A Culture of Possibility Podcast #20: Digital Storytelling: The Power of First Voice in a Digital Age with Joe Lambert of StoryCenter

NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 20th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 19 August 2022. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.

I’ve known Joe Lambert for more years than either he or I can easily count, first as a theater person and for the last few decades as founder and executive director of StoryCenter, an international participatory media training and consulting nonprofit organization based in Berkeley, California. These days, Joe lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a few miles from my own home. François joined us from Nottingham, England, and we Zoomed together into the world of digital storytelling.

We started with the basics. François asked Joe to describe digital storytelling and highlight its distinctive features. “A digital story generally is a short film created by somebody who isn’t necessarily trained to be a professional video editor, learning about how to make this short piece of media. The aspect of it that is usually described is that it’s very personal. They are usually first-person written narrations, two to three minutes in duration, 250 to 375 words. Those narrations are then recorded, and people use images they either already have, or they would quickly find to make this short personal film,” Joe explained.

“The work is getting people to stretch themselves into places where they they feel like they’re speaking eloquently about something very important to them in a way that is part of their own process of transformational insight. The short films are used often for people to talk about things that are pretty difficult. So our facilitative training process is a lot about holding space and creating safety for a group. Usually these are done in group processes of eight to 12 people for the group to help each other get into the meat of something difficult or complicated. That doesn’t mean it’s not filled with joy. But it does mean that they hit your heart chakra.”

Joe explained that StoryCenter is “typically invited by an organization — it could be a university, a social service agency, a public health agency, community-based or governmental or whatever. If you go to our website, you would get a sense of all of these areas that we’ve worked in. A recent example might be the work that we’ve done around hepatitis B, where people from diverse backgrounds talk about their experience, telling stories that try to deal with shame or other bad identification that one would have with that particular diagnosis. Those stories become part of an advocacy campaign for people in those communities affected by this, to start conversations. They’re not like a documentary film where you get the whole story, but like one aspect of a story that becomes part of a larger dialogue about this particular issue.”

Listen to the episode and you’ll discover that the work goes far beyond the basics. You’ll find collaborations with illustrators and a virtual reality artist; work in Africa and Asia focusing on gender-based violence; and a plethora of case studies. For this episode, we wanted to focus on the underlying aims, approaches, the ethics of first voice, ownership and more; how digital storytelling has expanded as an international movement; and how it fits into the universe of community-based arts work our podcast features.

Joe also shared his origin story, from growing up in Texas as the child of union and racial justice organizers to studying theater to connecting with folks in the early nineties who had their fingers on the pulse of emergent digital technology. He describes taking part in American Film Institute workshops in 1993 that opened the door to digital video stories via technology that was light-years easier than shooting, editing, and producing on film or videotape. “Out of those first workshops, I had the light bulb above my head that said, ‘Oh, in the 21st century, everybody is going to carry around that small device that will have more media on it than existed in the entire lifetimes of all members of their family. And they’re going to do something with it. And they’re not going to write memoirs just with words. They’re going to write memoirs in the way they dream in Technicolor, and therefore I kind of knew this process would have some usefulness for boomers like me.’

“How do we put this to use? It’s a train that’s coming through our communities, like the old iron horse. We can throw rocks at it. And I remember a lot of my friends in video and theater were like, ‘What the hell are you doing? You’ve sold to the dark side of the techno beast!’ And I said, ‘Well, no, I think I’m gonna get on the train and see if we can get some out of this devil’s bargain that the society made around information technology.’ We’re seeing in our culture the dark side of what technology can do to the politics of our community. But this is the hopefully the light side of that.”

François remembered working with audiovisual stories back in the eighties with slide projectors and taped audio as the platform. “When you’re at the beginning of any new technology, just by doing what you’re doing, you’re also inventing the language and aesthetics of that form.” He asked how nearly thirty years after its inception Joe sees “the emerging characteristics of this form in terms of its language and aesthetics.”

“In the history of the human race,” Joe said, “and much of human rights now, we learn through storytelling. And story means a whole way of knowing something. Western ways of thinking that are analytical dissect things down to the smallest piece of data; storytellers do something very different. The one thing I think we did is invest the idea of story into the digital moment. I can guarantee you Apple got it, Adobe got it, all these companies got the word story as meaning something much more powerful than a beginning/middle/end narrative. They meant as we mean, wholeness. If I say the word yoga, I mean wholeness. If I say slow food or locally sourced, I mean, wholeness, and a different level of sustainability for your soul that you would want with all the other input, outputs, processes that you have in your life that have been commoditized or bureaucratized, with all of our imagination of what it means to be a fully human human.

“So I think what we’ve affected is that discussion about what story is. Can stories be used to manipulate our ways of thinking? Hell yeah. And can they be dark? Can they be manipulative? Hell, yeah. A lie is a lie and it’s also a story. But it can mean something else. And I think for all of us that are working toward the great restoration process that allows us to undo what colonialism did and what consumer capitalism is doing, to break that down and find healthier ways forward, that’s what this work is about. That’s an interesting dynamic with the same tools that are sucking our lives away.”

I had the pleasure of making a digital story with StoryCenter several years ago, and it’s dear to my heart. It’s called “Henri and Me: The Secret of Survival,” and you can watch it on this page of my website (scroll down about a third of the way).

Tune in for a fascinating conversation!

Storywise” by Abbey Lincoln.

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