With the recent “Me Too” movement and the open dialogue it endeavored to create in the public arena, I have been prompted to consider a more universal application of consensual interactions and how the concept of mutual agreement applies within the forum of storytelling. As I contemplated some constructive habits to implement into my own interviewing processes, a few popular broadcasting networks came to mind that have made a detrimental habit of sharing footage, snapshots, and comprehensive descriptions of individuals’ plights – without actually directly interviewing the subjects – in order to cover a larger global event. Images of the migrant caravan and refugee flights surfaced as I recalled recent news coverage showing the faces and names of different population representatives in crisis, most likely too occupied with their current circumstances to confront videographers in the moment.
Particularly in the NGO storytelling space, it is easy to assume that a destitute or underprivileged person or people group wouldn’t mind having their stories recorded for the purpose of documenting a national tragedy or ongoing struggle; however, even as I write this, I realize what a privileged statement that is to make: to presume that because another human is in a situation more hazardous than mine, he or she would not care if their life circumstances were presented to the world as a microcosm of misfortune. It takes vigilance on the part of a journalist to remember that just because someone has higher priorities at that specific moment in time does not mean that they are giving active consent to its permanent documentation and proliferation.
In acts of intimacy and interviews alike, you are asking someone to share of themselves and commune with you in a deeply personal way – the operative word there being asking. If you have not requested the subject’s permission to film, capture, or record, you have not received consent. Half of the beauty involved in documenting and sharing another person’s experience is being able to witness the vulnerability that it takes to willingly crack oneself open and make public what once was perhaps painful or private; the beauty of both is made obsolete when that communion is stolen rather than given. There is no place for coercion or manipulation in a storyteller’s method; and when reporters share other’s journeys without consent, it’s called appropriation, not news.
I understand the need for journalists to incorporate a personal element that provides opportunities for connection and empathy with the audience; in fact, I believe that identification with “the other” and practical responsiveness are some of the most commendable qualities of this generation – but how are storytellers to achieve the balance between conducting detailed reporting and protecting the privacy of their interviewees?
One documentarian who I believe walks this line admirably is Brandon Stanton of the popular photo blog, Humans of New York. While many of his pictures’ subjects are comfortable with their portraits being shared – along with intimate particulars about their relationships, conditions, and life aspirations – some request that only their hands, shoes, backs, etc. be photographed, in order to retain some semblance of anonymity. The blog and resulting photobooks serve as prime illustrations of how a journalist’s consideration for his or her participants’ wishes does not necessarily mean scrapping a story; sometimes it’s as simple as exploring more creative options, like capturing the essence of a person in writing rather than a photograph. Often, the aversion to this artistic exploration may be revealed to be unwillingness on the part of the storyteller to put in the necessary work required to relay information without violating a contributor’s sense of trust. Stanton’s unswerving decision to put in that work and honor those who willingly participate in his craft has remained consistent despite his rapid ascent to fame, and the multimedia community as a whole would do well to emulate his example.
Communicators have an innate desire to provide close-ups of situations that may otherwise be viewed as distant or inapplicable to the greater populace’s daily lives, and that is a respectable instinct to act on; however, one published story is not worth someone’s temporary state of vulnerability potentially popping up in a future employer’s Google search. Unless that person has explicitly expressed that the documentation of his or her life is desired or satisfactory – and engages in ongoing affirmation of that documentation – the story can wait. It is likely that their lives have already been put on hold due to circumstances beyond their control, and storytellers should not be further contributors: ask, ask, and ask again. A documenter’s discomfort is far preferable to the subject’s unintentional exploitation.
Natalie Sarrett resonates deeply with artisanal tacos, Gilmore Girls, and large doggos. As a former academic editor and long-time writing enthusiast, Natalie’s passion for the power of the written word and visual journalism was cultivated throughout her childhood adventures, as she grew up in Central Asia and the Middle East. These early cross-cultural experiences helped to foster a dedication to ethical storytelling that has inspired her pursuit of freelance writing. Visit natalies.exposure.co to read more of her work.