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Untold: Digital Storytelling at UEL

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Mark Dunford, Associate Dean in University of East London's School of Arts and Digital Industries, explores Digital Storytelling as a participatory research methodology in advance of the Untold Unconference at UEL.

Digital Storytelling is a participatory media form that flows from the collaborative model of practice developed by StoryCenter (formerly the Center for Digital Storytelling) from the late 1990s onwards where participants or “storytellers” gain both the creative and technical skills to tell a personal story using their own words and predominantly still imagery. Storytellers originate and edit their own material. I’ve been exploring the use of Digital Storytelling as a participatory research methodology since 2003 when I was working with Mental Health Media and have used it extensively from 2005 when I established DigiTales as part of the Inclusion Through Media Development Partnership. I moved into academia on a full time basis in 2012 and have since led international projects at the University of Brighton and at UEL where I’m currently based.

The focus is primarily on “story” rather than “digital” and the approach to participation is firmly grounded in the facilitation of the “storycircle” where individual stories are found, developed and crafted using a series of different storytelling techniques to enable. Completed stories usually run for two-three minutes and are primarily shown on the internet, though they have been broadcast on national media (for example, the Capture Wales initiative at the BBC which ran from 2001-2008), exhibited in cinemas, galleries or public spaces and are routinely shown in community settings.

Digital Storytelling is often self-consciously characterised as an emergent practice or movement within the media landscape, yet it is also an established international community of academics, practitioners and policy makers who gather every two years to share experience and build knowledge. Here at UEL, we’re working to bring the different component parts together through a week-long programme of events in July under the banner of UnTold.

Facilitating civic participation?

Joe Lambert established StoryCenter in 1995 and he sees Digital Storytelling as part of a distinctly American tradition of “the democratized culture that was the hallmark of folk music, reclaimed folk culture, and cultural activist traditions of the 1960s”. For Lambert, the immediate roots of Digital Storytelling lie in political activism, community media, radical theatre and campfire based storytelling but these roots extend deeper than this to embrace a long-term struggle around everyday access and participation across the media landscape.

Case studies from the most recent of the biennial international Digital Storytelling conferences (Ankara, 2013 and Boston 2015) indicate that much Digital Storytelling activity is clustered in particular sectors, namely work with young people, within Higher Education, Health, museums or libraries and initiatives designed to foster citizenship.

Many of these projects are localised commissions so the creative freedom or insight sought by Digital Storytelling is frequently framed by boundaries set elsewhere and, as such, it is restricted. This is especially problematic when storytelling is commissioned by organisations seeking to build community or facilitate civic participation, something which is increasingly becoming the norm rather the exception. Ethical questions around the nature of participation are gaining prominence in our discussions and debates; we’re looking to take all this forward through UnTold.

Invitation to participatory researchers

UnTold is the latest in the series of these biennial events with a week-long programme of activities exploring Digital Storytelling theory and practice from across the world. We’ve deliberately adopted an open, participatory approach designed to move beyond the routine presentation of case studies that clutter up so many events. Places are now available at two special events which will be of interest to academics using participatory research methodologies and those concerned with representation and voice in the media.

Firstly, a one day Un-Conference on Wednesday 12th July where academics, practitioners and community groups from across the world will come together to use their experience of Digital Storytelling to develop new projects. This is an invitation to participatory researchers from outside the Digital Storytelling sphere to join emergent research teams who by the time they finally meet will have collaborated on line for three months exploring six questions:

  • How can Digital Storytelling be used within Higher Education?
  • What is the role of a practice like Digital Storytelling in Health and Social Policy?
  • What ethical issues are raised within Digital Storytelling and how do we engage with them?
  • Can Digital Storytelling be a means to provide a voice for young people?
  • Is Digital Storytelling a means to facilitate Civic Engagement?
  • How can methodological approaches and issues within Digital Storytelling practice be resolved?

There will also be a one day masterclass in Digital Storytelling Facilitation led by Joe Lambert on Thursday 13th July.

Contact me for further information via m.dunford@uel.ac.uk or log on to the website.

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