Writing the wrongs: Roger Burks of Pictographers discusses “humanitarian storytelling”

Roger Burks, co-founder, Pictographers

Roger Burks, co-founder, Pictographers

Today I post the first interview on Write Livelihood, with Roger Burks, writer and co-founder of Pictographers, which describes itself on its website as “An (agency that) seeks to connect the world’s most vulnerable populations to those who can help them, using the combined power of words and photographs.”

Roger is a pioneer in a new sort of writing for change, which he calls humanitarian storytelling. His interview discusses the shift away from what he calls the “poverty porn” style of aid-related writing, towards a style of documenting the struggles of voiceless populations in a way that dignifies their experiences and their essential humanity.

I should also mention that Roger is an old high-school chum of mine; we both played in school bands together during the late 1980s.

Tell me a little about how Pictographers came about.

I was on assignment in Uganda with a photographer named Thatcher Cook. We’d just finished a few days of visiting displacement camps and temporary settlements in northern Uganda, which had been ravaged by a 20-year conflict and was, at that point, just a week or so into a cease-fire agreement. It was a long car ride from northern Uganda down to Kampala, the capital, so Thatcher and I – who were working together for the first time – started talking about our philosophies on relief and development, and the potential we saw for written and visual communications as ways to shift thinking.

We agreed on so many things and had this undeniable shared vision, so that conversation lasted a long time after the drive to Kampala; in fact, it spanned several countries over the course of two years. The result of that ongoing conversation – which is still continuing, of course – was Pictographers.

How does the site fit in with the work you’ve done as a writer for Mercy Corps?

I believe it’s an extension, a continuation of that work. I see Pictographers as a way to bring this kind of journalism – humanitarian storytelling – to a broader audience by training committed writers and photographers in the basics of that style.

For too long now, most of the communications we’ve all seen coming from humanitarian, development and non-governmental organizations have been what I’ve heard described as “poverty porn” – words and images that elicit an emotional response by their sheer shock value. Images like starving, skeletal children covered in flies. Overuse of the word “victim.”

That kind of communication may get results, but at what cost to those portrayed? I believe that kind of exploitation is nothing less than a violation of human rights, especially considering what the impoverished, oppressed and marginalized have already had to endure.

I co-founded Pictographers with the idea of dignity and development through communication. We’re trying to cause a shift toward documentary writing and photography that respects the humanity of those our organizations are serving, while still crafting compelling communications that inspire people to action.

How does this sort of writing differ from other work you’ve done during your career?

It differs in the level of creativity and flexibility. Much of the writing I did before Mercy Corps and Pictographers either consisted of rote corporate communications or very dry program proposals, reports and evaluations.

I think that much of those same tasks and purposes – like building organizational awareness, reporting on projects and showing accountability – are still there in my current work. The difference is in the way I’m able to illustrate those things through a more creative writing style. Documentary storytelling allows me to use narratives to show, not tell.

Wouldn’t you rather read a 1,000-word story about someone we’re helping than a 50-page technical paper that’s all charts, tables and statistics – especially when the story conveys exactly the same thing as the technical paper, only with more clarity and passion?

What are some key things for you when you approach a writing assignment that relates to humanitarian work?

First and foremost, it’s critical to come into the assignment with an open mind. I mean, it’s important to have some context so you know what questions to ask, but don’t overdo it on research before you actually go on an assignment.

Documentary fieldwork – the background to humanitarian storytelling through writing and photography – is a process of discovery. You never know what you’re going to see, hear and find out there. Don’t come into it with too many preconceptions and expectations, but know what you want nonetheless.

One of the greatest things for me during an assignment is, at the end of each day, to read through the notebooks in which I transcribe interviews and observations. That’s where the stories start taking shape. And, even weeks after an assignment, I can still thumb through those notebooks and get the same sense of humanity, of place and purpose that I did the day I jotted it all down.

So, my biggest piece of advice when going on an assignment is to take it all in. Let your curiosity guide you.

In your biography on the Pictographers site, you assert that “Objectivity is crucial in situations where the rawness of human emotion is so overt,” yet you also champion blending this objectivity with emotion to tell a more powerful story. How is this accomplished?

I think this is the essence of humanitarian storytelling: that balance between being an objective journalist and letting yourself be the conduit through which human emotion is channeled.

I think that, by and large, the objectivity is accomplished through listening and transcribing what people in some of the world’s forgotten corners are saying. Just having a conversation and listening, not being judgmental, not letting your questions or tone be influenced by the situation at hand, however intolerable. When you’re on assignment, always remember you’re a journalist, not an activist. You’re in the field to get story material in the purest form.

But, at the same time, don’t forgot how these encounters, interviews and experiences affect you – write them down. When you’re ready to write the stories, draw from both objective material and subjective feelings. Don’t overwhelm the facts with feelings, but instead use them to emphasize your message.

From my experience, readers want you to be their eyes and ears to a degree – they’re alongside you on the journey. The more holistic and engaging you can make that journey, the better.

One word of caution, though: carrying some of these stories and emotions around with you is downright haunting until you write it all down to share. Even then, it lingers.

I understand that Pictographers offers workshops for writers, photographers, aid workers, and anthropology field workers in documentary field techniques. What are some of the techniques you instruct students in?

A lot of what we cover is what to do when you hit the ground, those logistical issues that can get in the way of you and an amazing documentary field trip. Things like how to connect to not only those you’re interviewing or photographing, but also interpreters and drivers. They’re critical team members that can make or break your work.

There’s also a lot of emphasis on what you actually do before, during and after the site visits where you’re doing the actual documentary work. We explore cultural sensitivity and ethics. We give concrete examples of successes and challenges.

There are so many obstacles already to getting stories from these isolated places; we want to help give writers and photographers the tools they need to hit the ground running and bring back stories that drive positive social change.

What is the future of this kind of writing? What trends excite you? Frighten you?

When I started working as a writer for Mercy Corps almost five years ago, there were just a few of us doing this kind of work. Earlier this year, I organized a writers and editors session at a national non-profit conference and honestly expected a handful of people to show up. To my surprise, about fifty people showed up to the session! So the potential – and importance – of this kind of communication is definitely coming into the consciousness of non-profit organizations.

I’m excited for the chance to, as Pictographers, train journalists who will not only work to change their organizations, but change the world. That sounds lofty, but think about it: humanitarian storytelling gets people to take action. It not only raises awareness, but also gives organizations the resources they need to make a difference.

I think the scariest thing is, eventually, ceding control of what you’ve helped to start. Letting the movement evolve. Seeing where it goes. But I can say with all sincerity that I certainly hope it comes to that!

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2 thoughts on “Writing the wrongs: Roger Burks of Pictographers discusses “humanitarian storytelling”

  1. Great interview, Liz. I’m belatedly blogging about it on Feb. 6.

  2. creativeliberty says:

    @Kathy: Thanks! I’m sure Roger will appreciate it (as do I). He’s just a great man and I really respect what he is doing.

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