From contributors, to co-producers – a guide to participatory production

To mark the launch of On Our Radar’s new toolkit and showreel, On Our Radar Directors Paul Myles and Chris Walter reflect on the power of collaborating with contributors as equals.

Collaboration is key to all storytelling projects, whether it’s with ‘talent’ in the shape of a presenter with a strong voice, a director with a clear creative vision, or a partner organisation who have helped to facilitate access.

However, when it comes to contributors – the people who feature in the stories we tell – there’s often a desire to keep them at arm’s length, away from the editorial decision-making. 

Whilst this may be necessary in many cases, collaborating with contributors in a more deliberate way can often help to build greater trust and surface more powerful insights. For groups who have been historically marginalised and misrepresented, or for individuals telling a deeply sensitive and personal story, it can give them the opportunity to help shape how a story is told. 

But what about editorial control? Collaborating closely with contributors does not have to mean giving up editorial control, just as it doesn’t when collaborating with talent or a partner organisation. It’s about opening up the editorial process and being clear about where contributors will be able to feed in, and where not.

Our new toolkit, From Contributors to Co-Producers, provides some ideas as to how these collaborations might be structured. You can download the toolkit here.

Whose story is it to tell?

“I don’t believe that an ‘outsider’ could travel to Ghana, Togo or Benin to tell the story of the trokosi practice in the same way as me, having lived through the practice. By the same token, I could not have told this story in the way I did without the experience of a professional production team.”

These are the words of Brigitte Sossou Perenyi, presenter of On Our Radar’s ‘My Stolen Childhood’ documentary for the BBC about ritual slavery. This is the first time she had shared her story with the world and she knew that, once it was made public, it was a story that would define her for many years to come. She was heavily involved in every aspect of the production process – from the planning, producing, narrating , scripting and editing – whilst we took responsibility for legal, editorial and technical aspects of the production.

“I felt myself gain confidence and trust as layers of fear started to peel away. I was privileged to have a team of people that cared about me more than the story and allowed me to be my best self and to break down the walls that had prevented me from sharing my story before.”

We set up On Our Radar because there didn’t seem to be any other organisations out there committed to trying to combine the highest quality of storytelling with genuine collaboration with communities who have been marginalised, unheard or ignored. Whilst there are many professional storytellers who have a natural instinct to work in this way, we felt there was a need for a clear methodology and way of working that could inspire a shift in traditional power structures across the media landscape.

Experts by experience

Quite simply, we believe that the best stories often come straight from the source. From flagship documentaries on slavery in Ghana; to co-produced films with garment workers in Bangladesh, to networks of reporters experiencing homelessness and dementia in the UK; and citizen reporters on the frontline of the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone; we work with people to tell their stories in their own words and their own time. 

“We were treated so compassionately, all the way up to when the film was aired and after the broadcast. None of us who participated have felt like a product, it was a collaboration. It’s been our film too, told in our words.”

Dreane Williams, a woman living with vascular dementia and the narrator of the documentary series Dementia & Us.

Shifting power

From over a decade of working in this way, we know that communities are able to tell their stories with a nuance, expertise and authenticity that simply can’t be achieved by a journalist or filmmaker who ‘parachutes in’ covers a story, and leaves.

As documentary filmmakers, too often we saw traditional storytelling or production processes reinforce a division of power between those in front of the camera, and those behind it; the filmmaker and their ‘subject’ or ‘contributor’. Co-production is designed to redress this imbalance: making the production process more open and participatory by inviting the people featured in your productions to come on board as joint decision-makers and experts in their own experiences; shifting power back into the hands of communities; opening doors to new forms of storytelling and gaining access to new stories and perspectives.

What will you find in the toolkit?

Our new toolkit is based on a set of tools and principles established over a decade of practice and experimentation, working collaboratively with people who have been misrepresented or marginalised to produce award-winning stories. From first-time producers, to experienced journalists and documentary filmmakers, to communications professionals; this toolkit is designed to act as a practical step-by-step guide for those who want to integrate participatory practices into their work. 

It is a guide to co-production tools for every part of the production process, from story-gathering and development, right through to the final edit and supporting communities after broadcast or publication. This may include:

  • working with someone to narrate, present, or report on their story (e.g. My Stolen Childhood)
  • working with a group of people or a community to co-produce a story (e.g. Dementia & Us)
  • working with a group to build their capacity to produce their own stories (e.g. using their mobile phones to shoot compelling video, or record their own podcasts).

Every collaboration is unique and different, and what may be right for one project might not be appropriate for another. But a commitment to participatory production from the outset can lead to an enriching collaboration which allows both the professional and their collaborators to come away with new knowledge and skills, and with a story they could never have produced alone.

This is not to say that ‘traditional’ journalism does not have a crucial role to play in our society – we need skilled, experienced journalists holding those in power to account more than ever. But we believe that a deeper collaboration with marginalised groups will help to rebuild trust in the media. As professional storytellers, we have to change the way things have been done historically, telling stories ‘with’ not ‘for’ communities.

People often talk about ‘empowering’ others, but people empower themselves. Working in a participatory way provides an opportunity for that to happen. It is a process powered by trust, mutual respect and transparency. Yes, it can mean giving up some control, but the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks.