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26 Jun, 2019   |   

Where Are They Now? Interview with Koen Suidgeest

Koen Suidgeest is an alumnus of the Up with People program. Since his time traveling in the program as a cast and staff member, he has gone on to become a successful documentary filmmaker, photographer and now an author with his new book, Why I Cry On Airplanes. We had the chance to ask him a few questions about his time traveling in Up with People and how those experiences have translated into his own personal and professional life now in the Netherlands. 

Photographer in Malawi
Koen in Malawi

Where are you originally from?

I am from the Netherlands.

documentary film maker in Malawi
Koen in Malawi

When did you travel in Up with People? What was your role? 

I started traveling my first year as a student in January of 1988. Up with People was then a twelve month program. Six months after coming off the road at the end of 1988, I was offered a position as a Promotion Representative as a support for the cast on the road. I graciously accepted and from there stayed on for another three years. I made it to Marketing Manager and spent the final six months of my tenure as a Special Projects Manager running two big events in Europe.

What is your current position? What does that entail?

I am a documentary filmmaker and photographer. I work freelance and make films that are broadcast internationally, travel in the festival circuit, are shown in cinemas and are used for education and activism worldwide. Most of my work is in human rights, with a special focus on motherhood, children’s rights and women’s rights, generally in countries where there is extreme poverty. 

I also directed two commissioned documentaries on LGBT issues around the globe. About half of my productions are commissions from human rights and international development organizations. The other half is free work, which I initiate myself and tends to be for television. As part of my photography work, I created three traveling exhibitions and am currently producing my first photo book, entitled Why I Cry On Airplanes.

How did traveling with Up with People prepare you for this position? 

In many ways, my years in Up with People fit neatly between a future dream and my current reality. From early childhood, I was always a person that was concerned with the world around him. I cared about people’s well-being, about justice and equality, about issues of war and peace… So I knew early on that I wanted to work in journalism or film. 

However, when I came to the end of secondary school, I didn’t feel ready yet to pursue further education. I was young and from a small town. I felt that I had to travel first, open my eyes, shed some of my naïvety and get to know myself. My year in Up with People turned into four years and through hardships and victories, I achieved my goal by a long stretch and in so many ways.

Koen, documentary film maker and photographerHow did Up with People impact your life both personally and professionally?

From the moment you step out of Up with People, it doesn’t leave you. It’s always a part of your life. Mostly because you just spent a considerable amount of time locked like sardines in a bus (and the occasional airplane) in a high impact, inspiring and educational program that takes you to countries and situations you might have never found yourself in otherwise. So the impact is ongoing, albeit different for every individual.

On a personal level, for me it’s all about people. The friendships stick. They are truly for life. Sometimes they even continue to bring surprises, like the beauty of being life-long friends with someone you were maybe not so close with on the road. So yes, it’s the people you meet and come to love that provide the most enduring impact. This is certainly the case for me.

On a professional level, of course Up with People was a first step to what is currently a busy traveling life. These days I am quite the frequent flyer, often to remote locations that are not so easy to visit. I feel that my time in Up with People has contributed greatly in how I currently navigate new cultures, people and situations. I learned something real about diversity from all the host families I stayed with, and the hundreds of cast members I travelled with. Up with People was my stepping stone, although of course I continue to learn every day.

What advice would you give our youth in pursuing their passion/career?

Follow that passion. It might not come out exactly how you imagined it, but in time it will bring you happiness in one way or another. I think young people are truly our best hope for the world. That sounds like a cliché, but I didn’t always think that. These days, while societies are engulfed in polarisation, I see a lot of concern among young people for the state of our world. I believe that young people are more often choosing life paths focussed on improving the world they live in – lives that don’t necessarily make them rich but enrich them all the more.

What are your favorite moments from traveling in Up with People?

There are many favorite moments and I find it hard to choose one. There were many special moments of course, related to big events, powerful community involvement or special shows. But I guess my favorite ones remain the smaller personal moments. 

Up with People gap year program
Koen at the Up with People final banquet for his cast in 1991.

I still get choked up today when I think of that host family in Colorado of a father and two little girls who had lost their wife/mother some months earlier. They were still deeply mourning. I remember thinking that it was very courageous of the father to decide to host. I don’t think I did anything different than usual, but my host dad wrote me a long letter after the visit making me understand what an enormous source of light my visit had been in a time of otherwise relative darkness. It was one of those moments where making a difference was not very tangible, but incredibly impactful. You can’t plan for stuff like that, it just happens. It’s these very personal and unexpected moments that remain my favorites.

What would you tell someone who was considering traveling in Up with People?

I would always encourage anyone to undertake any kind of traveling experience in the early stages of adulthood, regardless of the chosen program. That being said, if Up with People is your choice, the first thing I would say is: don’t doubt, just do it! And once you’re on your way, I would advise you to look outward. The cast itself is already a complex microcosm of special experiences, and sometimes it’s easy to forget to look beyond that. But outside the window of the bus and off the stage, there are limitless learning opportunities. Often they are in really small things. So keep those eyes open and ask as many questions as you can.

What are the top 3 things you learned during your experience in Up with People?

  1. As I grew up from that small town boy to a world citizen, I became more open and more thankful for our differences.
  2. I learned to navigate new cultures and connect with people from all kinds of backgrounds.
  3. Taking initiative and responsibility for my own path was a huge learning experience.
  4. And of course, I learned swing claps…. 😉

How do you keep hope alive?

As a father of two teenage girls and a documentary maker, I am doing the best I can. Every day of my life, believe me.


Koen Suidgeest’s upcoming photo book about his travels is available for pre-order as of May 1st, 2019 at 

To get more information on Koen’s work and to get in touch, please visit

“It’s an unfinished world
And it’s still in the making.
It’ll take all we can give
‘cause together we all live
In an unfinished world.”

Unfinished World © Up with People

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