Documenting Injustice with Dignity: The Complexities of Storytelling

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

During May 2021, the Spanish enclave at Cueta (Northern Africa) has been the focus of increased media attention, following an unprecedented number of undocumented arrivals, with around 8,000 people arriving in the space of 36 hours. Many of these individuals, among them a large number of unaccompanied minors, may be entitled to international protection in Europe. However, the near absence of safe and legal routes to protection means that, in practice, dangerous and difficult journeys are often undertaken. In the context of the media coverage of recent arrivals at Cueta, footage of a Red Cross volunteer embracing a Sengalese man shortly after his arrival, caught the attention of supporters of Spain’s far-right ‘Vox’ party. The volunteer was subsequently subjected to a huge amount of racist abuse, and eventually had to shut down her Instagram account.*

While the primary focus of the discussion on this story has been on the horrific and unacceptable racist abuse levelled against the volunteer, the story also reveals a number of uncomfortable tensions inherent in the pursuit of raising awareness of human rights abuses. Presumably unintentionally, the documenter of the embrace between a Red Cross volunteer and Sengalese man, has exposed both individuals to unnecessary harm. There is no evidence that either individual explicitly consented to such a vulnerable moment being shared widely. Of course, the abuse levelled against the volunteer, and subsequent increased attention on the story may have been near impossible to foresee. Perhaps the footage might have gone relatively unnoticed. However, even if the volunteer had given permission, or if the story had not attracted quite as much attention, would it have been appropriate? Would I want one of my most difficult moments broadcast in such a public way? The power imbalance between the storyteller and the story’s subjects in this situation seem more than obvious. It is not the first time the documenting of migration journeys has been criticised. Indeed, in August 2020, live broadcasting of individuals crossing the English Channel was heavily criticised, with both the BBC and Sky news being accused of ‘voyeurism’.

For those committed to advocating for the rights of those who are mistreated, exploited and at risk of harm, the question is: how can we tell stories in a way which helps and does not harm? How can we shine a light on injustice while respecting dignity and agency? There are no easy answers. Rather, we must operate in the context of a tension which is not easily resolved. However, the first step is simply committing to engaging in thought and reflection on how we tell stories. In the story highlighted above, might there have been a more dignifying way to document the same events? Perhaps, instead of live footage of the arrivals, content could be recorded, consent could be sought, anonymity could be achieved through strategic filming, all in a way which shines a light on injustice while protecting individual agency and dignity. Every situation will be different, so there is no formula for storytelling with dignity. Rather, the call is to awareness and reflection throughout the process.

At Network for Migration Matters, we are committed to ethical storytelling. Drawing inspiration from Ethical Storytelling, a fantastic organisation committed to a ‘new standard of storytelling’, we have set up an ethical storytelling framework which underpins all of our work. We have sought input and advice from others working in the field, and we have designed procedures to ensure that our storytelling is honouring, dignifying, and empowering. Over the next few months, NMM will host an ethical storytelling spotlight series, with input, reflections, and guidance from both our team and our wider network, calling us all to tell stories with integrity, compassion, and dignity. To join the journey, please sign up to our mailing list (last section on our home page).

*We have chosen not to provide links to the coverage of this story, as we do not wish to further publicise the event and subsequent abuse.