I’ve just emerged into the real world after a week immersed in Participatory Video with InsightShare. When they say participatory, they really mean it: there’s no dozing off, not much sitting still, and not even any note-taking.
The energy never seemed to drop, though – or at least, when it did, ideas kept bubbling up, questions kept churning. Credit to the organisers for that, but also to the group: a mixed bag of thinkers and doers who’d come from as far as Myanmar and Canada, with backgrounds from peacekeeping to academia to youth work.
So what’s participatory video, exactly? There’s more than one definition, but in the Insightshare model, the “video” part is almost secondary, a mere tool to gather and engage a group of people (say, a community that’s divided in some way; that feels they have no voice or influence; or who find it difficult to express something). The emphasis isn’t so much on making a film, though a film can be a powerful means to giving that group a voice. It’s more on the process a group goes through to get to that final film: learning to trust and work with each other, talking and listening, prioritising the issues that matter most to their community.
All sounds lovely and cuddly thus far. And it can be: film-making is a lot of fun. But as in any situation where you add a new factor to a person’s daily life, there are risks. Is it fair to equip a group of oppressed women with cameras for a while, and just as they’re gaining confidence, leave again? Is it worth raising the expectations of a group of young people in creating a video message for their local government, who might then simply ignore it? And in working with vulnerable people, are we exposing them to the potentially massive, and sometimes unforeseeable impact of video? Will a teenager who speaks her mind on film regret it in years to come? Can a farmer in rural Africa with no understanding of the internet really consent to his words being captured forever?
No right answer, of course. But there are ways of minimising risks: only working within the framework of a longer-term project, for example; or confirming consent at each stage of the process; or dealing with the most sensitive topics through roleplay. Done well, in the right context, participatory video can be brilliant. But it can also be a can of worms. Open with care.