The Power Of A Narrator

Via Nikon

Via Nikon

In 2017, when Nikon chose 32 top photographers to test drive their latest camera, it took one quick look at the profile photos from the tester panel to see that something was sorely missing. Out of 32 testers, 32 were men. My gender is half the population but didn’t even have one token representative in the group. Photography is ultimately storytelling and the female photographer possesses a unique viewpoint, one with which the richness of the world of photography deserves to have expressed. But as easy as it is to see the lack of varied voices in Nikon’s panel, I want to get us thinking about how we may be doing exactly the same in our own lives.

Whether it is through photography or other types of storytelling, we are ingesting narratives on a daily bases. These narratives shape how we see ourselves, how we view communities around us, and our perspective of places to which we have never been. I believe that diverse storytellers are crucial in all of these arenas.

Over the past 6 years, deeply immersed in working in the world of humanitarian story-telling and aid, I had already begun to see a disparity of another kind in the international non-profit world. The humanitarian world I saw was full of white people - wealthy white people.

If we are honest, we’ve all seen it. Your friend announces that they are headed on some sort of good-will trip. After the money has been raised and it’s time for the big trip, the social media of said friend is suddenly filled with pictures of selfies of their white face surrounded by brown babies or pathetic-looking pictures of natives. You’re told how sad it all is, but how much your friend helped these poor, pitiable people. You’ve now been given a narrative. But is a true representation of the third-world country they visited?

Time will not allow us to even delve into the ways well-meaning people are often hurting the places they are “helping”. So, for now I will stick with this idea of narrative. I’d like to present a potentially radical idea to you- what if your view of, say, the continent of Africa, Asia, the Middle East or even Latin America is totally incorrect. Ask yourself, who have your storytellers been over your lifetime in reference to these places? It is nearly impossible for a storyteller to not have their own cultures, pasts, and even unknowingly ingrained prejudices and biases color the story they tell. People telling the stories often see what they want to see or have been pre-programmed to see.

I spoke recently with a Kenyan man who had immigrated to the United States. He spoke of the first time he walked into the American office of a non-profit he respected deeply. What he shared with me was sobering. He told me he wanted to cry at the walls of the office covered in pathetic photos that were meant to be representative of his homeland.

“It broke my heart. It was not my Kenya.”

The storyteller had presented a narrow view of a place meant to evoke pity. And in the end, no one truly benefits from pity. While people in hard situations may need your empathy that leads to a motivation to help restore dignity, they do not actually benefit from the dignity-stripping view that is pity.

So what do we do about this?

Find new perspectives. Start by asking yourself, “Who are the voices in my life that are weaving and shaping my narratives?” No really, stop and ponder that a minute. We live with constant opportunities to reframe the narratives being thrown at us. What are your views of places like Chicago or the poorer neighborhoods in your own city? Who are your storytellers for these places and how can you help their voices gain more volume and reach? Who do you follow on social media?  If you find yourself in a position of privilege, finding new narratives is going to take some serious effort, some searching. It’s usually not going to be the ones you have defaulted to in the past due in your immediate social circles. Here’s an empowering thought, you get to pick who your information comes from! Choose wisely.

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Empower new storytellers. Might I offer up that, whether here or abroad, it’s time for us to begin empowering and giving a platform to a more diverse group of storytellers.

A local artist of color opened up to me about what he has seen:

“If I’m shooting alongside a white male or on set with a white male, he seems to be heard more than me even if my position is higher than his. Our voice and perspective are just simply not respected as much.”

So how can you actually empower diverse storytellers? Who are you hiring, who are you looking to collaborate with? Could you help fund them as they go gather the stories to tell? Do you want them for their unique voice or do you just want them to conform?

It’s even the little things. When a social crisis or natural disaster occurs, whose story are you taking the time to read or watch? Whose story are you sharing on social media?

Listen. I’ll say it again because we all need to hear it over and over again: LISTEN. When I asked another of my photography peers, a person of color, he reminded me,

“You can build the biggest stage in the world to speak from, but what’s the point if no one shows up to listen?”

So what does real listening look like? It’s the kind of listening that leads to understanding. Understanding leads to compassion. And compassion leads to action.

I’ll give you a little insight for when you and I might be finally listening to the right narratives: we will be feeling uncomfortable. It challenges our mindset, and all of our preconceived ideas. Heck, it will probably challenge our entire childhood education. But when has growth of the right kind ever been comfortable?

So let’s take an honest look at the storytellers in our lives. Let’s seek out and empower new perspectives and let’s really and truly listen.

Alyssa Sieb