Documenting Activism: A Practical Guide for Organizers – U of A International Week

On February 2, 2018, I presented this workshop as part of the University of Alberta’s International Week. 

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 last year 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 (before he was Prime Minister) 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, 2017. 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, decided to try to keep the momentum created by the march going and are using social media on Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram (@wmwyeg), and a website (

We just organized an anniversary event on January 20, which had about 1000 people come out, and we continued to use social media to promote the event, which definitely contributed to its success.

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 a 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 your 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 on 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 (the rules are different in Quebec). 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. Just don’t get in the way of them doing their job. Again, there might be some difference on this in Quebec. Always check the rules of where you are first, if you are travelling to document something.
  • 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).
  • 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
  • But whenever possible try to post separately on Twitter because when you auto-send from Instagram, it creates another link the user has to open. And sometimes people won’t.
Photos: Facebook
  • Don’t tag people who are not in photos. Pet peeve of many; good way to get de-friended.
  • 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).
  • Keywords
  • Have someone else edit your work
  • Fact check
  • Share links to your work on social media
Questions & Answers

Social Media for Beginners: Professional Development Talk for VAAA/CARFAC

On November 18, I presented a professional development talk for artists on the topic of “Social Media for Beginners.” It was organized by Visual Arts Alberta/CARFAC and was held in Stony Plain at the Multicultural Heritage Centre. We covered a lot of information and I was asked to post my notes and video so that the participants could review what they had learned. The video is about an hour long – for some reason it stopped recording during the second part of my talk/first part of the Q&A, but most of the presentation is there.

Short Biographical Introduction

I am a freelance writer, photographer, and videographer who has also been working as a social media consultant for the past decade or so. I became interested in social media especially after starting to document Edmonton’s activist scene visually, and using social media as a platform to share my photos and videos. Some of you may be familiar with VAAA’s exhibit Art + Activism in 2016, which featured a number of my photos. Over the years, I have learned a lot about the use of social media for community organizing, for marketing, and for communications in general.

Why market using social media/online?

  • Broader audience
  • Audience is often self-selecting – reaching people who are truly interested in your work.
  • Can sometimes be a younger, more savvy audience.
  • Relevance – using social media today is like having a website was 10 years ago. It is essential to present yourself as active in your art.

Specific Media/Online Platforms and their Benefits & Pitfalls (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr/photo sharing sites, Blogs)


  • DO use hashtags – makes posts searchable
  • DON’T tag people in pictures they do not appear in. Good way to get de-friended. There are other ways to get people’s attention.
  • DO make a page for your art. Pages are always public. This way you don’t have to make things on your personal page public and have security concerns about strangers trolling your profile. Use your logo (if you have one) as your profile pictures. Use a compelling cover photo, such as one of your best pieces.
  • 1-2 posts per day, spread out by 1/2 to 1 hour (they can be pre-set to roll out at specific times).
  • Multimedia posts get better audience engagement. Add photos and videos whenever possible.


  • Hashtags are key. Otherwise you get lost in the noise.
  • Pictures no longer take away from the 140 characters, so post.
  • Engage – don’t just advertise
  • 3-5 tweets per day, maximum, on average. Space them out. They can be scheduled in advance.
  • Optimum tweeting time during business hours Mon.-Fri.
  • Between 5-8 p.m. people are coming home from work, occupied with getting fed, etc.
  • If you are going to post a lot, Twitter is the place to do it, like live-tweeting events.


  • Be descriptive – you have the room.
  • Hashtags. Hashtags. Hashtags.
  • Can be connected to Twitter and other social media platform for cross-posting ease.
  • 2-4 posts per day, spread out timewise.
  • Algorithm is such that fewer posts over a longer period do better.


Hootsuite allow you to cross-post between multiple social media platforms, making individual posts for each. This is ideal as it lets you work from your desktop (or phone) and write up your posts at once, instead of having to visit each platform individually, including all of your hashtags. You can time posts, and have your Instagram posts sent to your phone to post (Instagram only works on phones, not iPads or laptops). The only drawback is you can’t tag people in Tweets. There is a small fee to use it professionally and have up to 10 social profiles.

There are ways to “push” posts between platforms. You can set your Facebook statuses to also Tweet, and Instagram posts to appear on FB and Twitter. However: for key posts, post separately between your different platforms. FB, Twitter, and Instagram can have different audiences. Post “pushes” create links in Twitter that someone has to choose to click through on Someone may not click through on an Instagram link that appears in a tweet – and the photo does not otherwise appear – but they may notice a tweet with an actual photo in it.


The least “personal” of all social media sites, but it gives you an extra presence online and it is considered highly professional to have one. Good way to make professional connections.

Flickr/Photo Sharing Sites

  • Good way to upload and keep images organized in albums
  • Ideal for photographers
  • Almost can work like a virtual storage backup system without depending on the Cloud


WordPress – most intuitive, free. Allows you to set up a blog and a website at the same time. Easy to upload media and make galleries of images.

Blogger – was the go-to site before WordPress, still used

Tumblr – can be used like a photo blog; used more by the younger, hipster set, mostly images and memes

Social Media Marketing Best Practices (Including writing and photography tips for posts)

  • Reserve your user name, even if you are not going to use that platform immediately. You’re protecting your brand. (eg. Boyle McCauley News – we wanted on Instagram @bmcnews to match our Twitter and FB but it was already taken by the time we registered).
  • Put your best efforts forward – you can take good photos with an iPhone of visual art. Make sure the lighting is good, the images are straight, and never hesitate to edit your work afterwards. If your goal is to sell your work, then you want to post something that is sellable.
  • At the same time, you might want to also show other sides of your work – maybe shots of you working in your studio, images hanging in a gallery – variety builds engagement.
  • Interactions also builds engagement. Don’t just post with a sales pitch – get into conversations. Take part. This helps you get known in an online community.
  • If you’re not a naturally good writer, don’t worry. Keep your sentences short. Use spellcheck. You can write posts in a word processing program first and then copy/paste them into Facebook or Twitter.
  • Connect your website with your social media – include links to your social media from your website. WordPress makes this easy with social media “plug ins.”
  • Always try to include a link to your website from your social media posts. The goal is to get traffic to see your work, and sell your work, and promote your work for shows.

Copyright Issues and Protecting Your Work

Read the fine print: some platforms, when you post on them, make a claim to “own” your work. That they can use it for their own marketing purposes. The chances this would happen are slim, but if it’s real and it bothers you, then there are ways around that. Watermark your visual images – this is also a way to deter others from downloading them and re-posting them without credit. There can be opt-outs too, like with Facebook, you can opt out of having your image used in ads.

Make sure you know the copyright options – for example, on Flickr you can have your images be All Rights Reserved, or you can set them for Creative Commons where they can be used for non-profit purposes.

In my opinion, the benefits of marketing on social media outweigh the drawbacks.

Reconciliation at Garneau United Church

On September 17, 2017, I was invited to speak to Church in the World monthly session at Garneau United Church. This is a session over lunch following a Sunday morning service, dealing with some aspect of social justice. My topic was Reconciliation and what Edmonton United Churches are doing to address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. I presented my short talk in the context of Moving Forward with Reconciliation, a group I have been involved with for a couple of years. Below is a video, as well as the notes from my talk and a summary of the responses to the questions I was asked afterwards.

My work: I have an interest in documentation and communication, particularly bringing groups together that have a common cause or interest. To that end, I have been documenting local activism in Edmonton and posting on social media, which is building greater awareness of progressive movements in the city. This extends to Indigenous issues and Reconciliation.

I’ve been involved with a group called Moving Forward with Reconciliation for a couple of years. It’s a ministry of Edmonton Presbytery and we have members from a number of Edmonton United Church congregations. I got involved with the group through a woman named Debbie Hubbard. Debbie and I knew each other through Palestine solidarity work, and I later found out she had formed the Moving Forward group and was facilitating it at the time. I was also writing for an Indigenous newspaper (I’m a multi-media journalist by profession) and was following what the group was doing, which was working on building bridges between the United Church and Indigenous communities, through meetings, events, dialogues – all of this was in the planning stages at the time but I started to attend planning meetings of the working group.

A large part of Moving Forward was the building of an email list to send out announcements concerning events relating to Reconciliation and Indigenous education that are open to non-Indigenous people. Last summer, Debbie moved to Kelowna with her husband, and needed someone to take over the list. She felt I was the natural person to that given my background with communications and, although I am not of a United Church background, I am involved with the United Church on a professional basis as Marketing Project Coordinator with Mill Woods United Church, where I assist the congregation with its website and social media. So, I did indeed take over the email list after she moved.

What I have built: The email list has grown quite a bit since last year. I send out more event notices than in the past, although I try to limit to one per day because it is quite a large list. I also built a Facebook page where the events, which mostly have Facebook event pages associated with them, are also posted. People were requesting this, particularly younger people who tend to check Facebook more than their email. Some kind of list of events was also requested, so that people did not have to go back-tracking through their email to look something up, so I built a Reconciliation Calendar as part of the Mill Woods website. (I am paid an honorarium for my Moving Forward work through a grant that is administrated through Mill Woods, hence it being the logical connection). Many of the events I post I find on Facebook – I spend time searching through pages of Indigenous and Reconciliation-related organizations – and also I am contacted personally with request to post information and events.

Ongoing work/integration: The working group itself continues to be dynamic and finding its way in terms of mission and purpose, while its members are a presence at many events as participants and volunteers. Why are we doing this? As we know, the United Church has been responding to the Calls for Action and there is an excellent section of the main United Church website that deals with Reconciliation:

The response to the email list is overwhelmingly positive. A resource such as the Moving Forward list is a relatively simple, inexpensive way to make church people aware of events and bring people out in greater numbers. Reconciliation can’t happen in a vacuum – it’s definitely great to have church-based discussion groups because there are many things that need to be discussed on a church level in terms of what the role in Reconciliation should be, and people’s experiences and such, but in order to take it to the next level (so to speak), we really need to be out there at events and learning and volunteering and taking part.

Speaking of which, we need people from Garneau to be involved. The church is on the email list, as are a number of you, and I notice a number of the items I post make it into your weekly newsletter, but the only person who was attending meetings regularly was Jim Graves, who as we all know was very passionate about reconciliation. Since he passed away in April, there has been no official representation from Garneau. We miss Jim terribly, and know that he would want someone from Garneau to be a part of Moving Forward.

Here are some issues and information that have been raised in previous talks I have given on this topic.

The Calls to Action pertaining to the Churches are 58-61.

58. We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.

59. “We call upon church parties to the Settlement Agreement to develop ongoing education strategies to ensure that their respective congregations learn about their church’s role in colonization, the history and legacy of residential schools, and why apologies to former residential school students, their families, and communities were necessary.

60. We call upon leaders of the church parties to the Settlement Agreement and all other faiths, in collaboration with Indigenous spiritual leaders, Survivors, schools of theology, seminaries, and other religious training centres, to develop and teach curriculum for all student clergy, and all clergy and staff who work in Aboriginal communities, on the need to respect Indigenous spirituality in its own right, the history and legacy of residential schools and the roles of the church parties in that system, the history and legacy of religious conflict in Aboriginal families and communities, and the responsibility that churches have to mitigate such conflicts and prevent spiritual violence.

61. We call upon church parties to the Settlement Agreement, in collaboration with Survivors and representatives of Aboriginal organizations, to establish permanent funding to Aboriginal people for:

i. Community-controlled healing and reconciliation projects.

ii. Community-controlled culture- and language revitalization projects.

iii. Community-controlled education and relationship building projects.

iv. Regional dialogues for Indigenous spiritual leaders and youth to discuss Indigenous spirituality, self-determination, and reconciliation.

Apologies need action. Saying you’re sorry and acknowledging what you did wrong is the first step – but what are you going to do, moving forward, to effect change?

Go to events and listen and learn. Offer to volunteer, where appropriate.

Have conversations. Get to know people as individuals, where they are at. We all have different backgrounds and stories. When we get to know people, we stop seeing them as “other.”

Ask questions. If you are unsure if something is cultural appropriation, or if you can take photographs, or in any situation where you don’t know how to proceed – ask. Asking shows respect.


I made my main presentation short on purpose, because Reconciliation needs to have discussions, not some white person talking non-stop for an hour. Several people in the congregation spoke about their experiences learning about residential schools and with Indigenous people, such as a retired physician who worked for a time in an Indigenous community and witnessed a high rate of tuberculosis there.

I was asked what churches are doing specifically to address Reconciliation in Edmonton, and the answer is that it is really a church-by-church sort of thing. Each congregation is doing different things, some more than others, in terms of events and such.

I was also asked about how seminaries and theological schools are addressing Call to Action #60. I am definitely not in the loop when it comes to what is being taught in seminaries, but I did say that when I was growing up as a student in Edmonton’s public school system, I never learned anything about residential schools. It was only more recently, when I attended the final TRC event in Edmonton in 2014 on assignment for a newspaper I was writing for at the time, that I learned about them. My mind was blown when I found out that the last residential school closed in the mid-90s. And I felt angry that such a gap existed in my education, and that what I received was a sanitized version of history. A younger man in the audience said that he learned about residential schools, so this is something that is changing with the generations. Someone added that this has indeed been added to the curriculum.

The conversation shifted at one point to the current controversy surrounding the removal of monuments and the changing of place names because of a historical figure’s attitudes and actions towards Indigenous people and others. I acknowledged that this is a complicated issue, and that one way to deal with it is, instead of removing something, to add to a monument by indicating those negative actions and beliefs – complete the story, so to speak, instead of replacing it. Also, the practise of naming places and things after people is inherently flawed, because in many cases people have beliefs or have done things that do not stand the test of history. I discussed this in the context of my involvement with Completing the Story, which seeks to increase the visual representation of women in public places.

Finally, someone mentioned about having to be careful when it comes to building things where it is known there are sacred burial grounds, as well as building tributes to Elders. My response is that any project that is about Indigenous people should involve Indigenous people.