Media Activism: Documenting Social Movements – John Humphrey Centre Peacebuilders (February 7, 2017 – video only)
I was invited to address the Peacebuilders group of the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights at their meeting on February 7, to discuss documenting social movements to further discussion about peace and non-violence. Here is a video of my talk, as well as my notes.
1. Why did you start documenting events in your city?
I showed up to my first peace rally in September of 2005 and asked permission to take photos. I just thought it might be an interesting thing to do. I posted the photos later on, on a blog I had, and the reaction to them online was so huge, the server crashed. I realized that I might be on to something – that no one at that point was documenting the local activist scene and that there was a demand for it – a desire to see photos from events afterwards. I got a better website with more server space, and began to hone my skills in photography and social media, and a short time later, videography. I document through photography and videos, and share my work using social media.
2. Why did you think it is important?
The importance of documentation has several facets. First of all, it is capturing history, perhaps a part of Edmonton’s history that is not and has not been widely examined. It keeps a record of what happened, when, and why. It creates something tangible that can be shared with others, both locally and elsewhere, and perhaps even help to form connections between organizations and individuals. I also view what I do as having an artistic element to it – art and activism are very closely connected in my beliefs, as both communicate messages in visual ways. Also, documenting visually, unless someone intentionally sets about using photoshop or some other program in nefarious ways, are ways of presenting the truth of what happens. For example, I recently videoed Jane Fonda’s talk during a panel discussion on pipelines. A number of people expressed their dismay to local media that a celebrity should come up here and be disrespectful, and were basically criticizing what she said, without actually listening to what she said. I gave them that opportunity.
3. What are your favourite platforms on social media to use? Why?
I use YouTube and Flickr for videos and photos, respectively. I find them both intuitive to use and make my work easy to share. I post my work, then share it on Twitter and Facebook. The sharing/retweeting capacities of these social media platforms help spread my work to a wide number of people in a relatively short period of time. I have been using Instagram more and more, because I like how it enables someone to take a photo then send it out to a number of social media platforms at once. For blogging and simple websites, I really like WordPress because it is so intuitive, but I have also used Blogger.
4. What kinds of conversations have started due to your documentation?
There have been conversations about the efficacy of the use of social media when it comes to activism. There is agreement about it being a great way to get messages out, but also it’s important to be cautious: such as, not accepting any and all friend requests, being careful about sharing personal information, and issues of privacy and permission (photographing people in public places taking part in public events in fair game, but there may be times when it would be appropriate to ask permission). And there have been conversations about the subject matter itself, discussing different sides of the issues, which is really what we want to do: foster discussion about issues concerning conflict and human rights.
5. If you could provide 2 examples of your documentation (mini case studies) that have greatly impacted the work that you do?
a) In June of 2015 Justin Trudeau was in Edmonton to help launch the campaign of Amarjeet Sohi, who was running for MP as a Liberal in Edmonton-Mill Woods (he was subsequently elected). The Edmonton Coalition Against War and Racism, of which I am a part, was organizing a series of pickets against Bill C-51, which the Liberals voted in favour of, with the promise that if elected, they would revise some of the more problematic parts of the bill (we’re still waiting for this to happen). All of the media was inside the banquet hall – except me. I was filming the protest. All of a sudden, I heard a lot of screaming coming from behind me, and I turned around, and there was Justin Trudeau himself. He engaged in an argument with Peggy Morton, and ECAWAR organizer, and I got the whole thing on video and it went viral across the country – I was doing interviews about it with media outlets, and that video is still doing well. This experience really hit home to me the importance of what I was doing – no one else captured this moment – and also how a large part of doing this job I am doing is simply showing up and being in the right place at the right time.
b) I was a co-organizer of the recent Women’s March on Washington – Edmonton Solidarity Event on January 21. If anything shows the power of social media, it is this. Combined with the international media coverage the sister marches were getting (the main march was in Washington, of course), our event page, Twitter, and Instagram went viral. Documenting this was also important to us, so I was doing triple duty as an emcee, videographer, and photographer (we did have an official photographer as well). We saw the numbers on Facebook getting bigger and bigger up until the day itself, when over 4000 people packed the north side of the Legislature grounds. Myself and one of the other co-organizers, have decided to try to keep the momentum created by the march going and are using social media with a new Facebook page, new Twitter and Instagram accounts (@wmwyeg), and a new website (wmwyeg.org).
6. Do you think the voices of everyday citizens through your documentation have impacted the community? In what do you think the community has been impacted?
7. My documentation gives every day citizens a voice and a platform they may not otherwise have had. Mainstream media often does not cover progressive and activist events at great length, if at all. I am putting up entire speeches or at least more than just 30-second soundbites. This also impacts the community in that it creates resources for future actions and the ability to start dialogues on the different issues presented.
8. How important is the freedom of speech for you in Canada?
For all of our protests and rallies, I do acknowledge that we are lucky to be living in a country like Canada where there is freedom of speech. I think that what I am doing amplifies that – by taking words and actions, and bringing them to different and wider audiences.
9. Any words of advice for people who are wanting to start creating dialogues or using social media as a platform to create a more peaceful and respectful community?
Here are some best practices I always encourage. I already mentioned being careful about accepting friend requests and giving out too much personal information.