Some thoughts on representation…

In the somewhat recent past, I have encountered some truly horrific attempts at representation of communities by the same people who claim to know them the best. Let’s leave aside mainstream media for now (because that is a whole other can of worms, we all know!). For those of us constantly engaging with communities, deprived or otherwise,  I think it’s time to take a step back and reflect on our methods of articulation of people’s needs and requirements, particularly as practitioners. Here are some examples of what has gotten me so riled up:

1. Positioning malnourished and emaciated children in poses of need and distress through photos and video.

2. This particular project, which looks at enabling the mainstream to experience how the marginalised live, through site visits to their homes, and walkthroughs in their living spaces.

While I am the first to admit that both attempts I have described have been made in complete sincerity, with only good intentions by the respective practitioner, I believe this throws up some important points for reflection. The main thing is to re-look at why these attempts at representation have been made. For me it comes down to empathy. For those of us working in the non-profit space, it’s a constant challenge to create feelings of empathy with our audiences. Empathy, for me, is a crucial element which enables people to act. And if our mission is to change the world, then our core strategy would be to build empathy across the board – those who we identify as stakeholders AND those who we do not. And how we do it comes back to my favourite topic – how we tell stories.

Storytelling is key towards building empathy, and we might choose a range of ways in which we can tell those stories. Media is only a tool in this, and each particular medium can help us in getting our messages across with maximum impact. But what is crucial is the message: how are we articulating our communities, how are we making them relevant to our audiences, how are we bringing meaning to our media, these are the questions we need to answer. So when we portray our communities as victims, whether intentionally or not, we need to question if this is how we want our audiences to relate to them. When we position our communities as an attraction, a way of entertainment, we need to ask if this is achieving what we have set out to achieve. Ultimately, are we getting our audiences to empathise with what our communities are going through.

For me, empathy emerges from understanding. Empathy emerges from experience. Enabling this through media is by nature a challenging task. Media is, at the end of the day, showing us things which are often removed from our everyday realities. And in a world where we are constantly under a barrage of messages, our stories need to stand out. And thus, as practitioners, we need to start observing carefully what we are putting out into the world, always keeping our end goal in sight. For what we want is empathy, and not apathy; building courage to act, and not remain indifferent.

Disclaimer: I have kept both illustrations intentionally vague, as I wouldn’t want to offend anyone. They were merely used as a means to talk about my larger point on representation in general 🙂


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