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.