Documenting Activism: A Practical Guide for Organizers

On August 22, 2017, I presented this workshop on Documenting Activism for the conference Ignite Change: Global Gathering for Human Rights, organized by the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights. The session was attended by people from Edmonton, Vancouver, and Toronto. Below is a video recording of my presentation, as well as my notes.
 
 
 
Ignite Change Presentation
Documenting Activism: A Practical Guide for Organizers
Overview of Me and My Work
How and why I started doing this
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.
Why documentation 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 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.
What I use
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.
Documentation conversations
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 in Canada (mostly – laws are different in Quebec), but there may be times when it would be appropriate to ask permission. Also, photographing the police is fine as long as you’re not interfering with their ability to do their work. Laws can be different in different parts of the world – be sure to research and know before you whip out a camera at a protest somewhere else, to avoid getting into legal trouble.). 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.
Concrete examples of my work and its impact
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 (ECAWAR for short), 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 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. I 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 website (wmwyeg.org).
How documentation impacts the community
Documentation, the way that I do it, 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.
Documentation: The Practical Stuff
Why document?
  • To have an historical record
  • To protect yourself/colleagues by having recorded details that the memory may otherwise lose
  • To share your movement and experiences online and connect with like-minded groups/individuals and grow beyond your borders
  • Helps build grassroots community locally and beyond through the sharing of resources.
  • Helps attract others to the movement by presenting who you are and what you do. Pictures (and videos) speak volumes beyond just written descriptions (but writing is important too, as we will discuss later).
  • Be the media: cover important gaps in coverage. Citizen journalism is a “thing” – there are unprecedented opportunities in today’s world for our voices to be heard.
  • For yourself: just like there are those people who always take pictures at family gatherings, events and protests can make important memories for us as well.
Photos and Videos
  • Can be an issue of access/privilege (equipment – you need a camera, and ideally you need a computer)
  • However, one does not need a fancy camera – a smartphone/tablet can suffice. Technology has come a long way.
  • Most phones can also take video, most cameras (DSLR and point-and-shoot) can take video, and some video cameras can also take decent stills.
  • Benefit of the above: items can be shared immediately via data or wifi (be careful about eating up data plan). You can even edit in your phone or tablet now with apps.
  • Instagram & Flickr, Facebook & Twitter, YouTube – all places to post immediately. Don’t forget to tag and add hashtags. Tags are like keywords; hashtags use the # symbol and also work as keywords that can be clicked on to be taken to materials using that same term. Eg. #yeg in Twitter for Edmonton-related posts.
  • Photos should tell a story. Include backdrops, crowds. Don’t always focus in one individuals without context or else you end up with photos that look like they could have been taken anywhere. Eg. Festival photo of family on grass that could have been taken anywhere.
  • No issues in Canada taking photos and videos at and posting photos from public gatherings on public space. However, respect it if a colleague does not want his/her photo taken and posted. Could be a job-related issue, family issue etc. Or, maybe they just don’t like their picture being taken. Legal issues vs. moral/ethical issues in this case err on the side of caution.
  • Children: if singled out in a photo, always a good idea to get permission from parents/guardians. Again, morality/ethics should take precedence over legality.
  • In Canada, police/law enforcement can be photographed. They, nor anyone else, have the right to tell you to delete photos.
  • I’m not a lawyer – my information comes from my experience and what I believe to be true, but don’t take anything I have said here as legal advice.
  • Editing: I try to shoot in a way that would require minimal editing, if at all, afterwards. Depends what you are trying to do. Documentation, to me, means being true to what I see, so I don’t want to change or enhance it much. You can crop and make some adjustments right in your phone. Most computer operating systems come with a basic photo editor (as well as a video editor).
Writing
  • Captures the moments, describes them, another way of sharing information.
  • Photo captions/descriptions
  • Blogs: WordPress, Blogger. WordPress is better for making full-fledged websites. If you just want a plain blog, Blogger might be more intuitive to use for some.
  • Facebook posts: keep succinct, add hashtags (a more recent development on FB)
  • You don’t have to be an English major or wonderful writer.
  • Be descriptive, be succinct.
  • Letters to the Editor at newspapers – don’t be surprised if you don’t get published or it gets edited way down. Keep as short as possible – increases chances of getting printed.
  • Contributions to activist websites. Usually are hungry for submissions because they can’t pay.
  • Work as a team; have someone edit your work
  • Be careful what you write: “say it and forget it, write it and regret it.” Nothing ever really permanently vanishes from the Internet (eg. Deborah Drever). You don’t want something coming back at you down the road.
  • Published work online usually has a unique link that can be shared on social media.
Best Practices
Photos: General (this can be applied to video as well)
  • Seems like common sense: make sure batteries in phone and cameras are charged.
  • Carry charger and battery packs for phones.
  • Some camera batteries are proprietary; have a spare (if economical) and/or make sure it is charged in advance.
Photos: Instagram
  • Good descriptions
  • Lots of hashtags
  • Settings to share on other social media like FB and Twitter
Photos: Facebook
  • Don’t tag people who are not in photos. Pet peeve of many; good way to get defriended.
  • Respect it when people don’t want to be tagged. Easier now that people can remove tags themselves.
Photos: Flickr
  • Same as the above with regard to descriptions, keywords, sharing, adding people (the equivalent of tagging).
Writing/Blogging
  • Keywords
  • Have someone else edit your work
  • Fact check
  • Share links to your work on social media
Questions & Answers

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Workshop: Ask how many people have smartphones. Break into pairs, with those who don’t have smartphones teamed with those who do, where applicable. Take pictures of the room, each other, whatever is going on, video each other talking about what aspects of social justice are important to them. Upload to the social media platforms of your choice, with the hashtag #ignitechange2017.
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