Thursday, December 9, 2010

Part 6. On Ethics and Digital Storytelling

There are often ethical issues in digital storytelling projects. Traditionally this referred to when Western, privileged experts/professionals captured Third World images, thus owning them. But this power dynamic and issue of ownership continues. In the 1.8 Million Dreams project, the project members are the owners of the images of the subjects, many of whom were friends with the members. These images are on the internet, available to be seen globally, basically forever. Larry Friedlander discussed how the idea of ownership has changed in a digital age. “In a networked world all texts can be appropriated, so the very notion of proprietary authorship becomes problematic (Freidlander, 182).” These images are vulnerable and available to be used in any way that a viewer decides. But the subjects trusted the project members, and signed waivers stating that they understood the risks. What they didnt’ know was that the 7 person so-called collaborative project faced problems when one of the members, the “artist-expert ” and filmmaker, a US citizen, did not allow anyone else to handle the equipment, or have or edit the material.
       This caused the members who were DREAMers (and were also subjects in the project) to feel like they were not in fact collaborating but working for the expert. John Hartley says that “the expertise of the filmmaker or documentarist when coupled with a ‘parallel’ intelligence from the lay population can result in new and compelling stories that do credit to both parties (Hartley, 205).” This I believe was the idea of the project, to couple art, creativity and aesthetics with the personal expertise of the subjects for “the movement.” But the artist-expert was concerned about having their name, like an auteur, on the videos, and having them be consistent with their vision, and this is what caused the Dreamers to run Adrift. And by abandoning the formulaic, standardized film-form of 1.8, they were able to create self-made media not limited by these conventions or video-art standards which demand expensive equipment and programs.

The Dreamers discuss the problems with the previous project:

         I would like to focus briefly on some ethical dilemmas that the Dreamers discussed in the above video. Jesus describes the confusion he felt that the artist-expert said he wanted to help AB540 students’s voices be heard meanwhile not listening to the AB540 voices in his own group. “Giving voice” has been a historical project of Digital Storytellers, but not all of these storytellers do this with the sole intention of social change. I will discuss this concept later in the paper in terms of both voice and visibility. Related to this is the emphasis on art as being in the hands of the camera-holder. All art is created via collaboration and is a bottom up phenomenon. Artists could not create what they are creating if they did not have other art as models; it is silly to place so much weight on a single artist’s name at the expense of having help and sharing credit.
        Another issue discussed was the publishing of the confidential, anonymous videos on public pages, basically “outing” people to their social networks. This brings up the issue of who owns your right to publicity. Though someone might own your image, you own the right to guard that image and control its use; the image should not be placed anywhere you didn’t agree to. A final issue I will end with on the previous project is that the artist-expert maintained the name, the footage and the project even though the idea was created as a group and the footage taken together. This is something that may or may not be considered an ethical issue, but I find it disrespectful and a misuse of power.
         In terms of the current project there are no longer issues of owning others’s images or the power-imbalance of the “expert” and the “layperson.” But a critique that comes up in digital storytelling often is “self-exploitation.” This is something I will not argue either way, it is just something to think about. Lastly, something that affects most all user-generated digital storytellers is the issue of corporate control of the internet including Facebook, Blogger, and Youtube-two of the three of which are owned by Google. Within this corporate framework are issues of censorship for reasons of copyright, flagging by anti-immigrant users, and rigid limitations such as time limits on Youtube and page limits on Blogger. Again, this is not something I have an answer to, more of a responsibility I feel I have to point it out.



  1. Thanks for helping this story get told. I agree that it is very important. Interesting how respectful the DREAMers are of the guy's privacy, not even saying his name, even though he has done precisely that to many of them.

    Anyways, just wanted to mention that there is still a network out there that is not owned by the CIA or Google, and that's the indymedia network! Totally grassroots, horizontally-organized, volunteer-run, open publishing wire.

    And although the FBI may look at it, there's no way they can trace you because we the IMCs don't even keep records of any of that.

  2. Thanks for the info! It is true, IMC is an amazing anti-corporate, self-made digital journalism medium which deserves respect. Is there a video hosting site that matches that description?

  3. Again: Who is the expert/framer asking so carefully about ethics? Is it possible to avoid the loop og giving/getting voice?