Recently, I’ve been working on editing photo-stories on the food crisis in Chad and flooding in Benin, in conjunction with the NGOs Action Against Hunger (ACF) and Care International. ACF and Care are just two of the many brilliant charities that are working to respond to ongoing, and often unreported, humanitarian crises in west Africa.
Trying to get stories like these out there into the media and in front of people using strong photography and social media tools like Flickr and facebook is nowadays at the core of what many NGOs and development organisations are trying to do. For example, we did manage to get these stories onto the Guardian and the Independent websites. But striking a balance between simply informing people and actually motivating them to respond, take action or change their behaviour is a notoriously difficult challenge.
The line between a powerfully compelling image and a potentially exploitative one can be both fine and subjective. There were some contentious images in the stories from Chad and Benin that as a photographer I wanted to use, but as a picture editor I didn’t. In the saturated media environment in which we now live, choosing carefully how we use photography to tell stories about development is arguably more important than ever.
One approach that a number of people are turning to in increasing numbers is the audio-visual slideshow. These can be incredibly powerful and relatively simple to produce. A colleague of mine has written an excellent blog post about them over here. And many organisations are now using Flip cameras and other inexpensive digital stills/video cameras to produce video-blogs and mini-documentaries for Youtube.
But another treatment that deserves a bit of attention is one that takes the idea of videos and audio slideshows a little further. Interactives, or multimedia presentations, take a variety of media – photos, video, audio, maps, text – and package them up together. Using this approach it becomes possible to create a more immersive experience. In development terms there are some key examples of this kind of approach, that draw the viewer into a virtual representation of an actual place, and – presumably, hopefully, elicit a more emotive, engaged response as a result.
One of the prime examples of this approach in relation to development is illustrated by The Guardian, which last week wrapped up its three-year-long Katine project. Working in conjunction with the NGO Amref, Guardian writers, photographers and film-makers followed the remote community of Katine in Uganda. Over three years, they’ve built up an extensive amount of content – both about, and in some cases produced by, the residents of Katine and the challenges they face.
Early on in the project, the Guardian developed a ‘virtual village’ interactive as a means of introducing Katine, the project’s aims and challenges to its readers on the web. Even though this was produced three years ago, it still feels remarkably fresh and innovative today, and it’s interesting how different an online experience it is, to have to actually interact with a selection of multimedia content, rather than more passively sitting and watching a fixed, linear narrative.
Another similar approach from about the same time was a Save the Children project called Kroo Bay. This was based on a community in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, and like Katine, involved Save the Children working with the community, providing training and mentoring to local people, as well as documenting them. Kroo Bay featured panoramic, 360 degree photography as a means of taking this ‘immersive’ experience further, placing you the viewer in the heart of community.
Both Katine and Kroo Bay provide interesting, groundbreaking, examples of a different kind of approach, not only to telling the stories of the challenges that people face in escaping poverty across the developing world, but in involving us the viewer in those challenges directly.
However, they may not be entirely successful in this ambition – there are some aspects of life in developing countries that it’s simply not possible to truly communicate in a virtual, interactive way online. The smell that comes with a lack of sanitation for instance, the true reality of having to walk for miles to get any water, let alone clean, drinkable water. Or the heat and humidity inside a tin-roofed makeshift shelter that someone calls home.
Of course these limitations equally apply to photography on its own. And multimedia interactives do go some way beyond a traditional, flat model of visual story-telling. They certainly have an important educational role to play.
But there is another concern. At the same time as making us better informed, allowing us to gain a more rounded understanding of some of the issues, do interactives like Katine and Kroo Bay also run a risk of somehow de-humanising the very people they are depicting? Is there a risk of turning them into characters in a kind of fiction, rather than real people in a challenging situation?
I’m not suggesting that any self-respecting development organisation would consciously set out to do this. But the nature of the online interactive does borrow a certain visual language from the world of the video game, as well as from that of soap-opera and drama. There is a risk here that we need to be aware of and, as far as possible, mitigate against.
Sadly, unlike a dramatisation, the lives of the people depicted in any development communication will likely be hard and difficult for years to come. How long do we follow them for an interactive presentation? The Guardian and Save the Children choose 3 years or so each. But what now? Is it really fair to shine a spotlight on people in this way for a relatively protracted period of time and then walk away?
Both Katine and Kroo Bay were time limited projects from the outset, possibly expensive to set up and run (you can see the Katine expenditure here) and both have now come to an end – at least in terms of direct, day-to-day involvement of the originators. Both the Guardian and Save the Children are maintaining the respective websites and the content produced, so they do have a legacy for now.
But the projects raise questions about what they have achieved. The Guardian has attempted to answer some of theses questions by commissioning an independent academic review of Katine. Save the Children say they have also learned a lot from Kroo Bay, and they’ve deliberated hard about how to take the experience further.
As part of this ongoing learning, they’ve commissioned some research into how photography can be used to ‘depict injustice but do it in an ethical way’, says their head of photography and film, Rachel Palmer. I recommend reading her blog about this.
It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of this research, especially approaching it from the point of view not of an NGO or a civil ‘society’ organisation, (institutions often with the dual motive of both informing about an issue and raising funds to tackle it), but from the slightly different perspective of how government should go about engaging in this arena. See my previous post about my role in this. I’d be interested to hear what other people think about how we should be doing this, or even if we should be doing it all?
For all of us involved in the communication of issues about poverty and development, there is a huge responsibility to be open, honest and transparent about what we do. We have to work creatively to get stories about what we do into the media at all. Yes, we need to get better at reaching out to people in different ways, using all the tools of technology at our disposal.
But we must always remember that these are real people we’re talking about, human beings with hopes, fears, aspirations and emotions, just like the rest of us. They grant us a huge privilege in allowing us to into their lives. We intrude on their struggle to escape from poverty even as we try to help them to do so. We have a huge moral responsibility to discharge in the way that we present them to world.