00:14:14] Sue: And I know that you dropped into the conversation when you were talking about being away from screens, the word realist and I think that that is the title of your latest work.

[00:14:26] Elena: Yes. So I’m working on the follow up to the illusionist. It’s going to be a documentary about the way that technology is impacting our humanity. And how to recapture the sense of humanity, because I think that what has happened in the last 10, 15 years ever since the advent of smartphones is that now we are all subjected to, and I’m quoting Gérard Manière, who is this incredible writer and that we’re all subjected [00:15:00] to behavior modification on a massive scale because of the way that tech platforms they’re tracking everything that we do, how long we spend looking at an article, looking at a photo to serve us ads and to change us into ideal consumers ultimately. And so I wanted to tackle that in my new film because it’s a brand new world. When I made the illusionist. I was talking about how mass media and advertising are trying to mold us into ideal consumers by making us all feel insecure. About the way that we look now, fast forward to 10 years later. Now the biggest tech companies are doing that again on a massive global scale to everyone, women, men, children, and the content that I see online and the ads that I see are completely different from those that my friends see my husband, my family. and I find that to be fascinating and terrifying at the same time. So I want to do something about it also because my daughter, she’s only 17 months now I want to make this film and have it done. And into schools before she goes to schools.

[00:16:24] Sue: that sounds like that’s an impending goal that keeps you focused on making it happen. I imagine.

[00:16:29] Elena: Yes, absolutely.

[00:16:30] Sue: What I’m picking up from what you’re saying, Elena is the, how we’re being influenced more and more by kind of a fear based approach as opposed to an abundance based approach. And what is it there rather than us being scared about what we’re not going to have or what we’re going to miss out on, or at least that’s the sense I get from what you’re describing. In your documentary, are you advocating there for a different way of being, or is it more about sort of giving people the facts and allowing them to make decisions for themselves?

[00:16:58] Elena: It’s a blend of the two. I want to give them facts. And I also want to present them real solutions. I call that the realist, because I want to show people that there is another way of being in the world in the real world. That’s incredible because I feel that the biggest illusion in our culture today is that you have to be extremely online and do you have to share as much as you can in order to be successful, to be liked, to be popular, to be lovable. And I think that’s alive and I want to show people examples of individuals that are using technology in a mindful way, but they’re not being used by it. That’s the ultimate message. Use technology in a mindful way without being exploited or used by it.

[00:17:50] Sue: So you’re a woman after my own heart, Elena, I definitely subscribe to what approach you’re describing there and being able to control ourselves rather than [00:18:00] have other systems or technology control us. Is how I often look at it.

[00:18:05] Elena: Absolutely.

[00:18:06] Sue: So in terms of how you see your impact on the world being, if you were fast forwarding to, and your daughter is a little older and she’s looking at mom and saying, okay, mom, wow, you’ve been really successful. What do you hope that your daughter will see in terms of the impact that you have made

[00:18:23] Elena: without sounding boastful. There’s one area where I have definitely made an impact. And that’s about representation and images of professional women online. So there’s a project that I began in 2017. So that’s five years ago already. I began seeing how popular animated GIFs were becoming, and I signed up for an account on giphy.com which is the largest repository of animated GIFs and I began looking up in its search engine terms like film director, CEO, scientist. And all the results showed men all the top results were only men. And I remember thinking this is not right. I want to do something about it. I was very sneaky. I began making an animated GIF a day of a different film director with the photo of the female director. They were all women. And it said, this is what a film director looks like. With the big name in all in caps of the woman director. And I made about a hundred and I would always tag Giphy on Twitter. Whenever I posted one. and my project got under the radar and they decided to give me an official channel.

Now, what an official channel does is that every time you create something, it automatically is indexed and it can be found by people when they’re looking for animated GIFs so it’s official and it gets a sense of approval. So that means that it could be found immediately once it’s uploaded. If you’re looking for gifts on Twitter, slack signal, iMessage, really anywhere imaginable.

And so what I found really funny is for film directors, there were other people making a few GIFs but I also began to make hundreds of gifts of cinematographers. All. So now when you look up cinematographer, all the animated GIFs of cinematographers, they’re mine and they’re all women. So I essentially created a gender gap in the images of film directors and cinematographers, because now you mostly see women. So I think for my daughter, I would like her to see this impact that I’ve made [00:21:00] because the reach of GIFs is really wide. I mean, it’s on messaging apps. It’s. The biggest social media platforms. They, they have the images that I’ve created. And then I expand it to CEOs and scientists and inventors and writers. So I love when I see people repurposing those images and sharing them.

[00:21:27] Sue: Wow, that it’s amazing in terms of taking one small niche area and then taking small steps and those small steps then reap big rewards in terms of impact over the long term.

[00:21:38] Elena: Yeah. And they’ve gotten 1.6 billion views by now, billion with the B. So it’s more than anything that any reach to my projects have my phone. So I’m very happy.

[00:21:49] Sue: And fascinating that, you know, you’re talking about within the realists project, the, perhaps the potential downsides or negative impacts of technology, and here on the other side, you’re really ripping the benefits of technology and how you can utilize it to create a different impact.

[00:22:05] Elena: Yes. Also, because I think technology is wonderful. I am not trying to demonize technology with the realist. It’s just that when there are specific areas where I think that there is a kind of injustice, I like to go in and do something about it. if it makes sense.

[00:22:24] Sue: Oh, absolutely.

[00:22:25] Elena: Absolutely.

[00:22:26] Sue: Being a creative Elena. I’m wondering how or who or what inspires you given that this is the access to inspiration podcast.

[00:22:35] Elena: So my number one role model is Agnès Varda the late Belgium filmmaker who actually to call a filmmaker is a bit reductive because she was essentially a pioneer of the French New Wave of filmmaking. She made incredible fiction films, incredible documentaries .She also became an artist later in life in her seventies and had like really impactful art installations. And she was a photographer as well. So for the eclectic side and creative side, I really look up to her. Now I’ve had this realization a while ago that the artists that I like the most an and the painter Frida Kahlo they always. Well often put themselves in their art and up until now, I’ve been completely invisible in all the projects that I do. I’ve always wanted the projects to speak for themselves. One of the reasons that I’ve been invisible for delusions for example, is that I wanted everyone to be able to identify with the issues that I discussed.

And I didn’t want people to see the film through the prison, a Caucasian woman in her thirties. That looks a certain way. But now again, [00:24:00] I had this realization, wow, my muses are Agnes Verda and Frida Kahlo and they’re very present in their arts. And ever since I had a daughter, I’ve now wanted to also be on the other side of the lens, because I would want my daughter to get to know me and to see me in the present, like right now, when she’s still little to understand what I do, and I love that film. And photography can almost act like time machines. They can crystallize a moment. They can hit pause. And I’ve now started a couple of photography projects where I’m actually in them. And it’s the novelty. It’s definitely getting outside of my comfort zone, but I’m really enjoying it.

[00:24:52] Sue: It’s funny as you’re speaking, I’m thinking that the impetus to be on the other side of the lens and to be in your work is generated partly by your daughter’s arrival.

[00:25:03] Elena: And also what you’re saying around that, the message sometimes that technology gives us is we have to be out there all the time, sharing all our life in public to demonstrate success. And I guess the tension between those two things is there is value in being invisible and behind the lens. And there is a certain degree of value in being in front as well.

[00:25:24] Sue: And telling your story and presenting yourself. What would you say to that kind of tension between being invisible and visible at the same?

[00:25:32] Elena: Yeah. So I hope I’m not going off on a tangent, but for example, I’m making a photography project about motherhood, because I want to reveal what it’s like to be a female artist. I don’t think that there are many visible examples out there to be a working. Female artist, who’s a mother. And so I’ve started to do photos with me and my daughter to just show what a day in their life is like. But I am very conscious of protecting her privacy. So I’m framing all the photos of her from the back. You never see her face. There is this issue of consent that I think we are not paying enough attention to. There are many influencers. And prominent people that share every second of their children’s lives on social media. And I think privacy is a human right that I hold. So dear and I want my daughter to have privacy. So. My juggling between visibility and invisibility. It’s more from that point of view of like understanding and being very conscious of consent. And somebody’s privacy, if you make sense.

[00:26:47] Sue: Oh, absolutely. You’re introducing so many different and for me, interesting questions to consider, and I hope the listeners to consider as well in the work that you’re doing and how you do the work so really [00:27:00] understanding why you do it and how you do it that really is causing the listener to think as well and reflect on maybe some things that they take for granted along the way. If there was a key message that you would want to leave our listeners with from all of the things you’ve spoken about today, Elena, what would be that one key message or takeaway you hope would stay with them?

[00:27:21] Elena: That I think it’s incredibly powerful and cathartic to turn frustrations into opportunities for creativity. It’s what I’ve been doing for more than ten years and for example, in those days when you know, a caretaker for more than half the day, because I try to spend as much time with my daughter as possible. I often feel like a little bit invisible and maybe irrelevant because I used to do a lot more before I was a mom. and so I am still practicing this modus operandi like, okay. I am feeling a little bit invisible. What can I do to overcome this frustration? The way that I do that is to increase the visibility of women that I admire through my projects. So elevating other women. Actually helps me with those frustrations. So I think that hopefully this advice can be applicable to anyone. You don’t have to be a working filmmaker or working photographer. Anyone is creative. I do believe that, that we all have that in us. And I think it can be very powerful to turn frustrations into opportunities for creativity.

[00:28:45] Sue: Wonderful. What a powerful message to leave us with Elena. It’s been really intriguing to speak to you today. I’ve really enjoyed what you’ve had to say. If our listener wants to find out more about the work that you do and the work that you’re going to be publishing and premiering in the future. No doubt. How might they be able to do that?

[00:29:01] Elena: So they could go to my website, ElenaRossini.com and all the social media links are there.

[00:29:09] Sue: Wonderful. And I definitely know that that is an impressive and impactful website worth to look at. Thank you. So thank you so much for your time today, and I wish you well with the realist documentary as that comes along. And I do hope you’ll keep us posted in future as to when that comes out.

[00:29:25] Elena: Thank you so so much, it’s been really an honor and a pleasure. Thank you,

[00:29:31] Sue: wow. I loved speaking to Elena, so I encourage you to hone your curiosity. Just as she suggested by picking one of our access to inspiration podcast episodes that you haven’t yet listened. And maybe you’ll discover something new within that. Remember, you can keep connecting with us on social media. We’re on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, just search for access to inspiration. And of course you’ll find more than 70 episodes from our back catalog. By going on over to our [00:30:00]website, our access to inspiration.org. I’ll be back again next week with another inspiring guest and hope you can join me.

Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)
Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)