Episode 4: Changing the narrative in storytelling

Images and stories are fundamental for charities to spread awareness about the problem they are trying to solve, to harness support and show impact of the funds they are receiving. These images and stories are being used for campaigning, fundraising and advocacy.

But with charities operating in complex environments, and often with people in vulnerable situations, there is debate around the portrayal and representation of poverty and images of suffering.

How can we tell better and more authentic stories and who ultimately owns the story? What are the risks with charity storytelling and can it do more harm than good? And most importantly, how can we learn from past mistakes?

In this episode host Kirsty Adams, together with Kondwani Jere (Documentary photographer and Storyteller), Jess Crombie, (Researcher and scholar at UAL) and Sofia Ollvid (Communications Director at SolarAid) explore the topic of storytelling and content for the non-profit sector, looking at the people and the processes who hold the power to form perceptions, and how this can be done better.

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Episode Guests

Kondwani Jere, Documentary Photographer & Storyteller

Kondwani Jere is a documentary photographer and storyteller hailing from the vibrant landscapes of
Malawi. With a profound commitment to ethical storytelling, he preserves the dignity and humanity
of his subjects, amplifying their authentic voices in his visual narratives.
Driven by the motto “Malawi to the World,” Kondwani challenges prevailing narratives and
stereotypes, bringing diverse perspectives to the forefront. Through his lens, he strives to make the
voices of the unseen and unheard resonate with truth, compassion, and dignity.
His work serves as an enchanting exploration
of humanity, empathy, and profound reflection, inviting you to view the world through the lens of
authenticity and ethical storytelling.

Jess Crombie, UAL Senior Lecturer

Jess Crombie is a researcher and scholar working as a Senior Lecturer at UAL, and as a consultant for some of the leading organisations in the humanitarian sector. In both contexts Jess utilises almost two decades as a senior leader in the charity sector to explore the ethical complexities in documentary storytelling. Her research focus investigates the potential for power shifts in both story gathering and telling by seeking out the opinions and ideas of those with lived experience and co-creating story gathering actions and outcomes, a process that she has coined ‘contributor centred storytelling practice’.

Sofia Ollvid, SolarAid Communications Director

Sofia Ollvid is the Communications Director at SolarAid. She has over a decade’s of experience working with content and communications within the development and humanitarian sector across the globe. Having worked with creative processes both behind the camera as a storyteller as well as a producer, she has developed a particular interest in power dynamics and perceptions in storytelling and visual communications.

Transcript

Kondwani Jere: Ethical storytelling. For me, it’s about telling authentic stories of the people I interact with in the most dignified way, approaching it with respect and allowing them to just be themselves. Bring out the true stories in a very simplified manner.

Kirsty Adams: Welcome to the latest episode of the Permission to Fail podcast from SolarAid. I’m your host, Kirstie Adams. I was a child of the 80s. I had a Walkman and I had Kylie and Jason patches stitched all over my jeans. That’s my story. And it’s pretty standard stuff. Elsewhere in the world, there was famine and war, and I learned about those things at that time in school on the news and at my church.

News Soundbite: When the BBC broadcast a memorable report on the Ethiopian famine in 1984. It brought an unbelievable response from the British public.

Kirsty Adams: And even in the charts from songs like, I won’t sing it, “Do They Know It’s Christmas Time At All?” They all raised money and awareness one way or another, and the intentions behind Live Aid’s Christmas hit and all these stories were good. The intentions were real. But how real was the story being told? The ones I heard, how ethical?

Live Aid Soundbite: You know, you’ve got to get on the phone and take the money out of your pocket. Don’t go to the pub tonight. Please, stay in and give us the money. There are people dying now, so give me the money.

Kirsty Adams: There’s been a lot of debate around ethical storytelling within the charity sector for decades, and it continues today. Charities have access to places which you and I don’t. Places where people are vulnerable. So these charities have a huge responsibility to say what they see with respect, with consent. Some storytelling or content gathering has been done badly in the past, even in the recent past, and sometimes by large charities, despite good intentions. So where do things stand now on ethical storytelling? What is it? What have we learned from the past and how could we improve what we do and are SolarAid doing it? Let’s find out. SolarAid is a pioneering charity developing innovative enterprise programmes for solar energy distribution in rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s guests have really influenced how SolarAid’s tells the full story. Kondwani Jere is a photographer and visual storyteller. He’s been working with SolarAid on the ground, helping them collect stories from rural communities.

Kondwani Jere: The power imagery holds. It has the power to shape perspectives. It has the power to perpetuate narratives, whether positive or negative, depending on preconceived biases.

Kirsty Adams: Our second guest is Jess Crombie and Jess is a senior lecturer in ethics and storytelling at the University of the Arts London. She’s also worked with a lot of large charities, guiding them on their ethical storytelling.

Jess Crombie: I felt uncomfortable about dictating the way stories were told by having these predefined list of questions.

Kirsty Adams: You will also hear from SolarAid’s communications director, Sofia Ollvid.

Sofia Ollvid: We started putting processes in place to do this better and to get the content that could sort of depict the situation on the ground better.

Kirsty Adams: Let’s find out how SolarAid used to tell stories and what they’ve learned on the way.

Sofia Ollvid: So at SolarAid has a very small organization. A few years back, we didn’t really have a lot of content. I think mostly we were relying on the photography and quicker interviews that our field teams could do when they were out going to the programme sites and they were sort of snapping photos on their mobile phones, etcetera. We hadn’t really done any content gathering for a few years and and a lot of the photography that we were using was quite old. So when we identified this, we started putting processes in place to do this better and to get the content that could sort of depict the situation on the ground better. The mistakes we did when we started with these processes were largely due to time constraints. So we would travel to to one of our programme countries and travel out in the field with the field teams and do quick interviews or quick photography. And actually what we could see is that that really affected the quality of of the storytelling. Obviously that comes back to budget. Doing content trips and working with photographers is an investment and that’s something that you need to track and make sure that that investment has a return as well. We didn’t do justice to the people whose stories we were telling. Often due to the time constraints, we would arrive somewhere quite quickly and always with the best intent, but still a story would be told quickly or an interview would happen quickly, or it would be distracted by other things happening around. We might not have had any pre-research of who we were going to meet. We didn’t clock timings of, you know, when the sun sets and when the sun rises and other things. That isn’t really important to depict our work, working with solar. And then I think at times we could leave very little time to the consent process. So even though we would still do the consent process, that is also something that needs time and explanation as well as building trust with the contributors, so the person you’re interviewing, for them to want to share their story.

Kirsty Adams: It sounds like in those early years at SolarAid, when it was still a young charity, even if the will and the good intentions were there, the processes and time just weren’t in place to tell these stories in full and to do them justice, which led them to think about how can we do this better? Jess’s career, which you’re about to hear a bit about, offers up some memorable stepping stones towards ethical storytelling, I think you’ll like her turning point as much as I do.

Jess Crombie: I spent my 20s in advertising and and then in my late 20s was frankly quite bored of working in advertising and ended up going to work for WaterAid as their picture editor, which was a big pay cut, but a much more exciting place to be. But really quickly I became quite uncomfortable with the power dynamics in the story gathering exercises. In advertising, I had also been involved in production and producing print and TV ads and the power dynamics there were much less prevalent because everyone’s being paid, everyone’s involved, there are contracts, everyone sort of knows what their role is. But when I translated that into the development and humanitarian space, I realised quite quickly that there was this sort of them and us situation between those of us who were being paid for our involvement and were making all the editorial decisions and were writing briefs. And at the time in my late 20s, I didn’t quite know what to do with that. But it was a it was a thing that I found problematic and difficult. And so I started to look at how we might work those things differently. And then when I moved over to save the children in my early 30s and took over the film and photography department and then kind of climbed the ladder to a director level at Save the Children, I realized that what I had there was the ability, you know, I had this big, brilliant department of 30 content gatherers, and I realized I had the ability to actually shift the processes and the ways of working for my department. And I had the, you know, the wherewithal and the personal power to be able to do that. And so that’s what we started to do at Save the Children was look at, well, what do we do differently? And we tried out lots of different ways of working. But what really kind of shifted the dial was when Save the Children rather amazingly agreed to fund the People in the Pictures research, which I carried out with Siobhan Warrington from Newcastle University.

Kirsty Adams: Jess and Siobhan interviewed just over 200 people across four countries. For the people in the Pictures Research Project, these were people who featured in communication lines and fund raising materials for Save the Children. It was the first time anyone had done any research like this, and according to Jess, it really helped Save the Children understand who the people in those stories were and how they wanted to be represented. This research has been really valuable and is a cornerstone for other organizations. Okay, back to Jess.

Jess Crombie: So I was once on a content gathering exercise for Save the Children in northern Niger, Nigeria, on the border of Niger and Nigeria. And I was in. It was a malnutrition situation, a situation where there was lots of malnutrition, very, very difficult situation for the people living there. And I was in a clinic to treat children with severe acute malnutrition. So very difficult circumstances. And I was asking a mother questions about what she was experiencing, what was her child was experiencing, how it felt to be in that situation. And she just stopped and got and kind of shook her head and made this kind of annoyed noise. And she just said, “White girl, you’re asking all the wrong questions.” And I had this moment where I thought. Yes, I’m sure I am, because I don’t know what it’s like to be you. But what I hadn’t and I was really it was it was like this huge relief in a way that this person had acknowledged this power dynamic explicitly and had called it out and said to me, “What you don’t know about this thing, instead of asking me all your predefined very specific questions, why don’t you just say to me, What do you want to say about this situation?” And so I said to her, okay, what do you want to say about this situation? And she talked in this much more engaged and fluid and, you know, and and way that really helped me to understand what was going on there and therefore allowed me to take content back to Save the Children in the UK and share with the UK audiences in a way that would help them to understand it better as well.

Jess Crombie: And it was this absolute turning point for me in my I’ve had a few of these in my career, but it was one of those ones where it really helped me to crystallize a sort of back of mind thinking that had been going on, but I hadn’t really come to the front of my mind, which was I felt uncomfortable about dictating the way stories were told by having these predefined list of questions, But I didn’t really know what else to do. And it’s so blindingly obvious to just not to just go without a predefined list of questions and say, “What do you want to talk about and how do you want to talk about it?” But a lot of the work I do now as a consultant is to work with organisations to unpick that really deep rooted way of thinking about storytelling, which is rooted in journalism, which is rooted in anthropological practice and ultimately which is rooted in colonialism, which is that, well, I somehow know a bit better what questions to ask and how to do this thing, because I’m uncovering a truth from my position of expertise instead of saying I’m just a facilitator and I’m in the privileged position to be able to be this facilitator. But really my job is to say, What do you want to say and how do you want to say it? And then step back.

Kirsty Adams: Questioning people and processes the way that the mother in Jess’s story did has been key to better storytelling, as is stopping and questioning ourselves, which is what Kondwani did early on in his career. Kondwani is a visual storyteller, a photographer from Malawi, having worked on the ground with many NGOs and in vulnerable situations, he knows that every photograph holds the potential to tell a powerful story and shape perceptions.

Kondwani Jere: So my name is Kondwani Jere. I’m a photographer and a storyteller. I love doing street photography because the streets have been the place where I’ve sort of honed my skills, learned to interact with people. I’d usually like, take pictures and share them online. But for a while I stopped because I started asking myself questions about perceptions. Because I understand the power pictures imagery holds. It has a power to shape perspectives. It has a power to perpetuate narratives whether positive or negative, depending on, say, preconceived biases. So that made me start questioning myself a lot. I’m like, okay, how are people interacting with the pictures I put out there? Because this this may be my everyday reality. Like this may be what I see every day. But that’s not all there is. There is more to this, and I know that because I understand the context behind it. But when I share it, this is all that my audience is interacting with, and they can build their perceptions just off this one image. But that’s not all that there is. So I then started holding back a bit because I kept on asking myself those questions like, “How are people interacting with these pictures? What are their thoughts?” So I then started writing a bit more to lay context, like I’ll post and write a good portion so that you understand the context.

Kondwani Jere: That also translated to my work because I do a lot of documentary photography that then also led me to ask a lot of questions about how are my images being used and then not being ignorant of the fact that there’s been a whole history of how the media has been used in the past. It still is there because you have, for lack of a better word, poverty porn, especially in the development sector, there is a narrative or Certain perceptions that work. Are they are they right? No, but they have worked in the past because people respond out of pity, out of guilt. But for the most part, those things, they’re not sustainable and they’re only for its only short space, its only short lived. And you have to constantly keep propagating that narrative. If you want to have, say, raising funds for a particular project.

Kirsty Adams: As Kondwani says, there’s more to the story than is so often portrayed in our media, and it’s really important for him as a creator to add written contexts to his pictures. So how can charities avoid what has been called poverty porn?

Jess Crombie: Ethical content gathering and storytelling is about really thinking about the impact of both the way that you gather the stories, but also then what happens after you release the stories as finished pieces of content. And what I like to think about is that the sort of triangle of actors that take place in the storytelling process. So I like to think about that triangle of actors within it and thinking about how a decisions being made so that all of those actors have power and agency within the process. And at the moment what happens a lot is that the people who are making decisions, the makers, have a lot of power. Obviously they’re making all the editorial decisions and then the people who are reacting to those decisions, the audiences, they have a lot of power. Whether or not they choose to donate or not to engage or not, that gives them power. But the people who are in the stories, the contributors currently in our existing system, although this is changing, we can get to that. But in our existing system they have much less power. And so what I think ethical content gathering in is, is about thinking about those three parts of that triangle and how we can change both system laws and practices of working, but also ideologies and cultural understandings of who gets to make decisions in this process so that there’s a more equitable space for all three parties.

Kirsty Adams: Thinking about Kondwani’s work, I wonder how the space changes when a camera is turned on for Kondwani, one of the makers, trust and rapport are really important.

Kondwani Jere: When it comes to telling authentic stories, creating trust, creating a connection between you and your and the collaborators. Because in the moment I’m a stranger and depending on how I approach it, I could remain a stranger who’s just there to collect a story. Or I could allow myself to also be vulnerable and let them see me as a person. And I also get to know them. And this is before turning on the cameras, because you need to create that rapport. You need to create that trust. You need to create that connection if you really want to get an authentic story, because for the most part there is that expectation that’s then created when they see you come in like a fleet of vehicles. But it is then my role when I come in, making it clear why I’m there, managing the expectations and also just explaining to them thoroughly how what I’m there for and how the story will be used. Yeah, the story will go towards raising funds for the work, but not promising anything that this is coming to you.

Kirsty Adams: Has enough been done to ensure the collaborators in this story have power over how they are represented? Kondwani has some thoughts on this.

Kondwani Jere: For instance, there INGOs that are operating in the country, they’ll fly in like a filmmaker or photographer crew from either London or the US and they come to create content in the country and they’ll be here for like a couple of weeks to gather that content. Like I think I’ve had this conversation with other creators in the country, like, okay, we have enough talent on the ground. Why do you feel the need to bring in somebody else? And they’ll feel a need to act a certain way or tell a certain story. At times like I feel like people will then not be as honest and not as open because of that separation that immediately is brought in. Whereas if you use a local who is equally as talented, they understand the lay of the land, they understand the language.

Kirsty Adams: It sounds like it’s frustrating for storytellers like Kondwani to see London or New York teams flown in to do a job that could be done by local creatives. He sees gaps in stories because of this. Thinking about everything that Jess and Kondwani have said, I want to know how is SolarAid collaborating now in comparison to a few years back? What has improved?

Sofia Ollvid: And I think the biggest key for us was to allow. Much more time. So I think we probably have doubled the time we spend in actually gathering the content. But this allows for us to do a lot of pre research so we know who we’re going to meet with before we get to the program sites. We know how the house houses are laid out when the sun sets, when the children go to school. So we can sort of optimize the interview time and make sure it’s happening in a good setting. Allowing for more time to gather content is crucial to do it in a good way, but it’s also an investment. A lot of smaller charities might have quite tight budgets, so they want to squeeze in a content trip in just a day or two days instead of allowing for a full week. And it can be daunting to think that, okay, I’m going to send send a photographer out for this long. But actually what we have seen starting to allow for more time is that not only do we get better stories back and not only do we create better relationships with with the people we work with, it also comes back to the efficiency of the process. So we create better relationships with the content gatherers. They feel better when we allow for more time for them to carry out their work. We are welcomed back to the village to do more content gathering and more people want to open up to us because they see that we do it in a respectful manner and we get more authentic stories and deeper stories. The second one is to work to a large extent as possible with local photographers, local storytellers to remove a power play or a power dynamics that always comes into play when you go out to programme sites and you will still be there when you work with local photographers, but you will decrease it.

Sofia Ollvid: Often when we work with local photographers or local content gatherers, they know how to approach villages, they know the customs and traditions and how to better ask questions and things that we might not know. What has really been incredible to see over these these past years is how we start forming these longer relationships with with some of our contributors. So we’ve had a couple of times where we’ve done a content collecting trip to a village where someone’s home and then we come back after six months or a year to see how things have changed and to follow up on the story. And that has really been incredible because it creates that longer relationship with with the contributor. They get to know our team better, they get to know our photographer better, and they start sort of gaining trust in the process. And we can give them feedback as as to how their content has been used and we can show them how we used it. And I think it also gives them a bit more agency to feel like they have the power to, to give suggestions to what content we could gather together with them. So it makes the process more collaborative. We actually come back showing them what we’ve done and we try to print photos for them to use for themselves as well. So that has really been such an amazing side to this process. So I think those two have been the two keys that have really elevated our storytelling.

Kirsty Adams: It’s been really interesting, this episode to hear how each of our guests reach the truth and how it helped them tell the whole story. For Sofia and SolarAid, it was by allowing more time with the people whose stories they are telling. For Jess, it was the moment the mother in Malawi took control of her own story and for Kondwani, a constant self audit. And I think instinct meant he knew what a real and sustainable story looked like. Thank you to our guests, Sofia, Kondwani and to Jess. You’ll find a link to Kondwani’s blog in the show notes where you can learn more about this very complex topic. If you want to learn more about the great projects SolarAid is working on, then please visit solar-aid.org. While you’re there, take a look at SolarAid’s Shop. Every purchase from its store supports SolarAid’s work. You can buy a virtual gift, you can buy e-cards, merchandise, visit shop.solar-aid.org and please follow us and please do leave a review. Why don’t you tell us how your organization is telling ethical stories? That’s all from me for now. See you next time.