by Gareth Benest, Director of Programmes at InsightShare.
He has been a practicing participatory video facilitator since 2002, and continues to work around the world with a range of communities on a variety of social-justice issues.
It was the end of a long day at the IAMCR conference in Hyderabad. Delegates were slipping away for evening drinks or one of the seemingly limitless varieties of biryani dishes on offer; to continue conversations or escape them altogether. Whilst the main conference was pulling down the shutters, a group of participatory video practitioners and enthusiasts were coming together in a small meeting room for what was to be an undoubtedly unique meeting of minds, practices and experiences.
Gathered together in this room were some of India’s most experienced participatory video practitioners. Many more had converged from around the world in an online ‘holding pen’, eagerly awaiting the start of the online/offline event, the second in the Better PV Practice series.
Present in the room were Chinna Narsamma and Begari Laxmamma from DDS Community Media Trust, Namita Singh from Digital Green, and Vasuki Belavadi from the University of Hyderabad. Their fellow presenter Sara Asadullah from InsightShare was patiently waiting online to join the session. Attempting to weave the virtual with the physical spaces, and make sense of the various perspectives offered up, was Chris High from the Open University, and myself, also from InsightShare.
The Community Media Trust in Pastapur is one of those examples of participatory video practice that we, in the practitioner community, have followed and admired over the years, but always from afar. Yet here they were, two illiterate Dalit women whose lives have been transformed by participatory video and who, in the three times we have met this last week, have never been without their beloved video camera. They are not your everyday slick and professional NGO spokespersons, speaking out on behalf of distant communities. No, Narsamma and Laxmamma are far, far more impressive than that.
With a force and conviction that left me, and perhaps their fellow presenters too, feeling somewhat inadequate, Narsamma and Laxmamma shared their experiences of using participatory video to document community issues and practices in their small village on the Deccan Plateau. Their work has not been confined to their particular corner of India, however, and the women went on to explain how they have used participatory video in countries around the world to untangle such complex issues as the impacts of genetically modified cotton and climate change on small-scale farmers. They deftly fielded questions from the small audience in the room and the much larger online contingent, eventually having to be almost dragged away from the lectern! They have so much to share, which is why we are so delighted to have had this opportunity to learn from their experiences first-hand. Hopefully this sharing will continue long into the future.
That was a tough act to follow. Thankfully, Namita Singh was more than up to the challenge. Namita has been a participatory video facilitator for many years, working for pillars of the movement in India including Video Volunteers and Drishti. She took a break from the coalface some years ago to explore and examine participatory video practice through a PhD at the Open University in the UK, supervised by none other than Dr Chris High (our Co-Chair). It’s a small world we inhabit.
Namita has very recently joined the Delhi-based NGO Digital Green which is beating fresh new paths for participatory video; fully integrating the approach into the agricultural extension systems around the sub-continent and beyond. The founder and CEO of Digital Green, Rikin Gandhi, joined the presentation virtually and worked tirelessly to answer a myriad of questions coming through the online chat box. Namita and Rikin shared their approach to using video as a skills and knowledge-sharing tool amongst the country’s millions of smallscale farmers, the impacts the work is achieving, and, crucially, their rigorous approach to documenting every action, screening, adoption and outcome. It’s impressive work with much to teach the wider participatory media community.
Next up was the irrepressible Vasuki Belevadi from the University of Hyderabad. Vasuki has a passion and an enthusiasm for participatory video that is utterly infectious and compelling. Since his time at the Deccan Development Society (which seeded and continues to support the Community Media Trust in Pastapur), he has worked tirelessly to bring participatory video to the region’s children and young people, with all the opportunities for engagement and selfdiscovery that they offer. He did not hesitate to share the challenges faced by his flagship project CAMP (Children As Media Producers), not least in terms of reaching the ambitious ‘scaling-up’ demanded by funders and the fallout when funding is suddenly cut. Vasuki is one of the leading proponents of participatory video in the country today and his contributions to this discussion were all the richer for his willingness to share the highs and lows of grassroots practice and project implementation.
Last, but by no means least, was my colleague Sara Asadullah from InsightShare. Sara presented a project she facilitated with a group from the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, India. The process engaged elders and youth to explore issues relating to indigenous food sovereignty, and to begin reviving key traditional practices such as millet-growing and medicinal root harvesting. Sara is one of the most impressive, conscientious and empathetic facilitators it has been my privilege to work alongside. Typically we weren’t short-changed in her thoughtful and detailed presentation of the project’s overall effects and impacts, as well as the various challenges faced, and recommendations for best practice these experiences have led her to. A first-class presentation from a practitioner at the very top of her game.
Each presenter had a short opportunity to answer questions coming in from the audience, both offline and online. Once the presentations were complete, we were able to delve into these at much greater depth during a subsequent panel discussion, expertly moderated by Chris High. This final session became typically informal, gradually morphing into a relaxed and free-flowing discussion between the practitioners and audience in the room, with questions and suggestions coming from the cyber-attendees…is that a word?
This was a world away from the starchy, deferent, restrained and regulated-to-death conference sessions more familiar to such rooms. This was a meeting of minds, of fellows, that enabled a free, open and willingly frank knowledge-sharing experience. It could have been better, no doubt, and we would have liked more people to have joined the online and offline rooms. Nevertheless, I left with my mind buzzing, my heart racing, and feeling about 30lb lighter…time for another of those biryanis!
Another small step towards building a worldwide community of practice in participatory video.