Alumni Spotlight: Thomas Cytrynowicz on photography and film-making

Picture of Thomas in the sun

Name: Thomas Cytrynowicz

Year: 2016 

Major: World Politics 

Currently: Co-founder & Director of Jugaad

Did you know? Won an international photo competition

Athéna: Today we have the chance to sit with Thomas, who graduated in 2016 in World Politics. Can you tell us a bit more about what you’ve been up to since you graduated?

Thomas: What I’ve been up to since I left LUC mainly revolves around media production, filmmaking and photography. Mostly documentaries, which is something that I started doing already at LUC when I co-founded my first ever co-production company. 

We used to work with NGOs, based mostly in The Hague, but also got the opportunity to work abroad, and it kept on going. I stayed in the Netherlands for another year after that to develop the business and take a break from studying which was needed after LUC. Afterwards, I went back to France, where I come from, and since then it’s been a lot of traveling around! More recently, a bit more than a year ago, I started another company based in Brussels, called Jugaad, which is taking up most of my time. I started it with a friend that I met in India when I was doing journalism back in 2016. It’s essentially a refined version of my first company with more experience, a clearer vision on how we want to approach things and bigger projects but similar clients, such as Doctors Without Borders that I’m currently working with.

Backstage of a documentary shoot for MSF Academy in Kenema province, Sierra Leone. (2021)

Athéna: Before diving into what you’re doing now, let’s go back to your first company. Can you tell us more about this experience that you started at LUC as a student and what it brought you?

Thomas: I co-founded the first company together with another LUC fella, Martin, who’s also a 2016 graduate. The company was called Strobe Pictures and we just wanted to start it because we realised that we had the opportunity to work. It was a very pragmatic experiment for us. We didn’t know anything about business, starting a company or anything and, on top of it, everything was in Dutch, which we didn’t speak and still don’t speak. So it was very fun, exciting, weird and chaotic. Looking back at that, it was a great first experiment.

It was also part of a personal challenge. It came to mind that it would be a fun adventure to start a company before we turn 20 or 21. We had the tools, knew a little bit about photography and filmmaking, but because we had done that as a hobby for a few years, photography mainly, LUC was a good place to start with. 

Athéna: Did you have a first client who empowered you to keep going with Strobe Pictures? 

Thomas: The first event which really empowered me was when we were still at LUC, when I worked on a small film contest with a friend. There was a huge price at the end of it, but to us, it was completely unthinkable and unreachable. We had to pitch and film a small advertisement, and the outcome was terrible. I could never show it to anyone, it was so bad, but for some reason they liked the story enough for us to win. This really got me thinking seriously about audio-visual production, even if I am more into documentaries than advertising.

When we started Strobe Pictures, we had the chance to focus more on producing content which was aligned with our interests and values. We did a promotional video for Justice and Peace, an NGO based in the Hague which operates broadly on human rights and human rights defenders from around the world. We got in touch with a lot of human rights defenders from around the globe and that was the kind of project that I really wanted to work on more. It was all about meeting people, doing interesting projects and developing valuable contributions for society. I still think that it’s a driving force in what I do today.

Part of a series on reconstruction efforts in Odisha, India, following cyclone Fani, 2019. Shomnat and his mother pose for a portrait on the ruins of their family home in the village of Bhuishai.

Athéna: So except for your interest and passion that you developed at university in filmmaking or photography, you didn’t have a formal education, it was all built through experience?

Thomas: No I didn’t, I mean I followed a course in cinema back in high school so I became familiar with some processes but nothing compared to what we actually do in the field and what the business is really about. Curiosity has been a big driver in my journey. In filmmaking, you take your camera out and then create some images. Then comes the postproduction of your content. You have to learn how to edit the films or pictures you shoot and there are so many layers to it. I’ve had the chance to explore all of that through experience, fun adventures and I really enjoyed this approach to learning.

Athéna: Do you think that when you started your first company, LUC had prepared you well to jump in that new journey? 

Thomas: It definitely helped me on different levels. I really believe that as a documentary filmmaker or photographer, it makes a lot of sense to me to have a background in something else, because what do we do at the end of the day? We tell stories and you need to have the background to tell these stories in a nuanced way. So yes it’s a creative process, it’s also very technical, you need to know information on your tools, but beyond that, it helps to know a thing or two about the stories you want to tell.

I’m interested in the non-profit sector and everything related to environmental change and humanitarian action. This is also why I did a master’s in Humanitarian Action and International Development, which had nothing to do with filmmaking, but it helped me broaden my background on the topic and understand better the dynamics at play. I believe there is a lot I can tell because there’s a lot I’ve been exposed to. It helps me craft the stories I want to tell but it also helps me communicate with our clients. If you want to approach Doctors Without Borders, Handicap International or any other non-profit which works on very complex issues at an international level, it helps to be able to relate and understand what goes on in the job they do. So overall, to me it is fundamental to have an academic background in something else than just filmmaking or photography and LUC played an important role in setting the tone.

Portrait, Spiti Valley, India. Three generations of women share the same house. (2019)

Athéna: What would be your advice for people who are interested in exploring documenting and/or photojournalism and who don’t really have a technical background? 

Thomas: Just practice. Firstly, find stuff that you’re interested in. It could be anything, from your neighbour, to an activist group, a local group working to preserve the wetlands. Secondly, use the tools that you have at your disposal. Now is a very good time because we all have access to good enough equipment, like phones with 4K video making and decent sound recording. It’s just about what you want to tell and how you want to use the tools that you have to tell the stories you care about.

At least, for me it’s been all about this. Of course there’s great resources online, but that’s never going to trump the actual practice. If I look back at the first projects that I worked on, it’s funny because they’re so bad. Slowly over time, I saw the change towards something that was a little bit better. It’s far from being where I would like to be and feel comfortable about it but that’s the journey. It gets better, eventually. 

Athéna: Talking about improvement and now, what is your vision for your new company Jugaad? 

Thomas: Our vision is that it would be a platform for us to get the necessary resources to build the stories that we really wanted to tell outside the expectations of our clients.

In the world of documentary making, there’s so much going on, but it’s still a very difficult arena to claim. There’s not a lot of money, so it’s hard to make a living out of documentary filmmaking if it’s completely unrelated to client work. Right now, it’s all about finding a balance between cool projects that we like taking part in and and getting the money for it. Allowing ourselves the space to get better tools and to get the resources to create bigger projects that we really feel strongly about. An example is a documentary I am working on right now in Central Asia, about nomadic people and the impact of climate change on such groups and these vulnerable places.

Shokan corraling his herd during his yearly winter migration.

Athéna: what is the project that has impacted you the most, or that you are the most proud of in your life?

Thomas: The project which impacted me the most was a little project that was conducted in Ghana. We did a documentary on a person doing development work there. On the side of this, I took a series of photographs at a mortuary, which was a very new thing to me, it was very intense. It was a black and white series and I submitted it to an international photo competition. I ended up winning and had the chance to take part in a master class, led by a photographer that I really admire and we ended up working really closely together. It’s thanks to him that I went to Mongolia for the first time and we got to work together on another documentary and on a series of related projects as well. So overall, I think it’s the thing that I’m the proudest of because of the encounters that it led me to and the things that I was exposed to at the end. 

However, I’d say that each and every single one of the projects that I’ve been a part of were impactful but for very different reasons. Working with Doctors Without Borders has been amazing, it’s something that I was aiming at, mainly because it’s one of the main humanitarian organizations in the world. I really believe that they do a great job and they are involved in areas where there’s a critical medical need. I got the chance to travel to the Central African Republic and Sierra Leone to work on that series of short documentary projects. Once again, that’s the kind of project that’s amazing because of the encounters that follow. You meet MSF staff, the patients, the guys that are willing to leave their family and dedicate their time in very difficult conditions. From doctors, to midwives, nurses, and anyone who’s part of this. And you’re there to tell their stories!

A young girl on the outskirts of Puri, in a slum area, after cyclone Fani wrecked the coast. Odisha, India. (2019)

Athéna: To conclude this interview, looking back on your journey, what would be the advice you would give to your younger self or to people interested in following a similar journey? 

Thomas: Take more risks. I’m glad that I had the guts and I was not alone as well, to start my own company at a fairly young age with no experience, nobody helping us, but somehow we made it. I took the risk to travel to places that I didn’t think I could have gone to at the time.

Experiences like these, where I took the risk to do something, brought me something that I can’t describe but is extremely valuable today.

Bahman takes a rest by the fire while on shepherding duty. Khuzestan, Iran. (2019)

This post was part of a larger series of “portraits” of Alumni. Want to be featured, have questions for Thomas, or about alumni in general?
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