Respecting the inherent dignity and full humanity of contributors is at the heart of dignified storytelling. Contributors should be considered and treated as equal partners and co-creators throughout the storytelling process with the goal of elevating their voices and perspectives. They are the experts in their own stories.
Prioritising the active involvement of contributors means encouraging their participation at all stages of the process – from story planning to development to publication. Taking the time to build relationships and work with contributors acknowledges that each individual is a whole person with agency in their story.
Getting to know their story is part of showing the respect and care that each person deserves; it can also help content gatherers to better understand the context and people involved, resulting in more effective, impactful – and perhaps surprising – stories.
To move away from predictable narratives requires an openness to hearing new and different stories. Building some flexibility into content gathering plans can leave room for listening more deeply and openly to contributors’ wishes and the stories they tell.
If the content gatherer is coming from outside the community or country, working with contributors through community-based partners and local creatives is one way to build longer term relationships with potentially smoother communication through a common language and cultural background. All partners and potential contributors need to feel comfortable challenging story ideas or content-gathering practices that may be too risky for contributors or are potentially relationship-damaging.
Contributors are more than a case study or “sound bite” and can be insightful and powerful spokespeople for issues; indeed, communications in development should enable people to consider and speak out on issues that are important to their lives (source: Bond People in the Pictures Group, “Putting the People in the Pictures First: Ethical guidelines for the collection and use of content (images and stories)”, (London: Bond, 2019) and United Nations, “Communications for Development: Strengthening the Effectiveness of the United Nations” (New York: UNDP, 2011).
To realise the active involvement of contributors requires that storytellers work closely with contributors a step at a time – actively and openly listening, providing technical advice, and ensuring that safety measures, including social and emotional support, are in place.
TO HELP PUT PRINCIPLE #1 INTO PRACTICE, CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING:
Plan for the fact that you don’t know exactly what story you will be telling before you get there, approaching each assignment ready to listen to contributors and to discover the narrative with them.
When story gathering, adopt an attitude of self-reflection and openness to hearing new stories. All stories begin with listening, and content gathering should be pursued from a place of humility, kindness, and curiosity.
All communication with potential contributors needs to be in a language they understand, using vocabulary that is easy to comprehend, and in a setting where they feel comfortable. Communication from contributors to the story gatherer should also be in a language that the contributors feel comfortable using, with culturally appropriate interpretation as needed.
Build time into storytelling workplans to be able to move forward at the pace of the contributors. Informed, full, and freely given consent processes take time. It also takes time for people to tell their own stories, particularly if it is their first opportunity to craft and tell their story.
Bring contributors into decision-making processes and let them determine how to present themselves.
For example, discuss contributors’ preferences on the time and place for interviews that are comfortable and convenient for them. Contributors should have a say in how they would like to be photographed or interviewed in terms of their clothing, the emotion(s) depicted, the location, and the overall narrative arch or tone.
During story development and finalisation, seek contributor perspectives on the design and selection of the images, captions, and/or quotes that are used.
Whenever possible, use contributors’ verbatim words and voice in story messaging and captioning.
Create a safe space for people to tell their stories by putting in place appropriate safeguarding measures, in part by ensuring that social emotional support is available for contributors if needed, ideally through local service providers or community groups.
Note: Safeguarding within development and humanitarian sectors generally refers to the steps taken to protect people from any harm – including all forms of exploitation, abuse, harassment, or socio-emotional distress – that may come from contact with an organisation’s staff or programmes.
Engage with contributors to assess any challenges that may be preventing them from telling their stories. Where gaps in skills or confidence are identified, take steps to address these barriers; for example, perhaps through storytelling training, whether provided formally or informally, directly or in connection with local content creators or organisations.
Carefully consider ways to recognise contributors for their time and work through means that are not exploitative and that do not reinforce an unequal power dynamic between storyteller and contributor.
Compensation may be appropriate in some situations, where in others it could run the risk of impacting consent, expectations, or authenticity.
Look for opportunities to showcase the voices of local content creators – including artists, writers, and journalists – by hiring them or by using your platform or network to showcase their work.
Note: There are many databases available to locate diverse talent pools based in countries around the world; for example:
The Everyday Projects
Women Who Draw
African Photojournalism Database
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