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The Power of Visual Stories

By Carmen Norris, MA

Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta
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What power do stories hold and what can they do for society? What value do images bring to stories and what can visual storytelling do for a project interested in improving community engagement for people with developmental disabilities and challenging social perception of disability in our community?

Burton Blatt These were some of the overarching research questions I was interested in exploring when I set out (and was warmly welcomed) to focus my Master of Arts research and thesis on Project Citizenship. After reviewing many of the video stories, interviewing key collaborators and examining survey responses provided by audience members who attended the opening night gala event at the Society of Northern Alberta Print-artists (SNAP) gallery in September 2012, I am delighted to share some of my findings concerning the power of visual stories.

 You get to see it!

One of the first (and most apparent) benefits of visual stories I learned was, “you get to see it!” When I asked one filmmaker, Lorraine if she thought there was anything that film, as an audio-visual medium, might lend citizenship stories that another medium might not, and she chuckled as she emphatically said,

Yeah. You get to see it! (laughs) You totally get to see it. I mean film brings things to life. Yes you can interpret it… you could make an experimental film… but you really can get a good picture of somebody and their life through film. You can step into their world for a minute and see them looking pretty real (laughs).

Project Citizenship SNAP gallery opening on September 24th, 2012.In the video, stories made for Project Citizenship audience members are not merely told the stories of people with disabilities acting as engaged citizens, we are shown. We see the movement of bodies in motion, we witness interactions between people and come to know these individuals through observing their activities. Through sight and sound we are granted a glimpse into people’s otherwise private worlds.

More than showing, videos and films are also expressive media. While videos can and certainly do explain concepts, events, characters etc. I have found that the audio-visual medium of video allows citizenship stories more opportunity to express their meaning. For example, when I spoke with another filmmaker, Steven about Daniel’s Story, he explained how he tried to show Daniel’s connection to his friends and express his happiness rather than explain it to the audience.

In this example the story’s meaning: Daniel’s capacity to participate in a drumming circle and the friendship he has developed with his peers, is expressed through eye contact, smiles, conversation and laughter. The human connection we perceive, while described in part by Daniel’s peers, is also expressed through a combination of audio and visual cues. In essence we are witnesses, or accomplices to Daniel’s experience and come to know the affinity he shares with others by what is expressed on screen. This expressed meaning is a major benefit of audio-visual media.

Beyond their expressive capacity, another major advantage of presenting citizenship stories as short videos is accessibility, a long-standing hot topic in disability studies. With the abundance of new technologies such as YouTube, Netflix, smart phones, Wi-Fi, 3G, social media sites etc… it is becoming increasingly easier to access visual media. YouTube alone demonstrates the popularity and pervasiveness of short films and video clips. With Internet connections spanning the globe there is unprecedented potential for one’s home movies to ‘go viral’ reaching millions of viewers plugged-in around the world.

Project Citizenship Logo AnimationThis technology presents potential proliferation of material that was unthinkable in previous generations and this platform offers people with disabilities (and the people who support them) a new and powerful avenue for disseminating their stories. The people I spoke with for this study were keenly aware of the far-reaching potential of video storytelling.  Senior Leader at SKILLS Society Ben Weinlick commented:

That’s one of the hoped for outcomes of the project… That the stories become shared. It would be great if the stories become viral, go around and people tells their friends things like,  “Hey, did you see this inspiring video, check this out?”

Similarly, Steven remarked:

Steven: “I love how easy it is to share visuals online”.

Despite the excess of digital media technology, accessibility is still an issue for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, the Internet is not free and for some, particularly those who have limited income, live in group homes or rely on public supports and services, luxuries such as the Internet are easily considered an unnecessary expense.

While videos can and certainly do explain concepts, events, characters etc. I have found that the audio-visual medium of video allows citizenship stories more opportunity to express their meaning.

While access to technology is getting better, it is important to recognize that for many people there are still very real limitations: institutionalization and poverty being chief among them. Until these social constraints are sufficiently addressed, people with disabilities will continue to be disproportionately deprived of the tools, services and technologies that able-bodied citizens enjoy and often take for granted.

That said, creating citizenship stories in the format of short videos, Project Citizenship can take advantage of the benefits offered by the Internet by easily sharing stories of engaged citizenship with new and diverse audiences around the world. While there is room for improvement, the video format of citizenship stories offers a significant opportunity for people with disabilities to interact and engage with others like never before.

Videos and pictures make stories more accessible

Another finding I would like to highlight concerns literacy. To be blunt, presenting stories in an audio-visual medium is important for Project Citizenship because the majority of people SKILLS supports cannot read or write. In order to contribute to and have access to their stories, they need to be produced in a manner in which people with disabilities can easily partake.  If citizenship stories were created in solely written form, many people could never read them, access them, or understand them.

When I asked Debbie Reid, SKILLS’ Senior Manager, why the project decided to use art and film as the most common medium to tell citizenship stories, she quickly identified literacy as a leading factor.

Carmen: So why art? Why film? Why this medium?

Debbie: … because many people with disabilities can’t read and if we hold power over people by telling stories about their lives in written form, in ways they have no access to, it’s an entirely un-collaborative and often oppressive thing to do… It’s a universal language. It’s accessible to people who have really limited cognitive capacity.

In essence, creating a written story would cut many people with disabilities off from the production (and consumption) of their own representation. In a project that seeks inclusion and collaboration, using a form that fundamentally excludes people with cognitive impairments is not only missing the point, it would only work to reinforce the oppressive power relations the project is tasked with dismantling.

To summarize, the expressive qualities, accessibility, and predominantly non-written form, make short videos excellent tools for creating and sharing the stories of engaged citizenship. Using short video, people with disabilities can collaborate and participate in the creation of their stories, access them once they are made and share their contributions with a larger, global audience. As audience members we are shown new possibilities of citizenship and gain access to the personal worlds of others through expressive means. That’s what stories and images can do, they can help us imagine a more inclusive and accepting world with people with disabilities. Imagination is the first step on our journey to social change.

Check out Petal’s powerful story below of her imagined future that she created while participating in the Citizen Action Hall