Can participatory video bring transformative change? Perhaps.  How do you perceive ‘raising citizen voice’?

Can participatory video bring transformative change? Perhaps. How do you perceive ‘raising citizen voice’?

By Tamara Plush

Here in Australia, social and mainstream media is abuzz about a nationwide movement to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and end racial discrimination in Australia’s Constitution ( To better understand the complex history surrounding the issue, I attended a community forum entitled ‘Who’s afraid of the Constitution?’The event offered a lively debate on recognition, an issue I had assumed to be widely supported by Aboriginal and Torres Islander Straight peoples. In the discussion, I heard a strong counter-argument that the movement for Constitutional recognition served as a distraction from the more politically contentious, but potentially more meaningful, actions around treaty and sovereignty. Here, activists stressed the value of giving voice to this full spectrum of political options. Yet they also acknowledged that the Indigenous rights movement currently lacks a representative vision and the resources to sufficiently offer political alternatives. Some panelists argued that this allows the government-funded Recognise movement to present Indigenous voice as unified through a particular agenda.

In response to the debate, I contemplated how participatory video (PV) could be used to advance Indigenous rights; especially in relation to my PhD researchinto PV, raising citizen voice, and using story to meaningfully influence and transform policy. Participatory video is often considered a communication for development process that utilises filmmaking as a means to cultivate and strengthen the knowledge, confidence and social agency of people who are marginalised. Participatory video processes can support people least heard in society to represent themselves privately and publically towards social and political change. Such aspirations are quite common among practitioners who design, implement and facilitate participatory video projects. However, my research has revealed that PV practitioners actually conceptualise the aspiration of ‘raising citizen voice’ differently. To illustrate, I offer three possibilities for how participatory video could be used to advance Indigenous rights through different pathways for voice identified in my research.

Amplified voice 

Amplified voice prioritises the right to speak by promoting participatory video activities that open platforms for marginalised citizens to generate and share their concerns. Here, locally trained Indigenous community members could collect multiple opinions from diverse communities to feed into the discussion. Through this process, a greater number of voices could be represented in the Constitutional debate. Of concern, however, is how to ensure those voices have influence. For example, if multitudes of opinions are captured on video, the collected voices will require editing to distil them into final films representative of the whole, a process that is rarely neutral. The representative voice that emerges, in other words, can be swayed by who is selected to give voice to the issue, who is gathering the voice and their position of power in the community, and who edits and presents the opinions. There is also a concern as to whether decision-makers will be motivated to listen and respond to the diversity of Indigenous concerns—especially those voices challenge powerful government interests.

Engaged voice

Engaged voice promotes the right to participate.Currently in the recognition debate, the most visible arena for participation is through Indigenous-only consultations planned in communities across Australia. Practitioners could use participatory video here to ensure the most marginalised groups in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are part of the debate, such as young Indigenous people or people with disabilities. Of concern, however, is that the government-supported public spaces are inviting comment only on their agenda, as evidenced by the stance that the consultations must focus solely on the Constitutional recognition debate rather than any other pressing issues.

Equitable voice

Equitable voice focuses on the right to influence through enhancing citizens’ agency, relationships and networks as a means to transform the unjust conditions and power asymmetries that drive people’s marginalisation. Here practitioners approach participatory video strategically in support of wider social justice efforts. Thus, rather than start by engaging with PV in invited government spaces, PV might be better suited in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as a means to build local knowledge and agency prior to the consultations. This would help ensure that people from underrepresented groups have the confidence and capacity to speak in public spaces. Alternatively, PV may be more effective in promoting dialogue between diverse Indigenous communities to strengthen or build new social and political networks for greater influence in the long-term. Through these imaginings, I concluded that the equitable voice pathway is the most socially just approach to raising Indigenous voice. Nonetheless, it is also the most difficult to implement considering the complex political terrain at the community level, the powerful governmental agenda at the national level, and the institutional and financial resources required for such an approach.

So what qualities are needed for PV practitioners to approach participatory video practice through the equitable voice pathway? In my research, I found that PV practitioners most closely aligned to equitable voice often rejected the notion that voice amplification or participation in formal decision-making spaces is sufficient for social and/or political change. Rather, the PV practitioners—who tended to label themselves more as ‘social justice activists who use PV’ rather than ‘PV professionals who work on social justice’—primarily promote PV activities that analyse and address power. In this way, their intention is to use PV processes to transform structures that have historically denied or diminish voice. This could be at the household level, in society, or through institutions or government. Practitioners explained that the challenges of using PV to such ends were integral in a much greater struggle to shift inequitable power.

In applying this to the Australian debate, I concluded that efforts to gain more equal and equitable voice for Indigenous peoples require long-term strategies that can be supported by participatory video to raise citizen voice. Taking this approach could increase possibilities for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories being told to be politically meaningful, valued, influential and ultimately transformative.

Tamara will speak about her research at the IVMA conference in Brighton, Sept. 16-18.

Transformative storytelling meets people where they are

Transformative storytelling meets people where they are

By Joanna Wheeler


Over the past decade, I have worked with creative narrative-based processes in what has felt like a dizzying array of contexts, and with many different people.  From community-based activists from townships in Cape Town confronting violence, to peasant associations in remote Northern Mozambique trying to improve governance and conditions in their villages, to municipal employees and citizens in small towns in Bosnia and Herzegovina trying to make their society better….I’ve also run storytelling processes with people from six to seven countries together–Mexico, Russia, Egypt, India, Uganda, Kenya, Bangladesh, Guyana, the UK–every process of storytelling has been unique.

Sensitive facilitation is crucial fortransformative storytelling

I’m listing these examples because working in these contexts and with people from diverse backgrounds (in terms of their levels of education and literacy, social positioning, perspective on the storytelling process, etc.) has taught me a lot. I have learned, from each place and each person, something new about how storytelling works for different people. Working in such a range of contexts has forced me to give attention to how storytelling needs to start with people where they are – to how it needs to meet them where they are, and invite them in – not force people into a particular modality or mode of expression.

While it is true that every society has its stories and its own traditions of how stories are told and retold, it is also my experience that these ways of storytelling vary tremendously. Along with storytelling traditions, modes and practices, I have learned about the importance of a nuanced and careful awareness of what enables creativity and how much this can vary.

If we consider that transformative storytelling approaches involve multiple dimensions (clarity and purpose in story crafting, visual representation of meaning, depth of expression and emotion, technical capability to knit these elements together, etc.), then we can consider different examples of how creativity enters into each of these elements. (Read this for more about how and why these elements can come together.)

In some places, such as working local NGOs in Lichinga, Mozambique, I learned that as children, people were punished for drawing while at school.  Drawing was considered a waste of time and precious resources, in a context where there is little to no paper, pencils, or chalk.  For those who have grown up with this experience, thinking with visual symbolism is extremely difficult. Most people in this context tend to choose very literal images to represent elements of their stories; they struggle to represent emotions, metaphors, or anything that is not literal.  For this kind of group, then, the storytelling process must offer other modes and techniques to help them connect to and express their stories:  dramas spring to life where drawn images fall flat.

Compare this to working with a group of committed social workers and activists from a local NGO in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  For this group, poetry and metaphor flowed out of every word, sentence and image, often swamping the story, itself.  Initial scripts for their stories were 5 times the length needed, and every word was heartfelt.  For this group, long detailed feedback discussions with peers and structured collective discussion in a story circle helped to find the important and embodied details of the story in between the poetic flourishes and curlicues.

Working with Sonke Gender Justice and community activists from townships in Cape Town on the topic of how they confront violence strained the storytelling process through the sheer weight of emotions and trauma that each person faced.  In a context like South Africa, where experiences of everyday violence are pervasive, persistent, and brutal, the storytelling process required careful facilitation, space and time in order to deal with the emotions that emerged in a productive way.  In a similar way, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, after a history of years of war and autocratic government, one of the hardest steps for storytellers was to accept that being creative was ‘allowed’.

The diversity of these and other experiences with transformative storytelling had made me think about my own education and positioning—about the modes of expression that I find comfortable or disconcerting; and about how best to judge when to use different approaches as a facilitator.  This kind of work asks a lot of everyone involved—from participants to facilitators to audiences.  It is not without risks. The ultimate and relative success of any particular process depends to a large extent to the many, many adaptations and adjustments made to the context and group.  I am trying to be deliberate about ways of storytelling that start where people are. This means that there is no manual. Instead there is the awareness, sensitivity, and experience of the facilitator; the willingness of the storytellers to work together; and, careful attention to the context and what this context means for how people tell their stories.