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By: Urmila Reghunath Posted: Category: Blog

Media for Development: Some knots to disentangle

From the videos we create to attract potential donors, to the posters we design for awareness raising campaigns, and the words we choose to fill our impact reports, we are constantly in the business of media creation as workers in not for profit organisations. Media, in its myriad forms, is our tool to communicate to the rest of the world why our field of work is important and how we are contributing to social change. But an oft ignored story that our collaterals tell, is that of who we are as an organisation within the complex weave of the development sector. 

The evolutionary cycle of media for development work has seen the use of ‘shock effect’, of positive imagery, of decontextualised stories and of innovative campaigns that attempt to bring the reality of distant suffering uncomfortably close. As producers of this content, we must be aware of our responsibilities to the stakeholders we work with and the consequences of the way we choose to represent them and our work. Through this short post, I hope to explore a few of these messy knots and share some questions I find useful to consider while creating media content.

 Am I relying on a ‘shock effect’ to draw in my audience?

We have all seen, and been shocked, by the heartbreaking and now infamous photograph of a vulture eyeing a starving child in famine stricken Sudan, taken by Kevin Carter. The photograph and the photographer have both been the centre of much attention and criticism, and offer a classic example of the use of shock effect in humanitarian campaigns. In ridding the people in the photograph of their individualising features, their dignity, and their consent to being represented that way, ‘shock effect’ campaigns that use photographs such as Kevin Carter’s not only violate ethical codes, but also present the subjects of the campaign as the disenfranchised ‘other’. 

While working in a sector that is so deeply ingrained in attempting to alleviate suffering and injustice, it is not rare for us to encounter shocking visuals that bring to the fore the horrors of hunger, or war, or violence. We must, however, be careful to evaluate the nature of such imagery (both visual and written) that we use in our communications and to ensure that we respect the dignity and privacy of those in the stories that we share.

 Am I contributing to the narrative of a ‘grateful receiver’ and a ‘generous donor’?

Stakeholders, beneficiaries or partners? Donation, charity or contribution? The power structures veiled behind the meanings of these words reflect a post-colonial world order, patriarchal mindsets, the hierarchies of class and caste systems, and other such hegemonic structures. Using images of young black or brown children smiling at the receipt of international aid, is a typical instance where the rhetoric of a ‘grateful receiver’ and a ‘generous donor’ is repeated. Contributing to this narrative can undermine ongoing efforts to break free from the very same repressive structures and can be disrespectful of the complex socio-cultural history of a given community.

It is ours to shoulder, as members of social justice movements and as individuals enjoying certain privileges, the weight of understanding and evaluating the nuanced meanings of our communication and delivery.

 Am I stripping a story of its contextual complexity?

In an effort to evade the aforementioned pitfalls, the development industry has embraced its creative side and in the recent years we have seen very many impactful billboard campaigns, animated short films and humanitarian artwork. Catered to fit a minimalist aesthetic sense and the extremely scarce text-space available on social media, these campaigns are often designed to cut right to the crux of the message. While this is an extremely effective strategy in many respects, it is useful for us to introspect whether the story does justice to the complex contexts that it takes place in, and to ask ourselves who benefits from the blurred complexities. As in the example explored earlier, the use of the smiling faces of black and brown children to homogeneously represent the ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ world, does not speak of the local contexts of the children or of the many identities they occupy, and conveniently brushes under the carpet colonial and racist histories.

Similar criticism could hold true for the stick figure cartoons we draw, or the 280-character stories that populate our social media handles. Instead of refraining from the use of such creative storytelling methods, we could add to them some flourishes that hint at the many untold stories that we have chosen to not elaborate upon.

 Am I violating any ethical codes of consent, privacy or security?

The importance of respecting the rights of consent, privacy and security of personal information needs no introduction. We each closely guard everything from online banking passwords to Facebook profile pictures and biometric data. In creating our media libraries too, we must carry forward this diligence and verify that no media or personal information is published without consent, or in a way that endangers the privacy or security of those represented. While this last question might be a staple and obvious one to consider, it is often tricky to adhere to these standards within the complex dynamics that are at play in our field work. Developing comprehensive guidelines and policies that dictate the creation and storage of such content can, however, help us navigate these ethical and legal considerations with relative ease.

It is the ethos of an organisation that is distilled into the way we tell every story or communicate every milestone. In the tone of our communication lies secrets of our place within the complex development sector riddled with competing power structures, of our political leanings, and of our commitment to each of our partners and stakeholders. Closely paying attention to this tone, and being aware of its implications, is therefore a critical step while creating media for development work.

Urmila works with the Partnerships and Communications team at Madhi. She is keen on learning from and contributing to the fields of development theory and media practice in the social sector.