Beyond Visibility/Learning from Ghana
August 20, 2008
I am recently returned from the OurMedia7 conference in Ghana, a loose network of international academics, activists, and professionals working in social justice/development/NGOs who have met seven times, annually, to share and discuss their varied community-based, citizen’s media practices (ourmedia not their media). Beyond healing from the extreme side effects I endured from my should-be-banned anti-malarial, LARIUM (drug-induced bad dreams were just the beginning), I am still reeling from the many profound encounters I experienced in Ghana and at the conference. While I do not believe this is the place where I want to play out the scope of cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary, cross-technological challenges that I encountered during my first trip to Africa, I do want to raise one issue–visibility–that might serve to crystalize many of these more discrete (if life-changing) incidents.
I’ve been here writing for a year, critically, about the paltry offerings on display on YouTube. I’ve been trying to name and theorize my dissatisfaction, coming as I did from a commitment to community-based media and a belief in its capacities for world and self-changing. All along, I’ve been not only critical of YouTube’s serious inabilities to deliver what I believe in, but self-critical. I’ve wondered: am I snob (above the offerings of real people), a gad-fly (buzzing around the giddy claims of the techno-euphorics), a bore (unwilling to enjoy the fun of it all). However, I believe that I gained some insight about my position from the very tensions exhibited between my high-end YouTube work (which I presented) and that of the low-bandwidth work of media activists who presented in Ghana.
As I watched (or listened to, or about) Modilbo Coulibaly from Cameroon, present on the community-based media projects of farmers in remote African villages, or Norbert Salty speak on battery operated radio programs, in their language, about environment, health, school, and culture for the Makushi in Guyana, my first thought was that my findings about YouTube (a set of programs, on high-end computers, through broadband, all unavailable to the people served by the projects mentioned above) were both elitist and irrelevant. The very fact of speaking, beyond their remote village, to each other and the world, through technology was, without question, a revolution that I could not ignore. And yet, as I thought it through some more, attempting to get beyond my embarrassment over my crass assumption that everyone at the conference would have seen YouTube, yet alone been able to use it with their communities, I became more firm in my convictions.
Media justice movements have always struggled for visibility. When it arrived via YouTube (for many, and yet really just for some), it became clear that this condition, in itself, although better than invisibility or voicelessness, can be neither the term, nor the actual end-goal for emancipatory media. Media justice, media empowerment, media community are a result of PROCESSES, not an effect of technology, nor an end-product contained in a piece of media. This is to say, that the radical and emancipatory nature of the projects I’ve mentioned above, and countless others like them around the world, occur in their making and in what is done with them.
Visibility is a neutral condition.
For visibility to have meaning, impact, or power (beyond the indisputable pleasures of self-recognition), it needs to be connected to specific social change goals and to a real community, it needs to do more than provide information or images.
In her talk on the videos that flooded YouTube during the “Safron Rebellion” in Burma (several of these were the most-viewed for days), Melissa Brough, while certain that the visibility of their protest was enhanced due to YouTube popularity, cautioned that this also resulted in extreme censorship (closing down the internet in the country), greater endangerment for vulnerable groups (violent crackdowns against protesters seen in the videos), a loss of control of the videos (where they went, in what context) as they did what everyone wants, and went viral, and a resulting, corporate-driven viewing of this visibility as reduced to spectacle, which itself raises my largest concern.
Once visible: how are you seen, what do you say, to whom, why, and with what results? To make visibility work you have to organize, educate, interact. You have to link that image to ideas, people, and actions.
Kofi Anyidoho, a renowned Ghanaian poet, gave the conference’s invocation. He more succinctly explains the causality I attempt to explain above. “Mother: They have caught our voice and given it over to people of the night. Mother: There are stories waiting for voices. Mother: There are visions waiting for cloudless skies.”