Voicing Water Visions
How might we highlight inequalities and call for more inclusive water governance using non-extractive, participatory, people-centered communications?
Without adequate access to clean water, people suffer from poverty, poor health, food insecurity, barriers to an education, vulnerability to climate change and more. Women, youth and other disempowered groups are disproportionately affected by water-related issues. A key step for improving water governance—and thus improving the quality of life for billions of people worldwide—is to enable them to gain a voice.
In order to elevate the perspectives of people who are most affected by environmental justice, I designed and led a campaign for more inclusive water governance (called “Voicing Water Visions”) for the International Water Management Institute. I collaborated with farmers and fisher(wo)men across Africa and Asia to produce participatory photo stories and participatory videos that describe the joys and hardships of their daily lives, from family dynamics to water issues to hopes for the future. I then connected their personal experiences to broader trends in local and national politics, economic policy, environmental change and more to advocate for more sustainable, equitable development.
I apply a participatory approach to mitigate the extractive nature of research and communications. Instead, I strive to facilitate a process that is not only informational, but also empowering and transformational via personal reflection and social learning.
1. Neither participatory action research nor participatory communications is new—so I began by learning from others. I read and synthesized over 40 papers and book chapters about applying participatory photography (also known as “photovoice”) and participatory cartography to issues of water and land use management. I used others’ experiences and interpretations to make the case for participatory communications at IWMI. I also developed ethical guidelines for the campaign based on critiques of participatory media-making.
2. For each story, I read as much as I could get my hands on and asked lots of questions. From peer-reviewed research papers to local Twitter hashtags to interviews with government officials, I gathered as much diverse information as possible to guide my design of a participatory media-making workshop that elicits the creativity, knowledge and engagement of participants. For example, I might ask the lead researcher:
What are the different perspectives regarding this issue? This helps me identify how many people in how many different communities we should be working with in order to capture the different experiences of an issue.
What findings can we use to make the case that the participatory stories are not simply anecdotal, but represent widespread issues? Research is at the core of IWMI. I know that the value of participatory storytelling might not be recognized unless it is integrated with peer-reviewed sources.
What major contributions have you made to this field, what are your key messages and what is your vision for the next three years? I try to position each Voicing Water Visions story strategically to highlight IWMI’s thought leadership and introduce future directions.
What else can I do? IWMI communications has limited resources, so it’s important to make the most of each field visit. In addition to leading the participatory workshops, I take photographs, meet with partners and conduct interviews to support projects’ needs for other communications efforts.
Researchers have competing demands for their time and budget, so I prepare my questions in advance. I also try to use these initial conversations as an opportunity to gain their trust and commitment to the story.
3. I work with groups of farmers and fisher(wo)men across Africa and Asia to develop their own participatory photo stories or videos. Until I arrive in a community, I don’t know with whom I’ll be working, for how long they’ll be available, their familiarity with technology, etc. Every time is a different topic, a different group dynamic and a different structure. For example, I led a three-day workshops with ten farmers, fishermen and youth in Myanmar who were experiencing conflicts over water management. Each of their photo stories reflected their personal challenges and hopes, which were then presented to each other, the community and the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture. I went door-to-door to support six people spread across three communities in Nepal in photographing and recording their experiences with hydropower development. I also spent three days sketching storyboards in the back of a pick-up truck in South Africa, as seven participants filmed their mountain springs, street taps and home gardens. They collaborated to construct a collective video narrative about their shared challenges with water access and their community-generated, innovative solutions.
Some of participants’ photos and captions:
I usually frame the participatory storytelling in terms of: If someone had never met you or visited your community before, what would you want them to know? A focus group discussion with community members helps open the floodgates. When participants are a bit shy or not yet confident in their photography abilities, a “treasure hunt” (e.g. “photograph something you wish you could change,” “photograph something you think no one else has noticed”) helps us get moving, thinking and sharing. Once participants have enough time to reflect and collect images that they find meaningful, I’ll ask them to select their top 5 and ask during individual photo-elicitation interviews: “What is happening in this photo?” and “Why did you take it?/Why is it important to you?” If there’s any confusion about the purpose of these questions, I give the example: “I see you have some chickens. When I look at your chickens, I just see them as chickens. But maybe when you look at your chickens, you see your bank. You know that if your kids get sick or if your crops fail and your family is hungry, you can sell your chickens and the money will help you during hard times. Could we please talk about both what is in the photo and what it means to you?” We then transition from thinking about standalone photos and captions to photo stories with narrative arcs, with an interest in change over time. At the end of the field visit, I give participants printed copies of their favorite photos (and usually a few selfies) and make sure everything is in order with the participation, photo consent and photo release paperwork.
4. I create the stories, including photo and video editing, writing and web design. I also ask for feedback from researchers, project partners and participants, who give final approval for the story. The participants do the hard work of telling their stories in multimedia and words. My post-production process involves organizing their photos, editing my photos and translating and subtitling their interviews. I write supplementary text to provide context for participants’ stories and bridge their subjective experiences with wider trends and research findings. I also experiment with different web designs for each story. As part of Voicing Water Visions, I launched IWMI’s first multimedia stories platform, so my goal is for every story to demonstrate a new method of digital storytelling. I’m curious about how different ways of presenting information can touch people and inspire empathy and change. Lastly, I solicit and respond to feedback. While it can be stressful when there are too many cooks in the kitchen, there’s no question that feedback strengthens the story, encourages buy-in and aligns with the participatory ethos of the campaign.
5. I track social media and website metrics to evaluate people’s response to the story and adjust course accordingly in the next story. Since Voicing Water Visions is IWMI’s first participatory communications campaign and launched IWMI’s first multimedia storytelling platform, I was unable to set informed quantitative goals for readership at the campaign’s onset. At the halfway point of the campaign, however, Voicing Water Visions tweets received on average 59% more engagements than IWMI’s unrelated tweets and resulted in double the amount of profile clicks. These numbers indicated our Twitter following’s interest in the content, the location, the methodology or the promotion of Voicing Water Visions stories. On the other hand, on Facebook, Voicing Water Visions posts received only 57% the number of engaged users as IWMI’s unrelated posts. IWMI’s social media specialist and I reviewed what IWMI’s Facebook followers respond to and planned a more platform-specific strategy for promoting future Voicing Water Visions stories. I also shared all website and social media insights with IWMI’s communications team so we can improve the design of future campaigns, based on actionable metrics instead of vanity metrics.
The stories for Voicing Water Visions are:
The cornerstone of Voicing Water Visions is participatory storytelling. However, there’s an ethical tension between encouraging the free and authentic expression of participants and expecting them to create a product that supports IWMI’s key messages. For this reason, Voicing Water Visions risks:
Being more extractive than traditional communications by asking people to do more intensive work to tell the story IWMI wants.
Using photos taken by participants and calling them “participatory” to strengthen IWMI’s arguments, even if the participants didn’t select those images or get to contextualize them themselves.
Muddying the waters between participants’ stories and IWMI’s voice when IWMI attempts to contextualize their subjective experiences within wider trends and IWMI research.
In addition, participants often self-select based on who can afford to spend time photographing and telling stories, no matter how much we try to balance the gender ratio and ensure representation from the most disadvantaged populations. Even when they are in the room, sometimes others talk over them or dismiss them. For example, when I asked a 14-year-old girl about her relationship with the river next to her house, which will soon be dammed by a hydropower project, an older man told her, “Say that you like the river.” She repeated his words. It wasn’t until days later when we were alone that she explained how she enjoys throwing rocks, swimming and catching fish.
How can communicators and researchers create more compelling narratives about environmental injustice by moving outside (text-based) comfort zones and integrating photos, maps, sketches, audio, etc.?
What are participants’ experiences with the Voicing Water Visions methodology? For example, do they think that it has changed their confidence in their knowledge, their communication skills or their social relationships in any way? If so, how?
In addition to its potential impact on participants, is Voicing Water Visions creating social change? How is it starting or entering conversations about policy, rights, research priorities and development?
Voicing Water Visions is the International Water Management Institution's communications campaign for more inclusive water governance. Nathan Russell, senior manager of communications, and I developed the campaign strategy and identified the stories, with support from management and the leaders of IWMI's social science research group. The researcher behind each story orchestrates the field visits and provides context and insight. I'm in charge of producing the stories, from leading participatory media-making workshops for farmers to writing the text, editing the photos/videos, designing the web layout using WordPress, HTML and CSS and publicizing via social media.