What can social innovators learn from the power of personal testimony? Lessons from the Quipu project in Peru

Photo Credit: Quipu project

We spoke with Sandra Tabares-Duque from Quipu Project about the power of storytelling. The Quipu project is currently featured on Guardian Documentaries here. Also, find out more about Quipu project and hear more testimonies on their interactive platform.

What is storytelling for you? Why do you think it is important? 

I think that storytelling is something that belongs to all of us as human beings. Storytelling is a way to relate to who we are, it’s a way to describe who we are, and it’s a way of understanding where we come from. It’s a way that helps us to create identity and also to create stories that help us to engage compassionately to other human beings. I think that stories help us to connect to the rest of the world and the universe around us. So storytelling is a way of expressing what we see and what we believe we are. It helps us build our own identity and the perception of the world we live in basically.

Do you think that in recent years that storytelling has taken on more importance than before? 

I don’t think that in modern times it has become any more important than it was in the past. I think that storytelling has had different platforms. For many years we had literature, which is a part of storytelling, so books were read and they were very political. We also had songs and poetry that described the world and that have been able to amplify the messages of people. So there have been different ways and different expressions that have different ways of telling story using a range of narrative forms.

Lately, we have had more access to storytelling through video and audio outlets. This, to me, has a larger impact because it is much more immediate. It brings images directly from those who live experiences. Straight away we get a faster connection to that particular experience. I think because of this we are in the era of visual storytelling, and by using tools like films, what we do is spread a message easily and widely in terms of number of people reached. This generates a social reaction that, thanks to other platforms available right now, also generates a social movement that can be more powerful than a piece of theatre performed for just a few hundred people, for example.

What is the social impact of storytelling? What is the value?

In any case when someone tells a story that can reach someone else’s heart that has a huge amount of value. If I tell a story and I can be compelling enough for you to create an image in your head or to touch your heart in a way that helps you identify with what you are hearing, it’s more likely that you are going to do something about it. It allows the person on the other side of the story to put on someone else’s shoes, or to experience someone else’s experiences and emotions. As I said before, I think the impact is much more immediate than just reading a big report. It’s much more emotional. Through audio-visual storytelling, we use elements that help us highlight the emotions we want to highlight. It is about trying to have an objective point of view, but no story that has been told by a third person will ever be completely objective. So there is something subjective about it, and by that subjectivity, what we use are elements that touch on our emotional side, such as the use of music or powerful colours.

We are always editing in our lives. We edit our conversations with friends, we edit our relationships with partners, we edit everything. So that’s exactly what we do as well. We edit to create powerful narratives that we believe are going to get other people to engage in the message we want to build. You try to inspire people to come on board with a viewpoint, idea or a message that you have. It helps a lot to get other people to buy into and believe in that idea as well. It adds weight to your work if it is supported by the voices of other people, especially the voices of the people you are talking about. Images, voices, colour, music and text together are extremely powerful and can generate a powerful impact when used together.

Tell us about an example of powerful storytelling that brings all these elements together and has imparted a positive impact? 

I can definitely talk about the Quipu project.

The impact we have created is first at the level of community. The impact we have seen with the project is through the way in which we engaged with communities. We used technology to enable this. The first impact we saw was when all the women affected by forced sterilisation, recorded their voices and listened to their own messages — the moment they recorded their own voices and listened to what they were saying. It was amazing. It was very simple but they had never listened to their own voices before. That generated something at a personal level for those people that had been fighting for justice for a long period of time. They listened to their own messages and this provided the first level of healing. They had told their story many times before, but had never listened to their own voices. It was slightly shocking for them, in a way, to hear that story coming out in their own voices.

The second thing that happened with them was that they realised that they were telling the story in a way that was probably not benefitting the legal case. They managed to practice, over the phone, how to tell their story better so that the prosecutor would be able to engage better with them. So that’s the first level of impact that we created, and it occurred without any expectations from our end.

The second level of impact, from a very basic level that we identified, was the phone line and use of technology as a way to put people in touch. This forced policy of sterilisation was a national issue. But the different communities, because of the distance, thought that the sterilisation policy had occurred in just one place. They believed it had just affected their own small community, rather than the reality — which was a policy that affected thousands. So the possibility of communicating from community to another through these telephone lines meant that they could come together as a collective of thousands asking for justice. This was an extremely important impact, because the project allowed them to go to Lima, and march for justice together. That created a different atmosphere in their fight also, because many voices, from many different parts of the country started to work together in order for their collective voices to have a bigger impact. On a different level, it also generated an emotional healing impact for the people involved in the project.

The project also brought attention to the issues from different areas. If this story had been told as a report and put on a website, it’s likely only few people would have engaged with it. But the fact that it has the platform that is does, means that it has gone and has been spread around over 110 countries around the world. More people have also been able to relate to these stories as well due to the fact that the testimonies of these victims were translated into English. That has brought the issue to the attention of the international community, and this sentiment has now returned to Peru, where before people were uninterested by these stories and put little importance. This topic has now risen directly to the top of political priorities in Peru, and in fact, in the last two presidential elections, the issue of forced sterilisations has been fundamental in electing the president of the country. We can’t claim that we have been directly responsible for this with the Quipu project, but we have certainly helped bring attention and understanding at the level of political decisions and policies.

What are some of the challenges of collecting personal testimonies and stories on film? 

There are many. With different types of testimonies being collected, one needs to be aware of what legal repercussions are there in the world. One also needs to think about how best to protect identities, how to protect the dignity of people, and to know how much you can share. You have a legal duty as a citizen to protect the rights of the people you are interviewing. There is also a moral responsibility as well in the intention of wanting to tell a story that is powerful, and there are a number of ties and connections between documentary-makers and journalists in this regard. It is about how you can create stories and how can you treat people and their testimonies in a way that they are respectful, that they do not victimise them further. We talk a lot about victims, but when we do, what kind of language are we using? How are we portraying people? At what level are we putting them as empowered human beings? So language and context, although complicated, are hugely important.

Through the Quipu project, we tried a number of different testimony collection techniques, primarily surveys and questionnaires. However after trying a number of different methods, we realised, by far that the best way of getting the real and whole story, was through the simplest means, personal testimony. People know how to tell their stories, and we, as intermediaries, tend to believe that they need us to be able to bring those stories in a compelling way to the Western world. This belief that we are the decodifiers, that we are the ones that allow this communication, is ludicrous. Just allow the testimony of people speak for itself. That to me is significantly more powerful, because the cameras, the recorders, do not intimidate them and they are just able to be themselves.

What can social innovators learn about storytelling?

There are a lot of ways in which the paths cross. We all want to contribute towards society and generate ways to approach an issue or challenge in order to solve it creatively or differently. Sometimes these fantastic ideas get lost in a lot of paperwork and a lot of reports that only relate to statistics. Quite often these reports are much more closely related to academia, which is of course is important, but can sometimes be less engaging. So with these alternative ways of storytelling, we can connect more to the human being behind the story than just the facts and statistics. You are connected at a much more identifiable, human level. I keep saying this, but this emotional connection is extremely powerful. And I think in order for social innovation to be able to bring more understanding of what they are doing, it is important to adopt some of these connecting techniques, and learn the value of a simplified message.

What projects are you working on currently? 

We are going to expand the Quipu project to the jungle region, and continue collecting testimonies from the Andean regions. This will allow us to demonstrate that the policy of forced sterilisation was systematic and widespread within the country.

Another trans-media project I will be taking part in is called Mi Casa My Home, which looks on the symbolism and significance of home, belonging and ownership. Huge numbers of people have to leave their birth country or their hometown, to work in different countries, in order to be able to get the money to build a house back home. There is huge paradox there, that in order to construct a home for yourself and your family, you must leave those two things behind for an unknown period of time. A number of these people never return home, because of perhaps legal, or safety reasons, or due to the fact that many of them are fundamentally changed by the migration process and experience, to the point that they feel they cannot go back home. Obviously this has an impact on a number of levels, particularly on those of identity and belonging.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us Sandra, it’s been really fascinating!

(Photo Credit: Quipu project)