Digital Storytelling as a Feminist Practice
Digital storytelling provides a powerful way of using information and communication technologies to empower marginalised women. Digital stories are produced and distributed by digital media. In digital storytelling workshops, marginalized women and women’s rights activists develop a forum to tell their stories and share their experiences by producing short films about themselves.
The Association for Progressive Communications Women’s Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP) is one organization which conducts and supports these workshops. What is the motivation of the APC WNSP to carry out these workshops? Why can digital storytelling have an empowering effect on women and can this method be characterized as a feminist practice? Trying to answer these questions, I conducted interviews with employees and members of APC WNSP to understand what digital storytelling brings to the feminist movement.
What is digital storytelling?
The forms and format of digital stories differ, but in this context a digital story can be defined as a “short, first-person video-narrative created by combining recorded voice, still and moving images, and music or other sounds” (Center for Digital Storytelling). Digital stories are produced with non-professional equipment. Therefore, non-professional media practitioners can raise their voices through these stories. By producing their own stories marginalized women have new tools for self-representation: The storyteller tells her story with her own voice, with her own words, and also chooses the pictures that visualise the story. (1)
The term digital storytelling expresses that not only the product is of importance, but also the process of storytelling and the production of the story itself. “‘Digital storytelling’ is a workshop-based practice in which people are taught to use digital media to create short audio-video stories, usually about their own lives” (Hartley and McWilliam 2009: 3). Having its origin in the U.S.-American Center for Digital Storytelling, the practice of these workshops has spread all over the world. The main aim of the workshops is to empower the workshop participants, who are mainly socially marginalised people whose situation should be improved (ibid.: 60).
The digital storytelling workshops that APC WNSP conducts are seminars in which marginalized women or women’s rights activists produce digital stories, short films in which the participants talk about their experiences. Sometimes, the workshops are thematically open, other times, a question may be asked to guide the story, e.g. “Why did I become an activist?”
At the beginning of the workshop, every participant speaks about her experiences within a story circle. After this sharing of stories among like-minded people, which is already very intense and supportive, the participants write down their stories, then read them aloud while recording them digitally. This becomes the audio stream for the film.
To visualize the story, the participants use either still or moving images, they bring photos of themselves, or of other things they want to use to illustrate their story into the workshop, or they can take pictures within the workshop. The women also scan drawings or newspaper articles and they search for online pictures published under a creative commons license. With Windows Movie Maker, they edit the pictures and the audio stream; some also insert music or other sound effects. At the end of each workshop all digital stories are shown back to all the participants and each participant gets supportive feedback and solidarity for the story produced. (2)
But what meaning do the workshops have regarding empowerment? What is the motivation for conducting these workshops and what are the effects that can be perceived? In the following, I will explain the different meanings APC WNSP employees and members perceive regarding the empowering effect of digital storytelling.
Digital storytelling for capacity building and as media competence training
One goal of the workshops is to empower women with computer and internet skills and to build capacity among women’s rights activists. Teaching the activists the method of digital storytelling, APC WNSP aims to enable them to integrate digital storytelling into their work. Doing so, Sally Shackleton, member of APC WNSP, hopes for a trickle down-effect – spreading the method of digital storytelling among the women’s movement.
For women who have never used a computer before or who rarely have access to computers or the internet, the digital storytelling workshop is a chance to engage with new media, with the effect that they might lose their fear of technology, as Jennifer Radloff, employee of APC WNSP states.
Digital storytelling as self-representation
Conducting workshops for digital storytelling with marginalized groups, stories that are usually not heard can be recorded. Jennifer Radloff sees here the chance to document “real stories”. It is important to stress that the women and women’s rights activists produce the stories themselves, they are the ones who speak, who decide about what is said and how it is said. It is not that they are represented, through the storytelling they represent themselves. The question raised in subaltern studies: “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (Spivak 2003) can therefore be answered with: “Yes, they can!” and the proof can be found in the digital stories.
Also topics and concerns that are taboo get the chance to be reported. Especially for victims of violence, this is a chance to speak about their experiences, as Janine Moolman, project-coordinator of APC WNSP explains:
“The first thing about the digital story methodology is that it locates the survivor or the story teller as the primary person in the experience that they’re talking about. So on the one hand this methodology allows us to really begin […] to look at the face of violence against women in a different kind of way that hasn’t been quantified and sterilized and in ways that sometimes take the personal out of the story.”
The qualitative self-representations of the victims give them faces, make them subjects rather than objects, which is the danger when quantitative studies and statistics are used to represent facts about violence against women. Personal experiences get a forum in the workshops and through publishing the digital stories online the stories might also reach a broader public.
But violence against women is not only a taboo which is broken by the storytellers, by accusing the offenders publicly, it can start debates about justice as the case of a woman publishing the names of her abusers on a social media site shows. (3) The digital stories become “visual evidence”, as Jennifer Radloff calls them, and provoke debates, even though the films mostly focus on the story-teller, the victim and her experiences, and not on the abusers.
But the women also risk discrimination and further violence when they publish their stories. Therefore, many women find solutions for presenting themselves in the films which allow them to remain anonymous: They show parts of their bodies but not their faces, for example.
In the end, publishing the stories enables also marginalized women and women’s rights activists to provoke debates and influence discourse, including those from which they are usually excluded. Mostly important, it is the decision of the women themselves if they want to publish the stories or not. If they decide to do so, APC WNSP tries to use the stories for advocacy.
Workshops for digital storytelling as community-building
Next to producing the stories and publishing them, the forum of the workshop can be empowering itself. Janine Moolman explains: “It’s about individual people making stories within the safety and comfort and support of a group.” Marginalized women find a safe arena in which they can talk about their experiences (of violence) with people who are understanding and often share these experiences.
This sharing of stories is empowering as the women get to know that they are not alone in having these thoughts and feelings. But next to being supportive on a personal level, women’s rights activists also get the chance to network and motivate and support each other in their activism. The groups of participants then become communities.
To evoke such an effect, the workshops are offered for a special audience, for women with a similar background. Even though the women who are participating in the different groups differ individually and in their backgrounds, there are similarities that can be perceived across the workshops.
Janine Moolman, APC WNSP project-coordinator, perceives the experience of violence as one similarity that can be identified across different workshops. And even when women’s rights activists as professionals are participating in the workshops the stories discussed become personal and do not stay on a professional level. Janine Moolman describes her experiences in a workshop for digital storytelling with women’s rights activists:
“What happened to the story circle was that […] every women’s rights activist who was there had a personal [story] to share about her own experience of violence and these were stories they had never shared, never spoken about to anyone else. […] Because […] as activists we don’t often have the opportunity to talk about our own experiences.”
The story circle at the beginning of each workshop provokes an atmosphere in which the participants are encouraged to talk freely. Speaking about one’s experiences and traumas might be healing, as APC WNSP members and employees hope. Maybe the term cure is too strong for the effects the short workshops for digital storytelling can have, but at least a healing process and a stabilization of the injured might begin.
The healing process might also be activated by the medium used, as Sally Shackleton explains:
“The workshop itself is empowering because you get to tell the story. It’s reflected back at you and you hear your own voice. […] When your voice is reflected back at you, you’re able to empathize with yourself and to find some insight. So the process is also healing for people.”
Arguing with psychoanalytical approaches, e.g. Jaques Lacan (Lacan 1996), the film becomes a mirror, the storyteller might identify with the represented Other and through this identification recognize the Self and acknowledge their own experiences. The trainers of the workshops become facilitators in these processes; they try to encourage the participants to tell their stories.
Digital storytelling as a feminist practice
Being media trainings and providing the chance of self-representation, of sharing experiences with like-minded people, of publishing their own stories and through that process then influence debate and discourse, digital storytelling and the workshops in which these short films are produced become tools of empowerment.
From a feminist perspective, the goal of empowerment is to enable women to participate in society, influence their own situations and have equal chances as men have. APC WNSP programme manager Chat Garcia Ramilo perceives the digital storytelling itself as a feminist method, as women get the chance to speak their minds.
Moreover, the separation between a female private sphere and a male public sphere, which has been criticized by the feminist movement since the idea was articulated, can be destabilized as marginalized women become visible through their films. But even though a feminist public sphere can be created though publishing these stories, the problem remains that these stories might not enter the mainstream, the public sphere which is still dominated by male (media) producers.
Still, the storytellers are the owners of their stories, as explained above, they agree on publishing their films or not. Being in this position itself is empowering, as women are often not the owner of the goods they produce. Moreover, the participants also learn to use the technology needed for producing the story and through that also get a sense of control. These experiences might last after the workshop and encourage the women to stand up for their rights even in situations where they struggle for equality and justice.
Center for Digital Storytelling, n. d. Digital Story [online]. Available at: [Accessed on 13 October 2011].
Hartley, J. and McWilliam, K., eds., 2009, Story Circle. Digital Storytelling Around the World. Malden.
Hartley, J. and McWilliam, K., 2009, Computational Power Meets Human Contact. In: J. Hartley and K. McWilliam, eds.. Story Circle. Digital Storytelling Around the World. Malden, pp. 3-15.
Lacan, J., 1996, das Spiegelstadium als Bildner der Ichfunktion. In: J. Lacan, Schriften 1. Ausgewählt und herausgegeben von Norbert Haas. Frankfurt am Main, 4. Ed., pp. 62-70.
Lundby, K., ed., 2008, Mediatized Stories. Self-representation in New Media, New York/Washington D.C.
Randhawa, S., 2012, Rape and the courts: Going online isn’t really justice [online]. Available at: http://www.genderit.org/node/3654. [Accessed on 22 August 2012]
Spivak, G. C., 2003, Can the Subaltern speak? In: Die Philosophin. Tübingen, 27/2003, pp. 42-58.
Image: caption from the digital storytelling Waning Crescent , specially selected by Silence Speaks in support of Take Back the Tech!
(1) For case studies of digital stories and workshops of digital storytelling see e.g. Hartley and McWilliam 2009 or Lundby 2008.
(2) This description is based on two workshops for digital storytelling which were conducted by the APC WNSP member Women’sNet in Johannesburg South Africa and which I was able to observe. For this option, I would like to thank again the trainers Sally Shackleton and Lebogang Marishane.
(3) See the article “Rape and the courts: Going online isn't really justice“ by Sonia Randhawa in http://www.genderit.org/node/3654