Voice of Witness and the fight against the commodification of narrative


Helen Gibb reflects on Luke Gerwe's presentation about Voice of Witness and maintaining oral history networks. Follow the links in the post for audio clips.

As an adolescent my literary diet consisted of, amongst other things, a shelf or two of autobiographies by Holocaust survivors. Some were recommended by a favourite History teacher and others simply stumbled upon in my local bookshop. Without exception they were filled with stories of loss, survival, fear, hate and the strength of the human spirit. Enthralled and disgusted, they took me far from my comfortable world in a rural part of Wales.

It is only years later that I have come to understand these narratives as part of a much wider context: a post-World War Two era of the individual, personal storytelling and a culture of witnessing unimaginable horrors through the words of those who experienced them. And Holocaust testimony was really just the beginning. Recent decades have seen a boom in the use of narrative to speak out against a multitude of human rights issues from homophobia to genocide, creating a dense web of stories which have only proliferated in this era of socially connected media. Reaching out to a global audience has become a model for healing on both an individual and cultural level.

However, this gathering of personal narratives is not always a positive undertaking. When Voice of Witness’ Managing Editor, Luke Gerwe, spoke at a recent gathering hosted by Columbia’s Center for Oral History Research he raised the problem of exploitation of narrators in vulnerable situations.

Even narrative does not escape commodification. Those books that I read as a teenager were the result of decisions based on what the ‘audience’ wanted as well as what was acceptable to speak of at the time. For human rights advocates this can mean taking stories from ‘victims’ and ‘survivors’ in order to appeal to readerships and supporters, framing their stories in a way that is digestible to listeners outside the crises.

A non-profit organisation, Voice of Witness is aimed at ‘fostering a more nuanced, empathy-based understanding of contemporary human rights crises’. The stories they publish in their book series are an attempt to challenge the problematic assumption that individuals are simply stand-ins for an idea or an issue. The organisation’s work demonstrates they are both embedded within, and able to challenge, the culture of narrative within the human rights field. Working as they do from the USA and publishing for a predominantly Western readership, their context is rooted within the historiography of narrative, witnessing and this culture of commodification.

Yet their books reveal the humanity that can so often be lost with similar kinds of testimony by connecting readers on an individual level to the entire life story of another human being. This method is positively influenced by an oral history approach and provides the potential for recognition between reader and narrator that goes beyond the moment of crisis, allowing for a more active, sustained and engaged audience.

Their publications also directly inform the human rights sector, the narratives working as an educational tool for staff at different organizations, helping them to understand their clients’ experiences better.

Taking an approach like that of journalists and oral historians, Voice of Witness does not pay its narrators for their story. The hope is that this way the stories are as close to the ‘truth’ as possible and that together they find other ways for narrators to benefit from the telling, for example through advocacy work or playing a part in shaping policy at all levels. And of course, despite the potential for exploitation, there remains the drive from potential narrators themselves to speak out against the issues they face.

Voice of Witness presents a model for commitment to narrative in a way that works to prevent further power imbalances. As oral historians entering the activist and humanitarian spheres, we likewise hope to do justice both to those we work with, as well as our audience and find ways to both operate within, as well as subvert, the context of these global forces.

This workshop took place on Thursday, September 18, 2014 as part of the 2014-2015 Oral History workshop series.  Join us for the next one!