In this post, Lissy Romanow reflects on the process of producing a multimedia story for People, Planning, and the Story: An Applied Media Workshop.
Since the course ended, I have been thinking about the politics of representation.
Ysidra, the only female taxi driver in Lynn, Mass., was excited to see the video I made about her and asked me to post it on her Facebook page. After viewing it, though, she asked me to remove it from her page until the final version was ready. “Why?” I asked her. She said she wanted me to remove the names of her employers, and change some other little things. “Why don’t we sit down and edit the final version together?” I asked. She said that would be good.
In some ways it’s easier to tell a story about someone without that person’s input – the framing of the story might be more coherent when it issues from one mind. But here’s what’s lost: If I don’t show Ysidra her story before it’s published, I won’t know how my crafting of the story affects her – the person who provided all its content. Does it hurt her, inspire her, confuse her? Ultimately I don’t know if I represented her judiciously. “Did I get you right?” I want to ask Ysidra. Probably not, with my jittery filming and awkward cuts. I definitely missed that it would be sensitive for me to include the names of her two employers in a public video. She hasn’t yet had time to tell me the other things I missed.
How can a storyteller be accountable to the subject of her story, especially in a fast-paced class like this one? Should a subject have a day to make edits before the final version is posted? If our subjects don’t have computer access, or time to meet, should we hold off on publishing? Without accountability to our subjects, we risk interpreting their stories through structures of meaning validated by our own social positions – in this case, what MIT or our middle-class colleagues might want to hear. As storytellers we threaten to recapitulate colonial dynamics when we “give voice to the voiceless,” or privilege the power of story over the power of structural change. Certainly we, as students, planners, and organizers do battle with hopelessness on a daily basis. But when we analogize our hopelessness as urban planners with the hopelessness of those most vulnerable to urban planning, we de-fang and de-politicize their vulnerability in favor of unifying all positions under the banner of human experience. In other words, if we asked all our subjects, “Did I get you right?,” how sure can we be that they’d say yes?
One way to resolve the tension of telling stories about people we may never see again is to tell them about ourselves. Rather than assuming that we – as MIT students, salaried workers, and city planners – do not occupy a strategic location from which to argue the need for better policy, we can instead articulate our own lives in social terms. We could talk about how the neighborhoods we live and work in fail to connect us with all of our neighbors, and that isolation, anxiety, and meaninglessness gnaw even at those in the governing strata of society. Who knows this better than us? Many of the final projects in this course were either politicized stories about others or depoliticized stories about ourselves. What if we saw our own lives as arising from a collective situation? Our most intimate interactions with the city as political? Not all oppressions are equal but we are nonetheless oppressed: the question is why that’s the hardest story to tell.