As an essential part of activism, storytelling occupies the sensitive space between reporting cold facts and creating a zone of affective expression. The ubiquity of narrative in today´s social context leads to activism slowly morphing into a genre of storytelling. Target groups that might support and advance the cause are first and foremost audiences to stories. An important question to ask is: “who has the right to tell what story?”
Stereotypical figures of white saviours and helpless “others,” usually inhabitants of challenged, developing countries, still pollute cheap marketing campaigns whose main reasoning of collecting money and providing help clouds the need for accurate, respectful, and empowering representations of individuals. Some activist organisations or charities often fail to distinguish the oppressive frame they force upon those they try to help, a frame which may have lasting effects. Victimhood is a social and cultural construct which relies on narratives of powerlessness, loss, and desperation. Needless to say, these seek and often manage to obtain an affective response, which strengthens the self-image of the “helper.” We should not need emotional stories and shocking images of suffering children to reasonably agree that they need help. Reality should be its own medium of transmission, and yet narratives of victimhood mediated and embellished with emotional elements are more compelling.
The voice and agency of victims are realised through routine and discipline in storytelling, turning the report on suffering, poverty, or disaster into a cultural product to be consumed in its own right, separate from verifiable traces of suffering, poverty, or disaster. A recent example of constructing the agency of victims is the latest cover of TIME magazine – President Trump is faced with a crying child, cropped out of context, victim of Trump's harsh border and immigration politics. The implication is that the child had been separated from their parents, but the reality of that particular child proved to be different – the parents declared they had in fact never been separated. Of course, the image of one child is used here as a symbol for thousands of others – the key-word here being “used.” These images become an element in the narrative constructed around the experience of victimhood these people go through, and this particular set-up leaves nothing of agency and voice to the actual victim. The danger here is that victimhood itself is then turned into a product, to be valorised, placed in hierarchies, deemed deserving or undeserving of attention according to subjective goals of those who produce, manipulate, and circulate it.
Ai Weiwei´s dedication to the refugee crisis is another example of generating a voice of victimhood slightly from the outside of the experience itself. In exile himself, Weiwei set up a studio in the Greek island of Lesvos, one of the primary receiving points of refugees during 2015 and 2016. He became a fierce supporter of their cause and documented their journeys on his Instagram account. He maintained his artistic practice, however, producing political art inspired by the refugee experience – in 2017 he released the documentary “Human Flow,” as a sort of validating act of his time spent there. As Weiwei moved on from these projects, so has his Instagram coverage and the topics he voiced. The refugee crisis has indeed toned down, but the conditions of refugees in Europe have not particularly improved; and yet, for Weiwei, the story ran its course. What did his stories serve? How do we discern between the value of the story, the urgent need of its subjects, and the stardom of the storyteller?
Cultural poaching or cultural appropriation are not new phenomena, but they are dangerously ignored in a world where the illusion of community and action is so easily maintained through digital platforms. Social media has managed to bring activism into a new era – community is indeed flourishing, and marginalised groups find a space to voice their fight against injustice. The challenge is to avoid oppressive norms that risk derailing activist movements and endangering the legitimacy of the cause and silencing their creators.
Words: Elena Stanciu