When you work in communications for an NGO, you know that one of the biggest challenges will be the use of media. Everyday, you will use pictures of people you don’t know the name of, or videos of people talking about their trauma.
Tons could be said (and has been said) about the use of anonymous pictures – but I would like to dedicate this post to videos, as, with the increase of the use of media, every NGO seems to dedicate more and more funds to the production videos.
There is nothing like a video of voiceless children that gets those donors’ tears going.
Let’s go through two examples:
Number one: I like to call it the ‘sad-music-serious-voiceover‘:
And the: ‘epic-music-serious-work-face‘
The first video was created by a production studio showcasing to NGOs a sample video. The second is by Save The Children, a well known (and wealthy) organisation.
Not every video produced by humanitarian organisations is as bad as the first two, and actually, in the past years we have witness an effort to be responsible when communicating sensitive topics. And, as the request for videos soared to the sky, we can find guidelines on how to create a video, such as this:
This is a step by step video on how to create a video for NGOs. It advises organisations to do the exact opposite of the first two examples we saw previously, so in a way, it is a positive encouragement for humanitarian organisations. But a sentence struck me: “it is easy to raise awareness and money by selling misery, but positive stories are equally as effective as getting your message across and getting support.” The reasoning is not that selling misery is bad, but that selling positive stories is also good to raise money. And of course, that is what NGOs do – they need money to survive and keep their mandates going, they need money to help (more) people. But are they using the very people they are set to help as a commodity to reach their financial goals?
And here is where the issue arises. What makes me uncomfortable – and often makes me think – is the idea that we want people to pour their trauma on camera so that we, development practitioners, can find ways of selling their stories in order to make ends meet. And yes, even if the money earned is to help other people. At the same time, if people want to tell their story, if people want to be heard, if people have an urge to share their traumatic experience – in a sort of exorcism – why shouldn’t it happen?
Is it just about representation? How people are represented is indeed a huge component.. but it is not everything. Who is filming? Is it someone that the NGO sent? Is it someone who lives there, knows the people, is familiar with the reality? If it is someone local, are they excising their own art, or are they perpetuating the ‘NGO’ style because they know that is what NGOs want?
How is the footage shared? How is it assembled? How is it presented? Are the people in the footage properly credited? Will it only be showed abroad, or will it be showed locally? Will they be kept informed of what happens to the film (what platforms will it be on, is it going to any film festivals, is it shown locally, will it be screen under payment)? Is the video helping in anyway, beyond just fundraising?
And yes, how stories and people are represented is essential. But it is not everything. Debunking stereotypes and destroying passive narratives is essential, but we need to go beyond just that.
Do donors really need, in order to help a cause, to kick back, relax, and watch a film about somebody else’s trauma?
I will conclude with this fantastic video by Radi Aid (here another post of mine about them) about ‘Let’s save Africa! Gone wrong’