Stories create realities and change them. Do you not believe it? Read this story and tell me what you think…
A humanitarian worker walks in the middle of a desolate road leading to a rural town in a third world country going through a never-ending civil war. A pickup truck rushes down the road, lifting a cloud of dust. Shots are heard from AK47s. The pickup stops, and an armed group of men take the humanitarian worker by force, accusing him of spying for the enemy and threatens to behead him in the next town.
The humanitarian worker is terrified. Lying on the floor, injured and bleeding, he looks at his captors and thanks them effusively for saving his life by taking him away from that dangerous road. The humanitarian worker continues expressing gratitude to his captors until he convinces them that they are his saviours. So, in the end, they believe it and release him on good terms.
Well, well, well. What do we have here? Two stories collide. In the first one, a spy disguised as a humanitarian worker is captured and promptly beheaded while filmed on a mobile phone and uploaded to YouTube. In the second one, we have a humanitarian worker rescued from a very dangerous road by a guerrilla group passing by and who gave him a ride to a safe place, parting in good terms.
We are born, live and die within stories. Stories that are told about us, stories that we tell about other people and, the most interesting of all: the stories that we tell about ourselves. The angle from which a story is told, the details that stand out and the final punch line of the story are places where the author’s signature, trembling pulse, firmness of his line, or ironic laugh can be seen.
Out there are people who do not have anything else but their story. An asylum seeker, a migrant child, a woman victim of gender violence, or a transgender youth. Their stories become a powerful expression of a social situation ignored by the media establishment (which prefers homogeneous, reassuring and massive stories). Their stories are sometimes the only thing they have to negotiate or win the favour of the public in a world that is largely hostile to them.
These people resemble the humanitarian worker, walking alone on the road.
In their positive version, their stories inspire others. Moreover, they can produce significant changes in countries’ social and political narratives, especially on issues such as abortion, climate change, people living on the streets, people with disabilities, youth suicide, etc. Why?
Because stories can produce empathy. People can connect, put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes, and see, for a moment, how different their life is from theirs. Unfortunately, the power that stories mobilise has led to an increasing instrumentalisation of stories to support certain corporate and political views. Still, at the same time, this has led to activist groups today being able to create and share stories about marginalised groups that years ago had neither voice nor vote.
In the negative version, the stories associated with these groups can increase the prejudices and obstacles these groups already face. For example, we see this tendency when negative stories arise about welfare recipients, asylum seekers, Arab refugees or immigrants, or people of colour inserted in drug trafficking or prostitution networks, etc. This version of the stories leads to the expansion and strengthening of prejudices about them by propagating negative stories.
Today many people are walking on the road with which I started this story. You and I are in the pickup truck. It is up to us to tell and be convinced by stories that lead to the release of the prisoners and not their beheadings.
(c) Photography by Sebastián Silva. https://la-periferia-interior.tumblr.com/