Digital storytelling involves the use of digital tools to collect, create and share stories in a compelling way, and with emotional impact.
Why use it?
Stories – told through video, audio, animation or other means – can potentially reach a large audience, and have a greater impact than information presented through just facts and statistics. Digital stories can take a variety of forms:
- Oral History
Or a combination of the above.
A story told through raw interview footage can often be more emotionally direct than an edited story. Longer-form stories like documentaries must be more selective about content, but are better at presenting more comprehensive conclusions. Which form you choose depends on the message you need to convey.
A story is an excellent way to bring the human element back into an issue or cause. With abstract issues (eg corruption), it is difficult to make an impact with a media campaign that focuses solely on the mechanisms involved. Supplementing this campaign with stories about – or better yet, told by – real people who have experienced corruption can bring your campaign back to concrete realities.
How can I use it for my campaign?
Ask these questions before starting:
- What story do I want to tell, and who should tell it?
- What format should/can I tell the story with? What suits the story best?
- How/Where/When will I disseminate it?
- Do I want this process to be ongoing? Do I want it to be participative?
The habits of your intended audiences should influence what you produce:
Do your audiences have access to the internet? Do they have fast broadband or slow dial-up access? DVD players? TVs? Do they attend public gatherings? For example, if you're reaching out to workers who may not have internet access, a twenty-minute DVD about labour rights might be appropriate.
If you're raising awareness about over-fished seas among college students, you may opt for a two-minute humorous animation, distributed over popular media-sharing services and social networking sites.
Story, style and synopsis
Start by identifying the most important, key messages of the video. Once you have done this, focus on the details. Who will your storytellers be? What tools will you use to unfold the narrative?
Imagine you are in an elevator with a potential funder for your video project. You have only ten floors - 30 seconds - to give your 'elevator pitch' - a brief description of what your video is about, what the viewer will see and why it is important. Are you ready?
This exercise enables you to define the message, story and storyteller/s of your video. Write a brief synopsis that explains what viewers will actually see and hear in your video. This should not be a summary of the video’s message, but a description of how the story will unfold.
Your synopsis can also describe the style and feel of the video; for example, will it have a fast music video style, or will it be a more slow-paced story or a series of stark images interspersed with title cards?
Here is an example synopsis of a video on internally-displaced people in Burma:
This video shows the continuing insecurity faced by people displaced by the military government at the end of 2005. We open with a fast series of graphic images of the government's offensive. We review the facts of the action, including how many people were displaced, using a series of title-cards. Then the villagers show us how they live in a community hidden in the jungle, relate their experiences and personal stories, and talk about their hopes and fears for themselves and their children.
These interviews and conversations are shown alongside sequences of daily life that demonstrate the continuing challenges facing villagers in the war zone in 2006. They stay in small groups near their fields, living in temporary homes and avoiding their villages in the plains. They have very little food, no opportunities for education, limited healthcare, and no security. We travel with them through the jungle as they walk day and night to get away from the attacks; we are with them as they hide their food supplies, pack what they can carry on their backs, and prepare to set off again to escape a renewed offensive. The video closes with an explicit call – in the video as well as in an end title-card – for support, as well as for pressure on the government to stop the attacks.
How to create a compelling narrative
- The Battle of the Story worksheet, from US-based center Story Based Strategy, is an excellent starting exercise, teasing out the best ways to tell your story by helping you define your 'status quo' vs. your 'change agents'.
- Story-based Strategy Model: Grassroots Organizing meets Narrative Power - a step-by-step method to apply a story-based approach in your advocacy campaign.
- Point of Intervention Worksheet - how activists can create more compelling narratives.
The Ethics of Storytelling
When filming sensitive content – victims of human rights abuses, or an activist speaking out against the ruling government – it is important to have a clear vision of the ethical and moral ramifications of making public such content. Make sure you obtain informed consent and that this exposure will not threaten their work or safety.
Ethics case study
At the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling in Montreal, Canada, a landmark multi-year project called Life Stories Montreal collected over 400 oral history testimonies of Montrealers who had been displaced or affected by violence or genocide. Many of the interviews were collected into DVDs available for viewing at the centre, and were also tagged with keywords in a special searchable video database called Stories Matter.
When dealing with such sensitive subject matter, in which participants revealed painful memories and sometimes potentially endangering information about past or present regimes, a solid ethical policy was crucial. Interviewees could choose from three levels of anonymity, from public to totally anonymous; this encouraged their participation without jeopardising their safety.
The project was also founded on the concept of 'shared authority', which delegated equal parts creative control to both interviewer and interviewee. The interviewee was encouraged to take an active role in the telling of his or her own story.
India: Documenting street harassment
In India, the Blank Noise project has explored the issue of the sexual harassment of women by combining personal storytelling with public actions.
Women tell their stories by posting photographs of the places where they were harassed or the clothes they were wearing. This evidence shows that most harassment takes place on busy streets, to women wearing everyday clothes -- not the dark alleys and provocative garments usually cited by perpetrators as 'invitations' to harass.In addition to its visual campaign, the project aims to foster discussion and build a supportive community around harassment in India. To do this it has established two additional blogs: Blank Noise Action Heroes, and Blank Noise Spectators.
South Africa: Personalising violence
South African NGO Women's Net initiated a digital storytelling project in 2005, to collect and share personal stories of violence using animation, photos, music, and video. These were then distributed to human rights advocates, policy-makers, and service and aid workers.
Telling stories of human rights abuses
Witness.org has been using visual media and story-based content to document human rights abuses since 1992. The website's prolific video section includes first-hand interviews and stories told by child soldiers, climate refugees, and victims of gender-based violence.
Egypt: challenging state narratives
Mosireen is a Cairo-based multimedia collective that focuses on "cultural activism". By documenting abuses, maintaining a web-based platform, and empowering citizens through training programs and regular screenings, Mosireen helps to challenge state media narratives. Their Youtube page is the most viewed non-profit channel in Egypt.
Chile: from documentary to social movement
In late 2007 a group of young Chilean activists produced a documentary about the threat posed by coal thermoelectric projects to wild life in the country's fauna-rich Humbolt region. The documentary - called Chao Pescao - became a social movement that galvanised Chilean society around the issue of environmental protection. In less than two weeks, the Chao Pescao website received over 100,000 visits, forcing mainstream media to research and debate the coal thermoelectric plant construction plans.
- Tactical Tech's Message in-a-box gives a good overview of basic filming and editing techniques.
- Mapping Memories, a offshoot of the Montreal Life Stories project, offer some excellent resources and learning tools for photography, writing and digital storytelling.
- Witness.org, a video-based human rights advocacy organisation, also has a well-stocked Resource section.
- Creative Activism, an open class developed by Coventry University, offers a whole lecture dedicated to Documentary and Video for Change.
- Video4Change, a networking and knowledge exchange initiative around video-based activism created by EngageMedia, offers guides such as Secure My Video, about shooting, storing and publishing video in a secure manner, and a primer on Hybrid Distribution.
- EngageMedia also published a mini-book called VideoKronik about video activism in Indonesia. This book goes into quite a lot of detail on the relative advantages and disadvantages of various methods of video distribution.