Visualising Change

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Human beings live through stories. For evidence of this we need not look further than the past hour of our own lives. In the span of 60 minutes, a plethora of scenarios might have played itself out in your imagination: perhaps you were mentally rehearsing a conversation you anticipated with your boss. Or you called in to a radio station to air your views on the latest political scandal. Or you daydreamt about your upcoming vacation at the end of this year. Stories trigger and flex the ancient muscle of the imagination; stories are how we receive and process information. Stories are how we make sense of the world.

Human beings are constantly reviewing events in the form of relived scenes, producing nuggets of content about the varying contexts we find ourselves in, each thread inspiring a realisation that leads to a course of action. Stories are a fundamental component of the human consciousness; it is a crucial part of how we think, feel, and relate to one another. Stories and storytelling engage people at every level- not just in their minds, but also their emotions and values, which are the drivers of real change. It has the ability to humanise abstract issues; to translate ideas into images. And as we live and develop by and through stories, we are changed and can inspire change through storytelling.

Today storytelling holds remarkable currency in its ability to facilitate social change. The method of linking people’s personal stories to the national narrative has exploded in activist and non-profit spaces as a means to educate, organise, and advocate for social change and justice. Increasingly field workers and practitioners have realised that a new and just world requires new stories, and that people will only listen and support a new future when they themselves are included in and co-author the storyline. Practitioners are increasingly aware that they are not called to give voices to the so-called voiceless, or to speak on behalf of marginalised groups, instead to pass the mic and listen respectfully as people narrate and share their own lived realities.

Often when we think about storytelling, our immediate point of departure is a book, or radio programmes, or theatre. We don’t ordinarily think of photography or the visual arts, more generally, as a powerful and influential instrument of storytelling. But photography has the means to act as a medium that transforms the ways in which people- community activists, educators, or everyday youth- think about story and social change, and the power of the personal voice in mobilising change. Images prompt a different kind of reflection on lived experiences. Images evoke emotional responses, forming connections in ways that narrative alone cannot. The reflection process may begin with the creation of an image: “why is it that I took that photograph, in that moment?”, and “what am I seeing in this photograph, and why is it important?”

In 1997, Caroline Wang and Mary-Ann Burris developed a tool called PhotoVoice which is a participatory research methodology in which people can “identify, represent and enhance their community through a specific photographic technique.” The method is based around the provision of cameras to marginalised individual community members. These members are then prompted to capture and document their experiences, and comment on or critique the social, political and economic forces that impact and influence those experiences. Visual representations help both the practitioner and participant to gain insight into that particular space, and to better engage in dialogue around the challenges and opportunities the space is confronted with. This methodology proposes that increased individual awareness coupled with active participation as change agents could lead to physical improvements within the community. Furthermore, the critical dialogues that emerge from the PhotoVoice methodology- if geared towards community improvement- could also be used to influence policy making to promote systemic change.

It is important to note that PhotoVoice has strong theoretical feminist underpinnings, based on the perspective that women should not be objects of studies or research, but active participants. The methodology reflects feminist understandings of research accountability, inclusivity, and a “nothing-for-us-without-us” approach that fosters empowerment, enhances agency and promotes liberation. The research objective of identifying marginalised groups/ individuals and then exploring their positionality within dominant and marginalised social discourses, as well as the historic, economic, and political structures and systems is all inherently feminist. PhotoVoice is a technique that affords an array of populations of oppressed and overlooked people/ individuals the opportunity to take social action by raising awareness within their community, and collaborate with policy-makers through use of a photographic process.

In the North-West province, a group of 18-25 year olds participated in a PhotoVoice workshop. Participants were asked to unpack and interrogate concepts of justice, reconciliation, belonging, and human dignity, then take a walk in their community and seek out positive representations of each concept. The process conscientised them to the lack of positive representation, as well as their power and agency to change that social predicament. During the debriefing process, participants voiced their excitement at coming to terms with this awareness of the circumstances within the context of their community, and their power to influence change. After the workshop ended, participants reported that they had taken it upon themselves to begin a community clean-up group, a car wash service and host a musical concert featuring local artists. Their story points to the fact that if we want to transform society, we must learn to tell- and listen to- a new set of stories about the world we want to create.

Community members documenting their communities and their neighbours deviates from the mainstream pornography of black and brown people as poor or helpless. Instead, restores a sense dignity and pride back to the community, creating a new narrative, and telling a new story. Community members, who share stories from first-hand experience, in an authentic way, are collaboratively re-imagining their present and imagining a new future. They are visualising change, and their realising power to enact it.

Nosindiso Mtimkulu is the Senior Project Leader at the Institute for Justice (IJR) and Reconciliation and Danielle Hoffmeester is the Project Officer at IJR.