If your digital media project involves working with communities – as a documentary maker or community arts worker – you will need to consider your relationship with the community in the early stages of development. Here are a few thoughts about the needs expressed by community members that we have encountered over the last 10 years.
If funding for community arts went straight to the community would they invite middle management, consultants and community artists for endless cups of tea, or would they just get on with making art?
Autonomy: An essential human need is to have autonomy, to feel in control of your own life. If you want to tell your own story autonomously, you will need access to the skills, gear, a relevant production plan and strategic support to make it happen. We have made this website with you in mind, it is not a film school course, it is a DIY media production toolkit, outlining the steps we have used to support hundreds of communities to make films. Example production plans We hope it is useful, write to us if you have any questions, and all the best with your project.
Solidarity - If you are supporting an individual or community to share their story using media, you will need to provide access to gear, skills and support, and step aside from the controls as quickly as possible, ideally in a non-threatening/ non-restrictive environment. You can tailor the key steps of the process, here are some production plans, start small if this is your first media project, so you get a feel for the time and effort involved.
If you are working in the creative community arts and cultural development sector, [CACD], there is a fair chance that you are engaging in story theft.
In a world where our social model survives on wealth generated from resources, stories represent a vast territory open to plunder. And digital content, created by communities for ‘free’ has become a thriving trade for artists, support organizations, broadcasters and governments.
This theft may arise from the best of intentions, but too often the owners of the stories feel misrepresented, hoodwinked and de-powered by the experience.
So how do we build equitable, sustainable community empowerment – with shrinking funds, vague guidelines, new demands for digital media across all CACD practice, and hordes of experts from other arts sectors flocking to CACD coffers?
Working in the CACD sphere is – and has to be – risky business, as we negotiate the power-relationships that arise from the economic disparity our co-creative work is addressing. Community Arts practitioners derive an income because communities are disengaged/ marginalized. So, in a cross-colonial context, we need to constantly review our role in perpetuating exploitation of these groups.
Access and capacity building can be empty catch phrases, [hmmm sounds just like ‘sustainability’…] – so be clear, what does it really mean to you? What current barriers exist for your group? Time restraints, limited gear, skills, time, are there strings attached to the funding, does one individual have more control that the rest? How long does it take to reach ‘capacity’ …to do what? This can only be determined by/with each community, so make sure the milestones are transparent. Small feasible achievements are reassuring and ambitious goals are motivating, so plan for both.
There is an urgency to support communities to build capacity, if we are to see social change in our lifetime. We only have now, here, with the means available to us, and always recommend you work with the tools around you, as you develop your skills you will create new opportunities. Finally, remember there are thousands of groups sharing their ideas, tools and software, go online and source them.
Link – open source links
Access to funding – Where is the money? Try to get as many stakeholders into a room just to introduce your idea and ask for their support to broker pathways, you may uncover new funds, bring agencies together, create knowledge archives and new alliances. Think out of the box where to get the extra $5000 so the community can continue working with their own gear. Many of our partner communities have secured money for their equipment through regional development funds or local councils. You can get an intermediate professional kit [HDSLR camera with lens, tripod, laptop, peripherals] for under $10,000, and entry level kits for under $5000.
Link – crowd funding, partners
Access to gear & software: Start with what you have, open source if it works, high-end if you can. Contact your local council, media resource centre, or individuals in your community who have equipment and see if they will support you. Create a mobile phone ‘teaser’ that outlines the project and what you need, to demonstrate your ability and passion.
Raise the bar across your art forms. Don’t subscribe to the view that Community Art is the poor cousin of Art. It ain’t.
For better or for worse, digital media helps create a lasting, mobile story about each community and is literally a lens that reveals the cracks in CACD practice. Now most practitioners use digital media as an integral part of their projects. Yet it is still perceived as scary, too complex, too time intensive and needing extravagant budgets for incomprehensible tools. And so it is often used as an after thought, as poor quality documentation, inappropriate video/ websites or fobbed off to external providers who parachute in to ‘capture’ the community.
We believe this often well-intended, but non-the-less ignorant practice further widens the [digital] gap, fails to change the imbalance in power, reinforces misrepresentation, lowers the quality of work [and therefore overall reputation of the sector] and doesn’t lead to equitable partnerships.
Digital media is not just video and web, but a more immersive experience, authentic and deeper community engagement, performative evaluation, better sound, enhanced vision… Digital media is about changing how you work, not just showcasing new technology.
Most digital media projects involve stakeholders, who all have specific needs, be sure you explore all the agendas before you begin. Development discussions can be tense, from misunderstandings about who controls the story, message, to who gets the acknowledgements, who does the work, who uses the gear, who will represent the project, to suffocating risk assessments, controlling decisions that limit the autonomy of the participants and expert, ‘we know best’, colonial imperatives.
A key point to remember when setting out the terms of the engagement is that everyone is a stakeholder at the table, and everyone has agendas. Many agendas will be hidden, but may have a huge influence during the project. If you can get them out in the open early on, then everyone has a chance to see if the competing needs are irreconcilable or compatible.
Community artists and media makers often find themselves between the communities clearly expressed needs [the project topic or process is not relevant] and the third party funder, often a local service provider or NGO, council or government department, that appear to be inflexible. [the communities expressed needs are seen as risky or contrary to their agenda]
In the best-case scenario, all parties of the project talk openly about their needs, desires and ambitions and how these aims can be achieved so that everybody wins.
This may often be the intention, but we have found this rarely happens. Our cultural training doesn’t really prepare us enough to talk openly and develop equitable, multilateral relationship.
We are often encouraged to keep quiet, keep smiling and just get on with it and trust that the people in charge, the experts, the authorities, know better. But when it comes to projects where multiple parties expect delivery on outcomes, this can becomes tricky.
Establish round table meeting from the very beginning. Let participants and members talk for themselves, AND run briefing prep sessions before you walk into a room with representatives of authority. Be prepared. Know the agenda(s), do your research. Making videos can be time consuming and expensive, with unexpected restrictions, after the process is clearly explained, you can all explore how the service will match the process and the community needs, and if it can’t, why not.
If the story tellers / participants have not been invited to these meetings and the project is thrust upon the community, this conversation needs to occur on day one of the project, so the participants can determine if the project will benefit them, beyond having their story broadcast.
Participants: Individuals who have pushed for a media workshop, or are offered to participate to share their story - you need to be clear, can you make it alone, what support do you need, are the organisers/ partners able to provide that, and what don’t you want to happen. This is your chance to make an amazing video, even if it is your first time, and once your work and image [photos, video, artwork] is broadcast [YouTube, TV] it is next to impossible to recall, so at the start, work out how you want to be represented, and how you want to participate.
Project Manager: This person manages the project on behalf of a local organisation – they select and work with the participants and liaise between the stakeholders. If they are good at their job and on board, great, you have found yourself the best ally you can get! If not, unspoken stakes, agendas, risk adverse behaviour and other fears may make them another barrier to overcome… But they may come around if your project is good for their career, or if this project runs well, it will ensure the organisation gets more funding.
Local community organization: Organisations that want to run projects with marginalized group, support individuals to share important message, support them to gain skills/career pathway, create a community activity. Clarify the unspoken agendas, who benefits? If this project runs well it will ensure the organisation gets more funding? Even if it is hard, make sure that you have the ‘bricks and mortar’ middle management support - if they go who will provide the venues, staff time, liaising with other parties… In your budget, this is where the real value of in kind support sits, so make sure everyone involved in the project understands this and values this. On the other hand, it is important to remember these organisations only exist because social injustice prevails, if their imperative is justice then they need a clear plan to hand over the controls and become obsolete, otherwise they are profiteering from this inequity.
External arts/ media organisation: These organisations can be great allies in your cause to bring your project to life. Just make sure you have a really clear agreement with them on what they need from the project and why they want to get involved. Remember that not many people or organisations see themselves as tokenistic or exploitative, but behave like colonial bullies anyway. In any case, the beauty about an agreement is that all parties involved will need to negotiate. The clearer you are, the more respect you will get and the easier it will be to build strategic partnerships. Many partners may mean lots of leverage and great looking in kind budget figures, but more partners means also more work and more hand holding. Make sure you can deliver on your promises, so keep it real, for everyone’s sake.
Government Funding Agency: Make sure you understand the politics of the funders you are getting involved in. They, not your community, are often the actual clients, you deliver to them and they deliver up the chain to their respective ministers. Unfortunately many arts and culture managers still see it as they job to make the minister look good, instead of supporting artists and the communities they work with. Don’t get paranoid, but keep an open mind and be carefully not to trust too easily. Just keep in mind the gross difference in wages, arts managers often make a high five to six figure income, while the artists and communities they serve struggle to survive – and in the end, without the artists, there is nothing to be managed...
Check out the Partners Benefits section for more details
Auteur Lorcan Hopper is a proud disabled man who will stop at nothing to see his semi-autobiographical soap opera brought to life.
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