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Ways to respectfully document stories around highly sensitive topics

This blog is split into 3 stages

How we think and approach (mindset)

Every time we get a chance to document a sensitive/complex story of any member or a community, our highest priority is to approach it with extreme humility and respect. It takes courage for any one to open up about their personal life, or share a story. We need to be grateful and mindful of the risks they are putting on themselves. During the documentation, we stop thinking on behalf of our funders and partners, and focus on doing justice to the story - capturing the honesty, and the intimacy in its purest form.

How we act and execute (Actions)

Investing time and being patient is key. We need to build trust. We don’t want it to feel like a transactional affair. We try to build a genuine connection with members and win their friendship before asking any targeted questions. Immersing yourself in the community for a few days will allow you to build deeper relationships and dive into more complex 2-way discussions on topics. While we might be eager to unpack stories, we need to be patient and soft with the way we ask questions. Avoid any structured set of questions and treat it more like an informal dialogue. Let conversations organically flow into topics that you may not find relevant (in that moment). Your goal is to listen with 100% focus, intent and curiosity.

Always take permission for asking questions, recording voice or video and explain exactly how you are going to use that information. Transparency in what you are going to do with the story will help you build trust.

Stories are never black or white. Unpacking the grey, and breaking down different perspectives and point of views is crucial to add more dimensions to the story. In order to do this, its best if you spend 1-1 time with no notebooks or cameras with members in the community. Limit it to 2 people from your team max. Avoid taking notes in a book that force you to loose eye contact and connection with people. Instead, ask if you can record the conversation so that you can refer to it later when writing.

Our goal is to help the members understand that we aren’t going to treat this like a transactional interaction. We are genuinely interested in what they have to say and that intention needs to show.

How we package and disseminate the story (Curation)

It is important to have an empathetic mindset when curating a story from the information that you have gathered on ground. While you may think that highlighting or dramatising certain aspects of what you have learnt will be a great sell for your audience, don’t do it at the cost of a person’s privacy or vulnerability. Keep names anonymous and don’t embellish it unnecessarily. Keep it as real and honest as you understood it to be. Avoid making assumptions. Avoid pity and despair in your tonality. You are not writing for entertainment - and you must always be cognisant of the fact that your story is someone else’s reality.

Lastly, whenever you are disseminating the story, try to take it back to the people you wrote about to check if it is ok. It is not always easy to do that, but it goes a long way when someone takes the effort to do so.

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