Powerful storytelling: how comms stole the show

“For me, it was the most powerful presentation of my very rich experience of presentations, discussions and exchanges here. It brought a very real sense of the vulnerability, the suffering and the sheer endurance of the people in that presentation. It bought the invisible and forgotten in to view in a way that was really, really powerful and inspiring.”

And there, ladies and gentlemen, is the most fulsome recommendation of a piece of communications work you are ever likely to have the pleasure of hearing. And from an academic too: Professor Brian Wynne of Lancaster University.

The person responsible for the work being heaped with praise, Shibaji Bose a communications specialist at the Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR) in Kolkata, was sitting just a meter or two in front of Prof. Wynne filming his remarks. Shibaji was completely unaware his presentation was about to be singled out as the most powerful moment during two days-worth of cutting-edge research being showcased at the Jawaharlal Nehru University-STEPS Centre joint Symposium on Exploring Pathways to Sustainability. Being a consummate professional and a modest man, Shibaji kept his head down and kept filming, but later admitted acute embarrassment (and probably a modicum of pride).

So what revolutionary digital communications tool had Shibaji employed that so genuinely moved Prof Wynne and many others, single-handedly creating the biggest event buzz in a roomful of 100 academics and activists at the most prestigious university in India? A camera and a 20 year-old technique. That’s what.

Shibaji’s ‘Uncertainty through the Lens’ presentation is a ‘photovoice’ – a combination of photos and quotations. Its real power and beauty lies beneath the photos, in amplifying the voice of those who chose the images. In this case, people living and coping with uncertainty caused by climate change in Delhi, the Sundarbans, a network mangrove forest and islands at risk from rising sea levels in the Bay of Bengal and the dryland region of Kutch.

The method was first introduced in 1994 as ‘photo novella’ by Caroline Wang & Mary Ann Burris, who said:  “Photo novella does not entrust cameras to health specialists, policymakers, or professional photographers, but puts them in the hands of children, rural women, grassroots workers, and other constituents with little access to those who make decisions over their lives.”

Photovoice aims to enable people to record and reflect their community’s strengths and concerns, to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about important issues through large and small group discussion of photographs, and to reach policymakers, who may be seeing an issue through this lens, literally, for the first time. It is an incredibly flexible tool, revealing real life experiences and empowering marginalized citizens, particularly girls and women, allowing different stories to be told and different outcomes to be sought.

Shibaji told me: “What binds the shots and the narration together is the fact that the people living with uncertainty in the project sites have identified the elements that need to be captured through photos and also underlined the importance of WHY they want them taken. The WHY is the source of the narratives.”

He chose photovoice because he was trying to find a single technique which would be participatory, would document perceptions without the filter of a researcher’s lens and at the same time could be used as an gender sensitive advocacy tool. For the STEPS project – which looks at uncertainty and climate change from perception of people ‘below’ – people on the ground – it was important to find a robust and powerful medium to present their case. Shibaji has explained more about photovoice in the STEPS Methods section. Incidentally, he points out that the VOICE in photovoice stands for Voicing Our Individual and Collective Experience, which is a pretty good description of what we in research communications are trying to enable.

I love to Tweet, Storify, Vine, blog, animate, Instagram, film and chase The Next Big Comms Thing in digital communications. Professionally these tools help me tell complex stories about development research and personally they make me tick. But I wonder if, in our rush to document and share in seconds, we sometimes overlook some deeper, slightly slower, possibly less-sexy methods of storytelling that are hugely powerful?

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Posted in Guidance, Opinion
One comment on “Powerful storytelling: how comms stole the show
  1. […] on ‘stories’ brings a link to an account of an effective comms technique known as ‘photovoice‘, as employed by Shibaji Bose of the Indian Institute of Health Management […]

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