Visualising Migrant Voices: Co-Creative Documentary and the Politics of Listening
Darcy AlexandraExternal Examiner: Professor Paul Stoller, West Chester University, USA
Date Awarded: 2014
This ethnography of media production explores the challenges of literally and figuratively visualising voice. The labour of a shared production and the distribution of the audio-visual documentary essays unfolded within a field of diverse, and at times, conflicting interests. For this reason, judicious attention to what I name ‘encounters' of ‘political listening' (Bickford 1996; Dreher 2009) provides one framework for theorising the challenges of researching with marginalised subjects and stories, and the contradictions of developing shared practices within proprietary contexts. These encounters reveal moments of listening and being heard, struggles over ‘veracity' and ‘evidence,' and the power relations inherent in the production of media about lives that are most often rendered invisible and inaudible. The research aimed to develop an exploratory and critical practice of inquiry that not only responded to the ethical complexities of research with refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented migrants, but also created opportunities for research subjects to interpret, analyse and document their experiences as newcomers to Ireland. Within this community of practice (Lave & Wenger 1991; Wenger 1999), participants produced their own media to explore and document their lives as workers, parents, ‘cultural citizens' (Coll 2010; El Haj 2009; Rosaldo 1994), and artists simultaneously adapting to and transforming a new environment. By centring participants from diasporic communities as the primary authors and co-producers of their audio-visual narratives, the research sought to extend and deepen the public discourse of migration in Ireland. Through the process, research participants-seven women and six men from African, Asian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern nations-interrogated their daily circumstances negotiating migration policy, and revealed the structural violence of asylum and migrant labour regimes. To develop a ‘shared' anthropological practice (Pink 2011; Rouch 1974; Rouch & Taylor in Feld 2003; Stoller 1992), the research design introduced an inquiry-based and longitudinal approach to the participatory media genre known as ‘digital storytelling' (Lambert 2013). Digital storytelling as a research methodology is a relatively new endeavour (Alexandra 2008; Burgess 2006; Brushwood Rose 2009; Gubrium 2009; Gubrium & Turner 2010; Hartley & McWilliams 2009; Hull & Katz 2006; Lundby 2008; Meadows 2003). Due to the research design's significant adaptations to the standard Center for Digital Storytelling model, ‘co-creative' (Spurgeon, et al. 2009) documentary practice is employed as a term that more accurately describes the labour at hand. The collaboration generated over 250 images and resulted in two series of broadcast-quality, audio-visual stories-Undocumented in Ireland: Our Stories and Living in Direct Provision: 9 Stories. Both series have screened before diverse audiences, at public forums on asylum policy and migrant rights, the Irish Film Institute (IFI), the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival, and at scholarly conferences throughout Europe and the Americas. Eleven of the fourteen digital stories are currently available for viewing on-line. While research findings indicate the method facilitated dynamic opportunities for engaged inquiry into asylum and migrant labour regimes, recognition of storytellers and stories, and sustained encounters of "narrative exchange" (Couldry 2010), the practice raises complex questions about the politics of listening and being heard.