Nine years ago I (Rachel) was part of a documentary team making a film about child trafficking in Thailand. The girl we featured in our film, Cat, inspired what eventually led to the founding of our trafficking prevention organization, The SOLD Project. Cat was nine years old at the time. In the film, we shared things about her mother, projected her future, and then toured with that film to 27 cities around America. It was powerful, and it moved people to understand what trafficking prevention could look like. As the organization continued to grow, and Cat and I developed a close friendship, I learned that she didn’t want to be remembered by the world in the light we had cast her in in that film. She began to teach me that we hadn’t stewarded her story well. Had it worked to gain donors? Absolutely, but was it dignifying to Cat? Debatable. I began, with Cat as my teacher, to learn what we had done ‘wrong’. Sure, she had signed a release form. But we didn’t seek her input for the final draft of the film. She was grateful to our organization – and until trust was built – didn’t share her vulnerability with us. I learned that as organizations, we have incredible power.
We chose to not put her film online. It was a hard decision for us. We had invested a lot. But was it our story to tell, in the way we had told it?
Working in South East Asia, where anti-trafficking organizations are as common as Starbucks, I found myself growing increasingly concerned at the stories I saw being told. Stories that showed faces of survivors as they vulnerably shared their pain. Were they aware of how their story was being told? Most often these stories were told by foreigners who had only been in the field for a week. This was concerning.
I began speaking with like minded friends. From filmmakers to photographers to practitioners. A lot of us were asking these same questions. What code of conduct should we follow? Organizations need to tell powerful stories but how could we do it well?
Thus was born Ethical Storytelling. I do believe that as a community we can raise the bar so that our stories enrich both the constituents in our stories as well as our donors who truly want to make a difference.
Thank you for being a teacher for all of us, Cat.