You have been especially concerned about “the ethics of telling other people’s stories.” What do you see as some of the most common ethical failures that occur when human rights advocates attempt to mobilize around stories from the field, stories that deal with the real life struggles of real people? What kinds of ethical frames should such campaigns adopt to make sure they are being fair to those people whose life stories are entrusted to them? How can filmmakers and activist avoid making “poverty porn”? We have to stop treating other people’s stories as if they are ours for the taking and shaping. We have to recognize that agency and self-representation are crucial to social change and people’s perspectives of their own situations matter. As Darren Walker recently said in a discussion at the Ford Foundation, cultural narratives drive why inequality and exclusion persist.
We may believe that our colonial period is behind us, but neocolonialist perceptions persist in our institutions and in our cultural narratives. Media outlets trade in savior complex stories to audiences who consume simplified stories that allow them to feel good and ignore structural inequities, a relationship which leads to an ecosystem of cultural narrative that continually misrepresents poor, marginalized, and at-risk communities. And it’s very easy to fall back into these tropes.
A few years ago, I wrote a post criticizing the phrase “giving voice to the voiceless.” It’s a phrase I dislike quite a bit, and while I hear it a bit less these days, it still manages to encapsulate the way we sometimes perceive other people we are seeking to “help,” especially if they are poor or seen as poor (e.g., the way we in the west still see most of Africa). I said:
“If we seek to truly collaborate with people... to advance positive social change, we need to shift our thinking about who contributes to the “project.” It’s much more helpful to think of each other as equal partners who bring to the table various assets... For example, one partner might bring access and resources, while the other one brings local learning, stories and knowledge [cultural assets]. I’m not naive enough to believe that in our current system...there isn’t a power advantage in being the one in control of the financial resources and of the avenues that distribute information. But we have to learn and teach a different perspective on what is contribution, what are valuable assets and resources, and who plays what position on the team?... [C]alling people “voiceless” discredits their ability to contribute. All of us need to recognize participation and contributed assets as valuable tools… as leverage to effect positive change."
As artists and storytellers, we have an ethical responsibility to understand that we cannot impose "voice.” I will acknowledge that there is power in engaging audiences through language that we know, through tropes we are used to, through allowing us to feel good about the work we do—and when done well, it can contribute to both effective change and to good storytelling.
But as change agents, we are not speaking for someone else. We are primarily serving one of two functions in relation to people in an affected community: either acting as their proxy or working in collaboration with them. We might be providing access to avenues that disseminate their voice, and that's our role in the project, but we have to interrogate how our position may be affected by privilege or top-down perspectives.
As artists, it is our obligation to open up new frames of reference. In the realm of transmedia, each piece of work related to an issue can transform audiences’ frames of reference and it’s our role and within our reach to use story to put pressure on existing frames that dehumanize subjects and to shift the angles to expose humanity in the form of lived experience and cultural context.
What criteria should we be using to measure or assess the impact of transmedia activism campaigns?
The primary focus should be on the impact of a campaign within the affected community. I prefer qualitative assessments which explore the place of the campaign within political, social, or cultural context. Often impact metrics in media campaigns in general are weighted toward audience engagement as opposed to longer-term monitoring and evaluation on the ground.
Concentrating on the effect on audiences is a lesser criteria, not to be ignored, but in my opinion not to be given primacy unless the audience is itself a target of the campaign (e.g., in public health or consumer choice campaigns, rather than in human rights).
For transmedia particularly, as we’ve discussed, one of the many advantages of interactive storytelling is that of "contribution" and setting a cultural stage for action and change -- and to tailor layers of story and participation to the desired change. It is important then to measure each project on a case-by-case basis with concentration on qualitative or semi-quantitative metrics that also evaluates participation by key stakeholders, and how that participation led to shifts in perception or directed action.
The late Brian Clark initiated a consideration of what one might call transmedia locations. He argued that transmedia projects took different shapes, followed different goals, depending on what kinds of media systems and cultures they come from. You’ve done work which straddles across multiple cultures and societies. What differences have you observed in terms of the forms transmedia takes in these different contexts?
Before I answer that, I wanted to recognize Brian’s immense contribution to these fields. He was an incredible influence on so many of us, and he was one of my dearest friends. It’s strange to think about having this conversation without him.
Brian was an activist at heart, in part, and a cultural agitator. He and I used to have charged and dynamic, and funny, conversations about so many things – and in the last years, our conversations turned to his exploration of phenomenology, as he started deepening his inquiry into the experience of the media as opposed to the media itself. He understood that the form of media, the form of story, and the form of engagement had to arise from an understanding of what a local audience would perceive.
This ties rather directly to the way I conceive of transmedia for social change -- that in order to create sustainable change, we first have to understand the context in which communities (or, in Brian’s frame, audiences) interact with the story.
My observations are that, by and large, transmedia forms in different societal context are affected by a few things: first access to technology, particularly in terms of digital or online storytelling; second, the political landscape a community resides in and what their experience is within political power structures; and third, a community’s or a society’s indie culture. The form of transmedia will, if most effective, follow the forms creatives are experimenting with already.
Many of your projects are connected with documentary productions, where-as often transmedia is understood in relation to fictional storytelling. What added value comes from expanding the scope of documentary productions through transmedia? Who do you think has done good work in terms of transmedia for social change? Transmedia documentary?
There is value in increasing the surface area through which you can engage stakeholders and partners on issues, which you can do by creating multiple entry and participation points through transmedia. In my mind, when I start thinking through strategy, I see the expansion of the core story almost like a taffy pull – you can expand the scope of your story to encompass both the multiple perspectives I mentioned above and also the ways in which stakeholders can take effective action that proceed from the story.
There are quite a few good transmedia projects in social change and documentary from which to choose. I wrote a playlist last year for MIT’s Docubase that mentions quite a few I think are worth study. To that list, I would add the recent project Notes on Blindness and The Enemy. I’m also looking forward to a forthcoming project I’m working on, Traveling While Black.
On a related note, I work with nonfiction content more so than fictional because in the realm of social impact, truth is often far more resonant than fiction. Or looking at it another way, who needs fiction when truth is strange enough?
I will say that, I am wary of pop fiction that is spectacle and gesture and political theater simply for the sake of itself. I do think, however, that fictional content is underused in social impact and that there is much more scope for transmedia producers and artists to experiment with strategic audience engagement and impact. I think CEL does great work, and hope to see more of that.