Communication and colonialism

After recent ‘issues’ in the ranks of the NGO community I felt I might like to drop this blog, written back in 2012 on the website. This, I have to confess, was written while in a foaming rage. Reading it back and watching the link below still makes me feel this way.

Oh and 6 years later, Tamara's video has still only got 300 views.

Sam Christie 2018

I’m sure you’ve all been following the International Institute for Environment and Development’s Sixth International Conference on Community Based Adaption that closed on Sunday in Hanoi. You’re not? What do mean you haven’t heard of them or their conference? Well the reason I’m surprised is that the whole conference is about bettering communication about how communities around the world are adapting to climate change. Sounds like they’ve got a lot to get through.

But don’t worry; it seems you’re not alone. For example, the keynote presentation given by Margareta Wahlstrom - Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction – has so far only got 105 views on YouTube, and we all know how many views you can get just by putting a plastic moustache on your cat don’t we? An online search of the main broadsheet papers revealed that there is not one mention of the conference, the BBC is similarly mute and so is Sky. But is this a problem, after all it’s just a conference? Well yes, I think it is.

This conference aims to communicate, that is the operative word at the core of the whole thing. It has massed several hundred interested parties in Hanoi, many of who will have flown long distances to be there. Most of these parties are involved in professionally communicating the climate change message and, more specifically, travel the world carrying out development work with, as the conference literature puts it, ‘some of the most vulnerable groups in developing countries’. But while it might seem perfectly reasonable for them to meet to discuss how the plight of these communities might be more effectively broadcast to the wider (especially western) world, isn’t it a bit odd that they haven’t managed to effectively inform us that they’re having a conference in Vietnam, let alone tell the world about the difficulties faced by communities threatened by climate change?

It’s not as if these conferences don’t have the media resources available to get their message out. There are plenty of videos, blogs and tweets about this particular conference; the problem is that no one is watching them. Part of the reason for this is that they’re so hard to find. I actually found out about CBA6 (another name for the conference – as clear as mud eh?) because I’m linked to the group on Facebook. After watching a couple of films, reading some corporate stuff and visiting several websites I finally discovered what all this was about. On something as important as this, it’s simply not good enough. This opacity smacks of one group of people assuming prior knowledge in their audience, the knowledge for instance that the International Institute for Environment and Development’s Sixth International Conference on Community Based Adaption is also called CBA6, or even that an organisation called the International Institute for Environment and Development exists at all. Could it be that those groups involved in this conference are at best talking to each other, or at worst themselves?

But as always the Devil lies in the detail. It was one particular video that stood out and prompted me, an individual who is extremely concerned about climate change, to write this article. The video concerned features Tamara Plush of CARE International discussing the potential of participatory video (link below). Now it’s worth pausing here to really understand the meaning of the phrase ‘participatory video’. Participatory video is when the community (in this case communities affected by climate change) are involved, to a greater or lesser degree, with the production of the film about their own situation. This issue of collaboration and involvement has bothered filmmakers for almost as long as film has been about, but it was a particular problem for ethnographic filmmakers and still is. Ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch devoted much of his career to this business of collaboration, often involving the communities he filmed extensively and in varied roles. The resulting films, films like Les Maitres Fous (1955) or Moi, un noir (1958), while considered quite controversial by some, have a respectful quality and allow those filmed to have a genuine voice. Watch them if you don’t believe me, but real communication happens in this work.

Participatory video, then, has a lot going for it and it’s good that CBA6 is discussing it. In fact, wouldn’t it be an even better idea to cut out the middleman and just send cameras to communities for them to make their own work, or seek out filmmakers who live locally to make the films we could then screen over here? Wouldn’t those films be captivating, allow for a new way of seeing other cultures and perhaps a new way of seeing film itself? Why do we always need our own western conductor in or behind the frame? Let’s give these ‘vulnerable groups’ the kit (if they don’t already have it) and let them get on with it. Well Tamara Plush doesn’t agree. She states, “One of the things I hear all the time…is, ‘hey, let’s give cameras and video to the community’. I mean, that’s really great, but I think that we need to have more rigour in that the video and photography projects we do actually have the same standards and rigour as the projects in which they’re embedded”.

Here, Tamara is saying that she will decide when the videos that community groups produce meet the rigorous standards of the work that the video will presumably illustrate. Now I see a problem here. This all means that in order to communicate to the outside world these communities must adhere to a standard that allows them to pass through the filter that, in this case, is CARE International. It’s also worth noting that while Tamara is saying this on-camera, the camera man/woman is rigorously moving the camera about in a distinctly unprofessional way. So what exactly is this rigour and what are the standards? Do you want to hear affected communities or do you want to hear Tamara?

Because I think if we did start hearing directly from those communities, those people who really do live with climate change, those people who don’t fly around the world to conferences and those people who may or may not be able to produce video fit for our high and rigorous expectations, we might start to speak to each other universally. Let’s face it, judging by the amount we know about this conference, considering media professionals like Tamara are in Hanoi at the moment, it looks like just about anyone could do a better job of communicating. What seems clear then, is that for a more effective communication on climate change, we ‘in the know’ should facilitate and not mediate. Let’s send boxes of cameras and Mac book Pros (and the manuals – because that’s all we use, let’s be honest) to the people we need to hear from; God knows it’s going to be cheaper than sending ‘advisors’ to Vietnam. Hasn’t that been done already anyway?

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