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Educating our minds and hearts: mixed media storytelling

Abridged Literature Review on community arts-based projects

compiled by Laurence Butet-Roch, Ryerson University |

for Reimagining Attawapiskat

a research project by Dr. Sarah Marie Wiebe |

August 2016


Observing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) calls to action involving educating the Canadian public requires thinking outside the traditional confines of academia to enact projects that are not only informative, but also deeply affective. Educators must reach the hearts as well as minds (Government of Canada Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015, p.285). Given that creative expressions are pathways to healing, resistance and reframing (ibid, p. 329), they play an important role in creating the mutual respect sought by Indigenous communities across the country. As such, artistic projects are particularly suited for engaging Indigenous youth in collaborative research projects in order to address popular and sensationalized misconceptions about their home, which is precisely the aim of Reimagining Attawapiskat.

Over the past decade, the Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario, Canada experienced at least five State of Emergency declarations. As a result, the community has periodically been at the center of media attention for less than uplifting reasons. Media coverage continuously emphasizes the deplorable living conditions, the economic hardships, the lack of adequate social infrastructures and an over-generalized sense of hopelessness. Though these are real and alarming causes for concern, this one-sided reporting can further alienate residents of Attawapiskat. How can one feel pride in themselves and their community if the only images reflected back to them are ones of crisis, trouble and squalor?


Aiming to contribute to a collaborative process of reframing the prevalent media narratives about the Attawapiskat First Nation, Reimagining Attawapiskat is a mixed media storytelling arts project with young artists from the community. Sharing their creative insights with other project participants and those beyond the community, they will offer an avenue for those interested in learning about Attawapiskat, to do so through the perspectives of community members. Drawing on previous arts-based community research initiatives ranging from visual research, photo elicitation, PhotoVoice, participatory video and digital storytelling, Reimagining Attawapiskat advocates for a mixed media storytelling approach to community-engaged research. This method is a prism to highlight a range of voices, perspectives, stories and knowledges.


Academic fields like anthropology, sociology and cultural studies have long used visuals to uncover meaning. Nanook of the North produced in 1922 by Robert Flaherty in Innu land, on the Ungava Peninsula was considered a telling ethnographic film until controversies over its accuracy arose. Ever since, visual interpretation goes well beyond studying the message conveyed by the content of a given image. Pink (2003), advocates for a three tiered analysis model: 1) examining the “site of production” by making detailed observations of the environment and engaging in conversation with locals; 2) thematically analysing the image and supporting findings through interviews with the image-makers; and 3) considering “audiencing”, e.g. how audiences read the image depending on their prior knowledge/values. Photo-elicitation, a method develop by John Collier in the late 50s in which photographs are used as prompts during research interviews, has become a popular way to elicit original and nuanced answers, as well as a mean to disrupt the usual researcher-researched hierarchy, since the latter is treated as an expert rather that a subject under scrutiny (Harper, 2002). It is a co-learning process.


When associated with projects that ask the research participants to take pictures associated with the theme of the study photo collaboration, photo-elicitation can generate even more insightful findings. Asking people to show the viewer what matters to them can be far more effective than asking them to explain them to you, especially when it comes to abstract concepts, such as identity, or when dealing with communities who find themselves at the margins. Community engaged researchers who adopt a collaborative mixed media storytelling approach must create space for multiple languages. Thus,  the researchers must adapt to various levels of literacy and adopt different means of expression. A useful one is photography.  (Noland, 2006). To yield telling results, photo collaboration projects must balance providing the participants with training and direction with affording them the space to express themselves freely. Since the 70s, Wendy Ewald has made a career out of leading such workshops. She first engages the participants by asking to write/draw/tell her something about themselves. From this discussion she identifies themes worth exploring. After briefly teaching fundamentals of photography, she encourages participants to begin by photographing what they know best -themselves- and to slowly expand the breadth of subjects to portray their community before exploring more abstract concepts like dreams. If they encounter an obstacle she helps them find the solution, rather than provide it for them. (Azoulay, 2015; Hyde, 2005; Ewald, 2007). A good example is the American Alphabets project, where youth were tasked with associating a word with every letter of the alphabet and illustrating it. The resulting visual alphabets “illuminated what was important to individual students, highlighted cultural aspects of the students’ lives as immigrants and raised questions about language in general” (Hyde, 2005, p.179). As a result, this process brought together a range of literacies and opened up the project to multiple ways of seeing.


Photo collaboration projects can be highly subversive. It challenges the usual process of iconization and notions of authorship. Azoulay (2015) acutely remarks that photography, by designating the subject as X implies a certain degree of iconization, which may or may not be accurate, or wanted by the subject. If the person photographed has agency over how they are represented, than this dynamic morphs: “When the photographed person resists this iconicity and appears as a claimant who is negotiating her transformation into an icon, an iconoclastic process has already begun” (p.195). By becoming the person with decisional power regarding his/her representation, the participant can dispute previous or stereotypical representations so often found in icons. Similarly, as more and more people have a say in the final image, whether by advising on its aesthetic and content, manipulating it in post-production and everything in between, the concept of authorship is expanded beyond the person who presses the shutter.


The rise of digital media has opened up new avenues for engaging community members to share their stories in creative ways, central of which is the digital storytelling method devised by Joe Lambert. Following a 7-steps process, participants are tasked with devising a 3-5 minute clip using any media they which: family videos, photographs, drawings, songs, poems, melodies, archives, etc. The deliberate framework, yet open-ended output, has led many researchers interested in community-based projects to embrace it. This approach is a tool for self-representation as it articulates complex thoughts, legitimizes oral storytelling and shares knowledge with a wider audience. (Castleden et al., 2013; Beltran & Begun, 2014; Beltran et al., 2014; Iseke & Moore, 2011; Cunsolo Willox et al, 2013). Yet, for all its benefits, digital storytelling also has its share of shortcomings. Beyond requiring access to digital media technologies and the skillset to operate them, the format and methodology itself can prove limiting. After working on Changing Climate, Changing Health, Changing Stories in the Rigolet Inuit Community, Cunsolo Willox and her team (2013) observed that the required 3-5 minute clip “does not necessarily resonate with non-Western storytelling forms or traditions, which celebrate stories-in-process and do not require stories to conclude succinctly and fully by the end” (p. 141). Some stories take days to tell -and even longer to grasp-, others are open-ended. Similarly, Iseke & Moore (2011) who have led several digital storytelling initiatives with Indigenous people, identified other points of tension, including the disconnect between the storyteller and the audience, the difficulty of maintaining the storyteller’s tone, pace and style when having to edit down a clip and the challenge of preserving the intricate storylines and subplots that inform the story being told but do not fit within the length of the clip.


The shortcomings of existing visual community-based research methods should not discourage researchers for employing them, rather, it invites them to consider how they may be used in concert to complement one another. The Spaces & Places initiative in the Eskasoni First Nation is a brilliant example. Over a week, the participants took part in a PhotoVoice like project taking pictures of “spaces that made them feel they belong to their community and spaces that didn’t make them feel they belong” (Liebenberg, Ikeda & Jamal). Their images were then used as photo elicitation during interviews with those who took them. At the same time, each participant also became the subject of a ‘day-in-the-life-of” participatory video. Once all the visuals had been compiled they were also asked to join a two-day participatory thematic analysis, uncovering the key teachings of the project. Finally, they also got involved in participatory dissemination, deciding how their findings should be shared with the public. The result of this approach makes a compelling case for adopting/adapting it in other contexts. The photographs, videos and interpretation workshops revealed that the youth, who lived in a community facing a high number of suicides, valued having strong supportive relationship, engaging with culture, having the opportunity to build strong personal attributes and access to holistic education. Inspired by these themes, the youth designed postcards, posters and a mural painted on the outside wall of the Eskasoni Mental Health Service (EMHS) office. And the EMHS is basing itself on the research findings when devising community programs. They make sure that the proposed activity includes at least one of the above-mentioned themes. In this sense, there is a direct connection between the work undertaken by the youths and local policies/their implementation.


This succinct survey of different community arts-based research projects demonstrates how such approaches give credence to alternative modes of expression, empower the participants and challenge mainstream perspectives, especially if used together. Reimagining Attawapiskat partners with young people from Attawapiskat on a mixed media storytelling project that combines several visual forms of expression – ranging from photography to music video production to the creation of postcards – with  a shared desire to make the discrepancies that exist between the media’s representation of their home and their actual lived-experiences evident. This is necessary in order to build a nuanced, compelling tapestry of voices, beginning with the stories of those living in Attawapiskat.

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