Collaborative Visual Storytelling

Before winter break commenced, students, professors, and staff from the Batten School and University gathered with members of the United Nations in Minor Hall to study the art of storytelling—or at least one aspect of it.

Micro-Documentaries, a San Francisco based venture, which works with purpose-driven organizations on how to create compelling visual stories that emphasize the human component held a day-long course. Led by Micro-Documentaries Founder and Creative Director Natasha Deganello Giraudie, the course was organized by the UVA Humanitarian Collaborative, a nascent Batten School initiative. Spearheaded by Professor Kirsten Gelsdorf, the UVA Humanitarian Collaborative is a research partnership that aims to bridge the academic-practitioner gap. Funded by the UVA Global Center for Inquiry and Innovation, the Collaborative is currently exploring the connections between humanitarian aid, art, and advocacy—with an emphasis on visual storytelling.

UVA Batten Kirsten Gelsdorf at the visual storytelling workshop

Gelsdorf is no stranger to studying the connections between humanitarian aid, art, and advocacy. Before joining Batten in 2016, she served as the Head of the Advocacy and Visual Media team for the United Nations Humanitarian Coordination Office. Questions of how to create a nuanced representation of humanitarian crises—both in and outside of the mainstream media were part of the daily grind. “How can one effectively advocate for a crisis without compromising the agency of those affected by the crisis?” “How can one use an image to compel people to act?” “And what are the implications of using such images?”

Microdocumentaries presentation

“The objective of the workshop was to design a ‘co-learning event’ related to our theme of Aid, Art & Advocacy,” said Gelsdorf. “As a Collaborative, it was exciting to join together from our different academic, practitioner, and student perspectives and to discover new skills and gain knowledge about how to use visual media and storytelling to help advocate for social change.”

Throughout the day, the workshop brought to the fore discussions of how does one covey a crisis from abroad with urgency but also with humanity? What are the roadblocks? How can storytellers use images to mobilize people to act with compassion and moral courage and ultimately, make a difference? 

Under Natasha’s gentle and patient direction, she took the class through a series of different exercises all aimed at telling stories in a fresh, positive, and respectful way. Students participating in the class were deeply impressed.

“As a student journalist and public policy student hoping to do advocacy work, it was an incredible experience,” said Batten student Hannah Gavin (MPP ‘19). “It really inspired me to do more work in the communications and advocacy space related to my policy interests. It was also a great opportunity to be in the room with so many accomplished UVA faculty and staff as well as people from the UN and other advocacy organizations.”

Microdocumentaries presentation

Other non-Batten students, such as Melissa Katz, a fourth-year media studies major with a passion for photography, said, “Natasha’s framework and storytelling techniques are thoughtful and exude respect towards the person or group of people that her company portrays in [short] videos. The idea she shared about portraying a person or group of people with high competence and high perceived warmth was my most important takeaway. She emphasized how important it is to create media out of love and respect for the subject(s).”

Since the end of World War II and the Geneva Convention, images have become a crucial way of disseminating ideas and creating a sense of shared humanity with people throughout the world. But sometimes those images can have an adverse effect—and instead define boundaries and reinforce perceived hierarchies of inequality. For organizations such as Micro-Documentaries, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and the UVA Humanitarian Collaborative, images remain an important means of bearing witness, of sharing ideas and the stories of others, while also mobilizing audiences.

But it is not so easy.

“Spending the day in conversation with UVA and Natasha was a breath of fresh air,” said Belinda Gurd, the Campaign Manager at UN OCHA. “Communicating and storytelling is something we do day in, day out and it’s easy to fall into a formulaic style—this workshop was inspiring, useful and applicable. The day left us with food for thought when approaching humanitarian storytelling.”

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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