Category Archives: reporting

The Fallen

The Fallen was on BBC2 on Saturday night and it was privilege to watch. A tribute to British soldiers who’ve been killed in Afghanistan. The makers were almost invisible and inaudible as the brothers, sisters, parents, brothers-in-arms, commanders, wives of the fallen told their stories. Stories of individuals were spliced together with silence chronological rollcall, pieces of documentary and news, collections of shared moments of terrible grief, of funerals, the shrines left behind, the moment the news broke and so on. The smallest echo of background music tied things together, and at the end the voices and music fell silent and all you heard (and saw, then only heard) was the chipping of the stonemasons carving a memorial and that sound cut through to the very grieving of the soul.

As tributes, rituals and acts of memorial go, this was an honest testimony that reached beyond any private grief and brought the incredible acts of bravery of these young men and women right into a place where you had not choice but to listen, and look and feel, and feel fully what it means to live in this amazing, muddled democracy of our, and how we trash that privilege daily. It also showed how much we need private and collective rituals of remembrance.

I was very much reminded of Tony Parker , an oral historian who died in 1966, who gave his work and life over to making room for the voices of the marginalised and invisible. I first came across his work when I read a review of ‘May the Lord in his mercy say a prayer for Belfast’ and then tracked down everything I could, about lifers, lighthouse keepers, people who lived in a towerblock in North London. He had a way of being present and invisible and of just lightly twisting the words and shape of the stories so that there were small and shocking moments of surprise and realisation. No manipulation here, but a marriage of the best of raw voice and the honing that a storyteller can bring to it to help it be heard.

I was also reminded me of an as yet unblogged experience I had when I went to see Black Watch (which I did blog). This was Steve Mcqueen’s Queen and Country

Steve McQueen's tribute postage stamps

Steve McQueen's tribute postage stamps

Steve McQueen, in collaboration with 136 families whose loved ones have lost their lives in Iraq, has created a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets, each one dedicated to a deceased soldier.

\The simple brilliance of the idea of stamps as a container for remembrance, used as political statement about how little we seem able to honour our dead is something I’ve been carrying with me.

There’s a French word, aider, which we don’t but should have in English, which means to be an accomplice in something simply by witnessing it. Aiding and abetting should have that meaning. It’s the job of the teller, the artist, the author, the actor, I think, to create spaces of witnessing from which we cannot step back. The privilege of access to an audience brings with it the responsibility to engage that audience in witnessing and becoming responsible both for themselves and for what they see over which they can have some useful influence.

This is something I feel strongly and have still, frustratingly, fully to bring to bear in my own daily practice. But I will never give up trying.

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Negative space, the most important knowledge space

I’ve always been interested in the shadow side of organisations – beyond tacit, that dark underbelly of unstated, often collusive, collective behaviour which informs, and glues together, the official work of the organisation.  Sometimes its a good thing, somethings it’s a seriously bad thing, and gets in the way, but is impossible to clear away. I doubt I’m saying anything about shadows, intangibles, invisibles, informals, that others have not already said.  Although I suppose I could say that without the shadow you’d not be able to see the shape of the thing.  So anyone who cares to look at an organisation without it’s shadow side is doing something like trying to look at the shape, size and colour of an object at the height of the midday sun (when we know only mad dogs and Englishman are out anyway).  

Some nice work has been done taking Jung’s ideas on shadow identity and applying them to archetypes of leadership.  Wizard, king, something, something (I forget what typical modes of leadership were chosen), each has it’s shadow side and the leader must be aware of the effects of the shadow side in order to work to best effect and chose the right people to surround him/her.That’s shadows, anyway.

More recently, I’ve become obsessed with a different but related concept which I can’t help feeling holds the key to the next round of my thinking and practice (and so, inevitably) Sparknow’s thinking and practice.And that’s negative space.  A road partly travelled but I suspect with a long hard climb ahead.It comes from the idea that, in art, the space around the object is where attention needs to be for the artist.   It’s easier to draw the spaces round a hand, a leaf, a chair a tree, and allow the object to emerge from attention to the negative spaces.  Henry Moore said something like ‘the hole holds more meaning than the material surrounding it’.  A window frames a view and makes sense of it (which isn’t quite negative space but is about looking through rather than at.)

My tiny, but growing and excitable hunch, is that in this germ of an idea is a huge truth.  We’re stumbling across it already by seeing knowledge workers as navigators – people through whom you find access; by making a shape of someone by what they google or what they recommend on Amazon; cookie trails allow us to trace the outline of a person without ever having to see the person directly.  I think we can go one stage further and imagine, in thinking what knowledge is key operating knowledge, a two step process (with more steps to follow as I imagine it)

1.  trace the outline of a person, google-wise, or amazonishly, through social network analysis, by what they use, what they recommend,  who they consort with

2.  persuade the person then to step out of themselves and look back at the space left and then describe not what they do, but what isn’t happening now they aren’t doing it, preferably to an invisible or actual colleague who they care about, so that they want to describe the task(s) in enough detail that the other is able to carry it/them out sufficiently well for only the smallest number of organisational hiccups to occur.

This goes perfectly with two things which seem increasingly important to me from everything I see.  Both are to do with knowledge not being captured.Codified knowledge doesn’t exist.  Codified information does though.Knowledge can’t be captured, except in the most labour intensive ways and even then, like a map, the terrain is always inescapably larger and more complex than the map of it.  It’s impossible to make a map of the world which covers the world.  Or if not impossible, actually pointless since it would add nothing.  It’s the miniature form of the map as a guide which makes it portable, relevant, useful to the user.  A 1:1 scale map of the world would be useless.  Knowledge capture of the literal kind is exactly the same.  Useless.  Too big.   Compression, illumination, symbols which make useful patterns are reference points, are what is useful.

Information, guidance and reference materials can be captured, but in the end (Bruno Latour-wise) its the interaction of the agent with the knowledge-object which determines an action. More and more work is conducted in a non-linear way – not at your desk, not in a sequence, but in groups and simultaneously.  The knowledge exists in the presence of each other and of codified resources in an environment conducive to exchange (slow or fast, more or less documented, depending on your purpose.)  So the knowledge exists in a moment in time, the information which results can point to, but not replicate, the experience of that knowledge.  So knowledge is in gaps which are temporarily closed and then opened again when people disperse from a meeting, a room.  It’s a vanishing thing, leaving a more or less ghostly trace, with some embodied consequences for those who were present, and perhaps those in their networks. That’s the first thing about capture.The second is to do with the contract between organisation and individual, or between organisations, particularly in circumstances where knowledge of business processes must be retained during a move, or restructing, or merger or upheaval of any kind. 

Capture is a hierarchical, intrusive concept.  It implies minions, service, servitude.  It implies containment.  It’s entirely the wrong concept for thinking about how to retain what is needed in order to operate the business.  And it takes no account of the individual on the receiving end of the upheaval.Which is again where negative space comes in.  

An invitation to imagine themselves as vanished and see

1.  what work does not get done when they are not at work and

2. what work would need to get done by another filling their shoes

is a far more delicate and thoughtful conversation and one that can lead to the sense of knowledge as a donation.  

Firstly the indirectness of the question allows them to pay attention and describe something which sits not in the individual but in the space between them and their imaginary colleague and will allow for a much more open and trusting description.  Then also, by going through this imagining process, the individual who is up-heaved can also be invited to share something that they themselves will be a beneficiary of – they can donate what they know and also treasure it for themselves;  they can leave a legacy and take it with them.  And we know from oral history work that the process of valuing themselves expressly in ways that they perhaps haven’t before, makes them visible to themselves and others in ways they haven’t been before.

I’m almost out of time and I’ve not even referred to the thing which propelled this idea (which I’ve tried out a bit, but not found a way to communicate well yet) right up to the surface for me was Shibboleth, the exhibition at the Tate Modern.  It’s a huge crack, running apparently through the fabric of the floor in the Turbine Hall, the main exhibition hall.  And it’s astonishing.  I’ll write more soon, but here’s a short note from the Tate Modern website.Much more to follow while I try and find this idea and what it means for me.  

About

Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth is the first work to intervene directly in the fabric of the Turbine Hall. Rather than fill this iconic space with a conventional sculpture or installation, Salcedo has created a subterranean chasm that stretches the length of the Turbine Hall. The concrete walls of the crevice are ruptured by a steel mesh fence, creating a tension between these elements that resist yet depend on one another. By making the floor the principal focus of her project, Salcedo dramatically shifts our perception of the Turbine Hall’s architecture, subtly subverting its claims to monumentality and grandeur. Shibboleth asks questions about the interaction of sculpture and space, about architecture and the values it enshrines, and about the shaky ideological foundations on which Western notions of modernity are built.In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. A ‘shibboleth’ is a custom, phrase or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. By definition, it is used to exclude those deemed unsuitable to join this group.‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. For hundreds of years, Western ideas of progress and prosperity have been underpinned by colonial exploitation and the withdrawal of basic rights from others. Our own time, Salcedo is keen to remind us, remains defined by the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass, in Western as well as post-colonial societies.In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.Doris Salcedo was born in 1958 in Bogotá, Colombia, where she lives and works. Amonographic display of her work can be seen on Level 3 as part of the Poetry and Dream collection displays.                

Taking stories to the other side

In one of the episodes of the final series of the West Wing, CJ Cragg is more and more frustrated by her inability to make a dent, leave something behind. So when someone from an NGO tries to make an appointment with her, she breaks with habit and gives him a slot in her diary.

He overwhelms her with statistics about the atrocities in Sudan. Thousands, millions, terrible things, rape, amputation, devastation. It’s all beyond her grasp, there is nothing she can imagining doing in this vastness of human failure, and he can see from her face that he is losing her attention, so he says, suddenly

‘When the babies die, the mothers carry them round in their arms because there is nowhere to put them down.’

20 words (I approximate, from memory.)

‘When the babies die, the mothers carry them round in their arms because there is nowhere to put them down.’

You can see the image of this slice through her helplessness and frustration and spring her to action, unorthorised by the President. When, at the end of the episode, he calls her to task for not having cleared things with me, it is this that she says to him. All the same, neither would have acted on those 20 words alone, although it took the 20 words to push CJ to action. The big numbers, the huge evidence of human tragedy filtered through the tiny glow of unbearable imagery.

This embrace between narrative and analysis was brought to mind for me yesterday by an article in the Guardian called ‘When the lights go out, students take off to the airport’

It tells the story, spliced with statistics, of the children in Guinea who go to study by the floodlgihts at Bgessia International Airport because they have no electricity at home. I doubt I would have read it if it had said ‘The lack of eletrictricity in Guinea is a ‘geological scandal”, although that quote comes further down in the article, when I’m ready to read it.

Some big challenges here, which must always be held close to the heart in marrying narrative and analysis in a thoughtful and authentic way, not just to pull.

The first is, how to make sure the illumination is not dramatising, but genuinely representative and informative, a way through image or metaphor, to help people find their way into a subject. In this article I really could hold the picture of the children and their education in mind and fill myself up with statistics on a subject which I had only thought about a little before.

An old article from March 2006, in something called OW weekly (whatever that is), lies filed in my ‘Small Stories’ category in my slowly emerging filing system. It is a profile, by Carole Cadwalladr of Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland. Mary has been transforming the language of aid. She says

‘If we keep this conversation in trade langauge, then it keeps it as trade. But if we can show the human-rights consequences then i’ts more powerful. It makes people very uncomfortable.’

Cadwalladr goes on to say

‘Everywhere we go, Mary has a story to tell. At the coffee farm, she tells her audeince how she grew up surrounded by farmers in ‘the poorest part of Ireland’. At the Amana hospital she points out that Ireland’s history was not so very different from that of Tanzania, a poor ex-colonial land with a tortured history. There’s a story for everyone. And this, I realise, is what Mary does…you’ve got to be able to tell people things in language they understand. And what Mary’s doing is taking stories to the other side. To US member of Congress, she too takes from the cotton fields of Mali, of babies lying in ditches, because of the US governemtns’ $4 billion of aid to US cotton farmers. To the Tanzanians she tells stories of Ireland’s rise out of pverty adn to the country’s president Kikwete, she presses home how small changes in the health-care system that we saw in action at Amana hospital can signficiantly reduce the nubmer of women who die in childbirth.’

Steve Denning, formerly of the World Bank, coined the term springboard stories a while back for these small, condensed evocations, which he sees as an essential part of the armoury of the leader, tiny sparkplugs which spring people to imagination and action. (It’s by far his best book in my view, although I find that it limits the concept of storytelling in organisations to one to do with higher order communication and leadership skills and that’s not where I’m inclined to spend my time. But his categorisations and especially the appendices are rich food for thought on structuring and placing a springboard story and should not be bypassed by anyone with an interest in the subject. I’d also like to make clear that, whatever my critique, I have the utmost respect for Steve in what he has done to transform the credibility and acceptance of narrative and story in an organisational context, not least in co-founding the Golden Fleece with Madelyn Blair and others.)

What I’ve spoken of so far is a mix, about which I’m truthfully a bit uneasy of factual journalism spiced up with strong images which will draw the reader in, and the stories that inspiring leaders select for themselves from their own autobiography, and what they witness and carry with them as travellers who cross the divide between worlds.

How are we all to make sure connection between the big context, the facts, and the small stories which bring them to life are kept honest? How are we to keep the difference between analytical reporting and storytelling positive and make sure holds its integrity. In a 5 year project working with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation we worked towards, and ended up with a guide to using story as an instrument of knowledge management in an aid setting: ‘Story Guide: building bridges using narrative techniques’ At the beginning, we showed two ways of telling of the same thing. The first had been collected through a technique for sharing personal experiences collectively that allows, through emergent self-selection, the stories resonant for the community be identified by them.


The Inspiring Pot
“Bangladesh is a really impressive place… in a positive sense. I was in a village last year working in water and sanitation. We were trying to promote the use of improved latrines, but could not produce concrete slabs and rings locally for a low cost. Somebody told me to visit the latrines of a lady in the village, so I went along and said, “Can I see your latrines?” She had made a latrine out of a clay pot with the bottom cut off. Then with a potter from the area she developed a small local production of bottomless pots, and they became the latrines. Ingenious.

A few weeks later I was in another village and saw a hand pump; it was broken, just a small piece missing. So I said to the villagers, “Why don’t you repair your pump?” And they said, “Oh, we just wait for another donor to bring a new pump.” So I said, “Why don’t you visit the lady in the village over there? She finds ways of getting things done for herself.”

Perhaps 30 personal stories of experiences in the field had been shared (in repeated rounds in smaller groups) and then people had selected the most resonant for them, bringing it down to 3 stories which held collective meaning. These were retold to the whole room, and recorded word for word (in this case, frantic typing, normally with a small Olympus or mini disc)

A while later, when we were trying to convey what the written conventions of organisational reporting do to shrivel and spoil raw materials, I rewrote this as


Lessons learned from fieldwork in Bangladesh

“In our evaluation of a project in Bangladesh we noted a wide variance in the competence of individual villages to develop sustainable and effective solutions to problems encountered, for example in replacing broken parts or developing low cost products for example new latrines. The lessons to be learned from this evaluation are that we should:

* work against over-dependence on donors;
* note and encourage entrepreneurial approaches to problems;
* identify existing and repeatable good practices;
* build and strengthen communication between villages to assist cross-fertilization of ideas at the grassroots level.”

I always meant this to be tongue in cheek: an ironic way to make an important point. And we’ve used the comparison a lot to engage people with the subject. It always works. But I’ve come to see that both ways of conveying the material work well. Jacques actual story, recorded by us, is a terrific illustration of the dependence that can develop on aid workers and the helplessness of those provided for. But the duller, less illuminating translation into report-speak also acts as a bridge, a way to summarise and abstract and create a way to compare this with other illuminations to find common patterns. It’s both/and not either/or.

Coming back to electricity and it’s lack. This has come up for me in respect of another challenge, which we noticed acutely for the first time when running a story competition for the Islamic Development Bank. The competition, ‘Voices from the Field’ invited IDBers (‘IDaBers’, those who work for this impressive development bank) to submit true stories of the impact of the Bank on its beneficiaries. How to set the judging criteria for such a competition is a long blog for a different time, and much more besides on the process of handling such a competition. We did it pretty well, building on two previous competitions. But we still noticed a new challenge in the selection of longlisted and shortlisted winning stories. It was so much easier to respond to stories of personal journeys than those of big projects. The young girl in Bangladesh, given a grant to do vocational training who ends up running her own sewing business; the young man, given a grant, who becomes a doctor and goes home to set up a health centre. These were so much easier to tell and respond to than the big electricity and road projects which have more systemic substance.

And we found ourselves giving particular credit to those who could, somehow, convey the big projects but bring them down to the personal. One winning story, as I recall, was about an electricity project, perhaps in Sudan. The teller began with a powerful evocation of the consequences of the lack of electricity – the sweat, the dark, people dying on operating tables. And then the presence of IDB as a contributor to an infrastructure project which brings electricity is conveyed via watching a news report on television. And we move back to a personal view of what it feels like afterwards.

I raise this to bring me back round to the beginning – the marriage of narrative and analysis, huge systemic systems and their human impact in a truly representative and not a dramatising way, but one which will change the perspectives and actions of the listener or reader.

But I’d like to end in a slightly different place, which is surprise. The IDB judges surprised themselves in their judging in several ways. In judging this story, one of them said that he hadn’t expected to be moved by such a story in some ways. After all, they are common experiences for most in member countries, not much out of the norm. But in fact when he was reading the stories for the first time, there was a power cut in Jeddah, and as he lay awake slick with sweat it suddenly flashed into his mind that he had forgotten what it was like always to be in the heat and the dark. So the story re-evoked for him personally, in a powerful way, the point of why he went to work. To stop such things happening.

Travelling storytellers as miniaturists.

Charlie Beckett wrote on opendemocracy yesterday on the dangers of formulaic narrative journalism, the codification of small snatched soundbites and imagebites into packaged materials whose liberal intent is not in doubt, with the consequence that we hold back from challenging the context and validity of what we are seeing, hearing and being told. He says:

“The evidence of a problem, one that crosses broadcasting boundaries, is not hard to find. Take Unreported World on Channel 4. Each week, brave young independent journalists are seen in some unpleasant part of the globe contradicting the title of the programme. From Haiti to Darfur they dodge bullets and meet up with intimidating guerrilla leaders. Their commitment and courage is evident. Sometimes they display excellent language skills and sometimes good local knowledge. But it can end up feeling like breathless travel journalism with flak-jackets because the formula becomes dominant over analysis, reflection or context. Just because the subject is Sri Lanka or children in Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t mean that it is a “progressive” or even valuable programme. By emphasising a narrative-driven structure it can become as predictable a formula as the two-minute piece on the BBC’s 10 o’clock news.”

Breathless travel jounalism with flak jackets is the unhealthy tendency of those of us who consult to organisations too: punch at the expense of considered thought and a weighing and reweighing of the fragments of evidence, narrative and metaphor which might illuminate a greater truth. Not only is it what consultants offer. They offer it because it’s what clients commission. Clients often want to commission something which will tidy things up for them, not make them messier. A former colleague once pointed me at Clifford Geertz’s Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (1968) in which he says, of the anthropologist’s role:

“In attempting to answer grand questions …, the anthropologist is always inclined to turn toward the concrete, the particular, the microscopic. We are the miniaturists of the social sciences, painting on Lilliputian canvases with what we take to be delicate strokes. We hope to find in the little what eludes us in the large, to stumble upon general truths while sorting through special cases.”

There isn’t time, it seems, with deadlines and budgets and the voracious cuckoo of the media to be constantly fed, to stumble on special truths while sorting through special cases. Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘The Storyteller’, written between the World Wars in 1936 regrets the passing of the art of storytelling:
“..the art of storytelling is coming to an end. Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is experessed. It is as if somethign that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.”

He proposes that this is because experience has fallen in value, that our picture of the external and of the moral world had been damaged by the first world war, which impoverished communicable experience while unleashing floods of information;

“A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchagned but the clouds, and beneath these clouds in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile, human body.”

He goes on to draw a distinction which I’ve used repeatedly between the storytellers who are travellers and those who are stayers:

“people imagine the storyteller as someone who comes from afar. But they enjoy no less listening to the man who has stayed at home, making an honest living, and who knows the local tales and traditions.”

But what we often have is a passing journalist or aid worker listening to the man who has stayed at home and the apparently interesting bits (told no doubt through an interpreter, perhaps in a workshop even) or even been seduced into carrying a story performed only for his benefit, as those who stay at home and need aid from afar find ways to couch their stories so as to get attention and aid. There is a kind of unhealthy complicity here between the original tellers and those who travel with the stories and put them to work and this can often turn into the misappropriation of stories, turning them into externalised objects constructed without proper thought. I’m reminded of a brief moment in ‘The Reporter’, a play just on at the National Theatre, by Nicholas Wright, just before end of first half when the senior BBC bloke is giving a coded instruction to Jim Mossman (the journalist whose life and suicide is being investigated by himself) about what he choses to communicate to the press as the story about the death of his gay lover from an overdose:

“It is in the nature of every tragedy to be ambiguous. But ambiguity is what we can’t afford. What is essential both for you and the Corporation is to focus down these multiple contradictions into a single story that can be easily understood and soon forgotten. Now, I’ve told you the truth as it seems to me but I can’t instruct you. If the truth for you is the story of drink and shared medication and a troubled relationship with a younger man, then you must tell it like that.”

I hold that it is the complexity, ambiguity, discomfort and unease in storytelling (contextualised appropriately through facts and evidence) that is the point. It should not speed up transmission. It should slow transmission, make things messier, harder to grasp, so that the listener/viewer must absorb layers of complexity and develop his or her own judgements about how to act in the light of the experience of receiving the story. Charlie Beckett says in his article yesterday:

“And where the complexity of the story is greatest, surely new media with its ability to link and to source and to refer can provide a more attenuated, more informed and more intelligent rendition of the situation? Instead of endless headlines about icecaps melting and capital cities drowning, the internet allows a multilayered reportage of climate change, from the scientific data to the implications for each family’s household.”

Exactly so. So there are two very importantly different things going on here. One is to embrace the emergent patterns, cross linkages and complex reverberations offered by the existence of many amateur and professional authors, journalists and commentators and use these to find more intelligent renditions of of the human condition. The other is to pay a great deal more attention to our role as witnesses.

As intermediaries, interpreters, translators, witnesses, some of whom have voices which are loud and can echo round the world, we have a custodial duty to do our best to act as thoughtful miniaturists, seeking to communicate the essence of the big picture in our careful selection of the small illustrations which will illuminate it. And yes, we must use delicate strokes.