Standing up and finding my voice through Positive Digital Storytelling

Standing up and finding my voice through Positive Digital Storytelling

HIV Australia | Vol. 10 No. 1 | June 2012

Sonja Vivienne discusses challenges associated self-representation and digital media, outlining how privacy and other issues were navigated by a group of HIV-positive people participating in a digital storytelling project in South Australia.

‘Positive Stories’ is a digital storytelling initiative that took place in Adelaide  in 2010–2011.1This article describes participants’ experiences of creative  self-representation and the thorny complications of mediating voice,  particularly in situations where privacy  and publicity are significant issues.

Digital stories are short (3–5 minute)  autobiographical documentaries, usually driven by a first-person narrative. They typically combine elements such as voice-overs, still photographs, artworks, and other personal documents with sound effects and music to communicate  stories about people’s lived experiences.

Digital storytelling is typically a workshop-based practice, where participants learn to tell their own stories while strengthening their communication skills and digital media production techniques.

As a movement, digital storytelling emerged from the empowerment through community arts discourses popular on the west coast of the US in the late eighties.2 The Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) formalised the process and it was later championed in the UK as a tool for bringing the voices of ‘ordinary’ people to mainstream audiences via the BBC.3

As digital technologies for production (digital cameras, computers and  editing software) and distribution (DVD and online) have become  more accessible many advocates have noted the democratic potential of the  medium.

For individuals whose stories are marginalised, misrepresented or  ignored by mainstream media, digital storytelling offers an opportunity for self-representation. However, for many storytellers, regardless of these  potentials, the realities of stigma and discrimination (in both on and  offline communities) can have a significant influence upon the kind of content people are willing to share and how and with whom they share it.

Additionally the manner in which workshops are framed and facilitated  by organisations can also influence the content that participants produce, and  what they are willing to say.

‘Positive Stories’ overview

‘Positive Stories’ is a collaboration  between ‘Incite Stories’4, the AIDS  Council of SA (ACSA) and Feast Festival (the annual GLBTQI cultural festival in Adelaide) with financial support from SA Health.

The project was initially conceived as a community theatre piece in which newly diagnosed HIV-positive people (diagnosed within the last 10 years) would be invited  to create and perform experiences of seroconversion and living with HIV.

Due in part to a lack of interest from prospective participants, the project  steering committee acknowledged that it might be problematic for some people  to share stories of recent diagnosis, risk behaviour and its consequences in such  a public fashion. The initiative was reconceptualised  as a digital storytelling project, as this would give participants the option to conceal their identity while also reaching a wider audience than a theatre project could.

While the project aimed to engage a  younger community who were ‘slipping  through the cracks’ of other educational  outreach work, recruitment of this  target group proved difficult. After an extended period and a loosening  of the original parameters a modified workshop process was designed to  accommodate the needs of a small group of storytellers – three men and  one woman.

The initiative stretched out over an 18-month period – partly  as a result of the recruitment process – however, this extended time frame also  accommodated fluctuating health and energy levels and allowed storytellers  to commit technically, creatively and emotionally on their own terms. The  storytellers were highly engaged in the production of their stories and worked alongside professional editors who undertook the final cut under each  storyteller’s direction.

The ‘Positive Stories’ DVD collection  was launched in 2011 at a community  screening and discussion forum during  the Adelaide FEAST Festival (South  Australia’s largest annual GLBTQI cultural event).

The stories are available to purchase on DVD from ACSA, and can also be rented from the Darling House Community library.5 They were screened during the 2011  Adelaide Fringe Festival and are being  submitted to a variety of film festivals.

They have an online presence at (a queer digital storytelling community website) where they can easily be shared with other online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. The storytellers are empowered in this distribution process as they elect who they wish to share their stories with and whether they choose to be identifiable or anonymous.

Public and private identities

Digital story production and distribution can be challenging, particularly as one considers the  ramifications of ‘being public’ and  ‘being private’. Making a digital story is in many ways a construction of self. However, while most of us are accustomed to tweaking our identity performances for a variety  of audiences in a variety of social contexts6, the knowledge that these stories would eventually circulate online for years to come highlights the dilemmas of what has come to be known as ‘social convergence’7 – where different audiences and time frames are  collapsed into the same context.

The ‘Positive Stories’ workshops were characterised by many discussions on  the risks and benefits of being ‘out and proud’ about living with HIV. Even  storytellers who felt that the benefits of increased community awareness (and  potential social change) outweighed the risks of disclosing personal information online were nevertheless mindful of the impact their story might have, for example, on a nephew or niece if it were viewed by the parents of a schoolfriend (‘His uncle’s a FAGGOT! His Uncle’s got AIDS!’8).

While ‘blurring’ faces is a familiar de-identifying technique, for many people it has criminal or shameful connotations, so a variety of creative methods to conceal individual identities were explored.

These included using artworks, playful ‘masking’, staging  re-enactments, choosing music and  pacing editing to evoke mood rather than focusing on identifying details.

In this way digital storytelling, unlike many other forms of personal ‘everyday activism’,9 allows individuals to have  a voice in the public sphere while  nevertheless retaining the anonymity  they require in order to feel safe.

Mediating voice

The relationship between workshop participants, facilitators and editors  creates a complex co-creative dynamic where stories are moulded through  suggestions and critiques.

The five stories created during the ‘Positive Stories’ initiative are slicker than many digital stories, due in part to the substantial input of the talented and experienced editors. A delicate balance was struck between maintaining a raw ‘authentic’ storyteller voice and  producing a ‘professional’ product that might engage a broader audience.

These collaborations produced some  unexpected results. For instance,  a cynical ‘vent’ was collectively transformed into ‘Greg’s Sermon’, a  dance floor anthem for young men not sure how to ‘love themselves’.

In another case, a storyteller who was quite keen to retain creative control  found that ongoing health issues made mastering the editing software difficult. Instead, he opted to channel his creative energies into coordinating and directing a dramatic and cathartic recreation of a violent encounter with homophobia.

The dilemma of how best to represent, distil or translate the semantic  intentions of a storyteller is one that has  been wrangled by many documentary filmmakers, anthropologists and scholars. Barbara Myerhoff achieved both acclaim and notoriety for the creative approach to anthropology she used in bringing the stories of an elderly Jewish community to mainstream audiences in book and documentary  form, (‘Number our Days’, Myerhoff, 1978). Myerhoff proposes use of a kind of ‘third voice’ ‘which is neither the  voice of the informant nor the voice of the interviewer, but the voice of their collaboration’.10Kaminsky critiques Myerhoff:

‘“ … collaboration” mystifies the fact that in her attempt to conceptualize  her writing practice, ultimate semantic authority resides with the  anthropological author and that in actuality the informant who yields  her words to the interviewer neither collaborates in text production nor  knows what turns her words will be given in the author’s hands.’11

Narrative therapists (many of whom cite Myerhoff’s collaborative practices  as inspiration12) and some researchers and documentary makers deal with  the complex issue of mediating voice by ‘checking back in’ with the speaker, thereby offering them the  opportunity for final clarification.

However, it is interesting to note that most documentaries or research projects in which a final product has been funded or endorsed by an institution require that participants sign a legal ‘release form’ that forgoes  any ‘right of approval’ over how they are represented.

From an institutional point of view this avoids the onerous  process of achieving consensus and allows the producers/researchers/  broadcasters/publishers to focus upon  producing a marketable product.

Community development initiatives tend to have a greater focus on an  empowering process rather than a marketable product and ‘Positive  Stories’ followed in this tradition while nevertheless aiming for educational and engaging end products that would have social impact.

Story content was discussed collaboratively (with other storytellers, workshop facilitators and ACSA support staff) throughout the development process with the  main priority being to facilitate clear expression of each storyteller’s intentions.

Each storyteller retained copyright over their story while  licensing them for use by ACSA in a DVD compilation, at a launch  screening and on their website.

The issues of ‘mediating voice’ are amplified in situations where privacy  and publicity are of paramount  concern, a fact that workers in the  HIV sector are well aware of.

From the framing of the ‘Positive Stories’ initiative itself, to the form and content of each story, to the wording of publicity materials for the launch at FEAST and at Adelaide Fringe, time was taken to seek input from and  prioritise the voices of the storytellers, an approach that was conscientiously and consistently undertaken by all of the assorted stakeholders, from facilitators and editors, to ACSA support staff.


Practical recommendations that have emerged from the ‘Positive Stories’  initiative, include: 1) engaging with  community members regarding the  framing and objectives of the initiative; 2) allowing an extended flexible time  frame; 3) negotiating both individual  and collective co-creative practices; and 4) privileging of the ‘quieter’ (marginalised) voice.

An extended time frame allows for complex and evolving  discussions between storytellers and the networks of friends and family that also have some kind of stake in the process and product.

Regardless of whether the storyteller is the principal editor or director of the story, a longer post-production period allows for revisions in the final edit and a greater likelihood that the storyteller will ‘own’  the final product that they then ‘have  to live with’ – an imperative if the  storyteller is to experience any degree  of self-empowerment.

Negotiations around co-creativity and  the privileging of the storyteller’s voice  requires self-awareness on the part of  all facilitators, regardless of whether  their role is one of logistic, technical, creative, or financial support.

The  ‘step up/step back’ principle first  articulated by the architects of the  early digital storytelling movement  are useful to keep in mind: that is,  if you are aware that you are often the proactive or talkative ‘leader’ of a  group … step back. If you are aware that you are often the quiet ‘observer’,  step up.

This practice of conscious listening is pertinent for participants,  facilitators and auspicing organisations alike. Having said that I’ll leave it to  a storyteller to ‘speak the final words’  from which this article’s title is  also derived:

‘I feel it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience to [share] my stories …  It’s one of the few things I’ve done in connection to 20 plus years of being  positive where the end result was NOT …“there you go dear you poor little  AIDS victim, we will do this and do  this and do this for you” … it’s the one  thing that I’ve walked away from and actually felt empowered by because  I’ve learnt skills and it sort of forced me to stand up.’ (‘Positive Stories’  participant, group evaluation, 2011).


1 This paper emerges from a PHD research  project that explores Digital Storytelling as  a tool for ‘Everyday Activism’ in particular issues of ‘queer identity’, ‘voice’ and ‘imagined publics’. It is positioned in a nexus between Cultural Studies, Internet  Research and Queer Theory and uses  ‘observant participant’ methods as part of an ethnographic approach.

2 Lambert, J. (2009). Where it All Started: the Centre for Digital Storytelling in California.  In Hartley, J. and McWilliam, K. (Eds.), Story Circle: Digital Storytelling Around the World. Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, UK, 91–117.

3 Meadows, D., Kidd, J. (2009). Capture Wales: The BBC Digital Storytelling Project.  In Hartley, J. and McWilliam, K. (Eds.), Story Circle: Digital Storytelling Around the  World (pp. 91–117). Wiley-Blackwell, West  Sussex, UK, 91–117.


5 Available at: http://acsa.intersearch.

6 Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self  in Everyday Life. Anchor Books, New York.

7 Boyd, d. (2008). Facebook’s Privacy Trainwreck: Exposure, Invasion, and  Social Convergence. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New  Media Technologies, 14(1), 13–20.

8 Interview with participant, 2011.

9 The author uses ‘everyday activism’ to connote the use of personal stories in public spaces by ‘ordinary’ people in pursuit of social change.

10 Kaminsky, M. (1992). Myerhoff’s ‘Third  Voice’: Ideology and Genre in Ethnographic Narrative. Social Text, 33, 124–144.

11 ibid., 127.

12 For elaboration see White, M., Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic  ends. A Norton professional book. Norton.

Sonja Vivienne is a filmmaker and PhD candidate at Queensland University  of Technology. She is also creative principal of ‘Incite Stories’ ( and is particularly interested in digital cultures, queer  identities and everyday activism.