Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Myth of Authentic Voices

Our video projects are sometimes seen as a means of gathering the ‘authentic’ voices of a group or community. More often than not these voices belong to marginalised groups; those who rarely get to speak for themselves in public forums. The question of the ‘authenticity’ of the voice became a problem when we were working in Southern Madagascar. The project was responding to a lack of awareness amongst policymakers of indigenous people, their culture and environment. We were brought in to facilitate an indigenous community producing videos for them. The intended outcome was that the videos would educate the policymakers so they would acknowledge the community’s expertise, and respond appropriately to their needs and concerns.

It was a risky project, we were working with an indigenous community in Southern Androy – a region with no electricity, where video and TV were not commonplace. In fact none of the participants had held a video camera before the project. All our equipment had to run off generators that we had to strap to land rovers and carry for 10 hours on dirt roads to reach the village where we would work. Introducing these unknowns to the community was a risk in itself, and we knew it was vital to work with a local NGO to do this in a way that was relevant, sensitive and productive.

The local staff of Andrew Lees Trust had the local knowledge and experience of working with the community that we were lacking. We built partnership with them during a weeks training in PV techniques. This allowed them to take leading roles once we were working with the community on the ground – a good thing you might say, and we thought so at the time – but once the project was underway, we realised that it was going to be difficult for us to distinguish whose voice was being captured.

The local staff on the project each worked with a small local group. Each group produced a video on a different theme of their choosing. We were looking to capture the ‘authentic’ voice of the local community, but would the agendas of the local staff come through? Would it matter? Keren Ghitis from Panos and I debated the question in depth during the course of the project, and concluded that if the NGO staff were part of the group then their views must come out. Where we thought there would be a problem was if their voice was heard at the expense of the community’s voice.

This project left me wondering how one knows if the authentic voice of a community has been captured? After all, what exactly is an authentic voice? I’m not sure I’ve found mine! In Madagascar I was concerned that we were diluting the authentic voice of the Community with the views and agendas of the local NGO staff. However, it was the local staff that allowed us to deepen our understanding of the community, enabling us to be more affective. And it was they that would keep the project alive once we had returned to the UK. They successfully set up local and national screenings with policy makers, media and others, inspiring new conversations, leading to new actions.

Living Lens has come to see our role as PV practitioners as being twofold; we facilitate a process that enables a group to produce a video reflecting their experiences and we also create a project team that can inform the process from the beginning, ensuring that the participants are supported and that their video is used to good affect. In Madagascar, working in the local language, the local staff were able to be our ears and eyes. They also ensured the community’s videos had an impact at a local and national level. Their first hand experience of the project increased their understanding and motivated them to make the project a success.

Through our projects we aim to be successful in facilitating groups to produce videos that represent their experiences. While we want this process to be led by the participants, we also want to create a project team that supports us in the process. The project team can provide experience that allows us to deepen our work with the participants. The team also provides access that allows the videos to reach key audiences and have a real impact.

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