Our brains love good storytelling. In fact, humans are hard-wired for storytelling as a means of survival and protecting ourselves. Storytelling is perhaps the most significant way we can start making a positive impact on any level. The way we narrate, frame, and define situations, people, and events to make sense of them. According to Paul J. Zak, the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, and the CEO of Immersion Neuroscience, stories that we can relate to trigger the release of this neurochemical called oxytocin, which is a hormone associated with connection and bonding. Knowing this is really powerful!
Zak’s work also goes to show that some stories produce more activity in the brain than others. Turns out, we especially love stories about strong characters overcoming adversity for some sort of worthy outcome. Powerful journalists, filmmakers, and storytellers of all kinds know this. Additionally, great stories can make a significant impact in terms of dollars. The “Significant Objects” study by Walker and Glenn in 2009 “demonstrated that the effect of narrative on any given object’s subjective value can be measured objectively.” The experimenters had 100 writers create stories about items found at garage sales totalling $129 worth of items. They then sold them on eBay. The result? A 2,700% increase in final markup for a net profit of $3.6 million, demonstrating the power of story–that ordinary objects could be transformed into significant objects just through story.
The point is, stories matter, for better or worse. And because stories can be so persuasive, powerful and influential, it has become clearer over time that storytellers have a certain privilege. And of course with privilege, comes responsibility.
Unfortunately, there is a legacy of extraction and exploitation that comes with being a storyteller. For a long time, the story or belief of white supremacy, for example, was used to justify the capture, enslavement, and display of Indigenous human beings and humans with Black skin. By repeating that story over and over, we have come to a place where 43% of British citizens believe that colonialism was a good thing.
We have come to a place where people have racist attitudes towards Asians based on the stories and language we perpetuate. I am personally exhausted by the racism towards people from India, where my ancestors are from, which comes from stories that get exported that perpetuate narratives of “poverty porn,” of slums and “slumdogs,” or of white saviours and missionaries. Relatively recently, National Geographic issued an apology for the racist history of their publication.
There are very obvious problems with the narratives that are perpetuated by the stories we tell, and what we don’t often see behind narratives of poverty porn or white saviours, are the forces of colonialism and capitalism that created the problems in the first place. This is why it is so important to develop ethical literacy and to think about decolonizing our storytelling practices. We just haven’t been telling the whole truth. And as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so elegantly demonstrates in her TED talk, there is danger in these single-story narratives.
This new reality can be uncomfortable for many.
In her Netflix special “Call to Courage,” Brené Brown, a world leader in shame research, says “to not have the conversations because they make you uncomfortable, is the definition of privilege. Your comfort is not at the center of this discussion…Hard conversations, giving and receiving feedback, problem-solving, ethical decision making, these are all born of vulnerability.”
I truly believe that each of us has a place in storytelling. And so instead of running from discomfort, I encourage those that are called to embrace it. With discomfort comes great transformation, and with transformation we become even greater storytellers.
Below are the top 5 tips I can offer for those starting on the path of developing ethical literacy in their practice:
1.Intention. Start with a clear intention. What is your purpose in pursuing the story you are pursuing? What is the destination you are steering us to with your story? It is up to us as storytellers to become conscious and aware of where we are taking people with our stories. If we can not imagine that place, and if we can not picture it in our minds, there lies an inherent danger in perpetuating and propagating certain stories and narratives that we have simply learned. We’ve all made some ethical missteps. Earlier in my career, for example, I documented a groundbreaking animal sanctuary that prioritizes the wellbeing of their animals, and does their best to avoid exploiting them with touristy animal encounters in order to fund their project. I was privileged to be one of the few people admitted into the animal enclosures, and the Howler monkeys and Capuchins and Spider monkeys were quite friendly. Someone else created an image of me holding a Howler monkey that had jumped into my arms, and I subsequently posted it on Facebook.
I’ve since deleted that image.
My ethics have changed since then, and today I would never post an image of me holding an animal that is meant to be wild. Why? Because when I think of my intention today, it is to conserve our wild places, to help humans step into our roles as caretakers, and to promote healthy relationships between humans and their surroundings. The image of me and the Howler monkey does not take me closer to my intention. In fact, it’s a selfish act that takes me further away from it. I do not believe that the world would be a better place if more people were encouraged to have close wildlife interactions, and I also believe those types of images and stories lead to more damage than good, which is evidenced by the state of our oceans, our forests, and in how we have continue to exploit mother earth as well as human and non-human beings in our “race to the bottom.”
If we start with a clear intention, it indicates we have done the research and the deep thinking required to move forward.
2. Relationships & Reciprocity. Build these into your practice. In India, people often refer to one another by familial terms even if you are not blood-related– “auntie,” “Sister,” “mother,” are all commonly used when I visit people I love. The same goes in Indonesia where I spend a lot of my time. In many Indigenous cultures, there is a saying “all my relations.” We are a human family, and when we start treating each other as such, everything changes. The power dynamics change. I mean, would you treat a family member as if they are an animal in a zoo? Would you walk up to them and start snapping away with your camera in their face? We probably wouldn’t. But something strange happens when privileged photographers photograph equity-seeking communities, especially in the Global South
Suddenly it’s OK to photograph other peoples’ children, to photograph houseless people, and an attraction to “happy poor people” or “pitiful poor people.” This type of zoo mentality comes from a place of “I am better and more powerful than you.” It’s entitled. It’s selfish. And it’s a one-way street. For a long time, we have consciously or unconsciously emulated the colonial processes of extraction and exploitation in our photography practices. We benefit financially without disclosing how we are benefiting. We are sneaky in how we obtain consent. Contrarily, in a relationship, there is reciprocity and accountability. There is free and prior informed consent. And yes, a relationship indicates a possible bias. However, objectivity is a fallacy. We all come with limited life experience and preconceptions that make up our idea of “reality.” Have you ever had an insight or “aha!” moment that just changed everything? Where the way you saw changed forever? Life is a constant process of discovering one another and ourselves. To be objective would have to mean that only one reality exists, when in fact there are many realities occurring all at once, depending on which perspective you hold.
3. Free and Prior Informed Consent. This, to me, is one of the most thorough consent models that can and should apply to storytellers as well. According to the UN, “FPIC is a principle protected by international human rights standards that state, ‘all peoples have the right to self-determination’ and – linked to the right to self-determination – ‘all peoples have the right to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development’. Backing FPIC are the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the Convention on Biological Diversity and the International Labour Organization Convention 169, which are the most powerful and comprehensive international instruments that recognize the plights of Indigenous Peoples and defend their rights.” You can find out more about this model here.
4. Words Matter. The narratives, words, and frames we use can make all the difference. It is no wonder why people like Frank Luntz, a veteran Republican “pollster,” are paid big money for putting a “spin” on difficult topics to create public buy-in for policies and narratives (such as the “war on terror”) that might go against social values. Luntz is responsible for advising the Bush administration to move from the narrative of “global warming,” which made people fearful and more mindful, to “climate change,” which feels much less threatening, immediate, or proximal to people. This change arguably leads to a period of relative inaction and exacerbation of climate change through military expansion over the last 21 years (researchers believe war is a massive contributor to climate change).
We might want to also be mindful of the words you use in your practice because these words, frames, and narratives are a reflection of how we’re thinking as we are telling a story. They also help take us closer to or further from our intention. A study by the Centre for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) researchers showed that people were 52% more likely to agree to a “carbon offset” vs. 39% who would buy into a “carbon tax.” In the same study, the researchers found that conservative individuals more strongly prefer the term “carbon offset” vs. the term “carbon tax.” Same thing, different words. More buy-in for one frame than the other. What brings us closer to our intention? Similarly, the language of photography can be problematic. We use terms like “shoot,” “capture,” “headshot,” “subject,” etc. without really thinking of where these words come from or how they perpetuate problematic frameworks. Even some camera functions still use the terms “master” and “slave.” Words matter. Be mindful of your words. More about this here.
5. Follow a Code of Ethics. I like to talk about ethics as though we are developing ethical literacy, because ethics are not black and white. Still, it’s always good to have personal ethics and principles to reference. This resource from Photographers Without Borders is freely available in case you’re ever in an ethical conundrum.
So where are we going? What stories do we tell to get us there?
Photographers Without Borders is hosting what promises to be the storytelling event of the year– the “Storytelling for Change Summit” on March 27 & 28. Featuring over 60 visionaries from all over the world like Cristina Mittermeier, Michael Aboya, and Ami Vitale. All funds raised will support equity-seeking storytellers to access training and paid assignments. There will also be many giveaways including exclusive mentorship opportunities with some of our speakers and grand prizes from Sony and Adobe. This event will be recorded for all registered. Photographers Without Borders also offers an Ethical Photography Certificate course once a month.
About the Author
Danielle Khan Da Silva, MSc. is the Founder and Executive Director of Photographers Without Borders. She is a Sony ambassador and National Geographic Explorer who has also studied and documented the intersections of environmental and social justice, conservation, psychology, and the power of messaging internationally. She is also a former lecturer for the Fleming College Environmental Visual Communication graduate program where she taught about the power of storytelling and psychology, decolonizing storytelling, and ethical literacy.