Smile!: Am I biasing the narrative?

After a couple months of floundering, I am definitely beginning to improve. I am improving my overall demeanor when interacting with artisans. I increasingly enjoy each interview.

I am more aware of the way our different backgrounds will manifest themselves. I am also comfortable knowing there is much I do not realize about our differences. I am confident that we can weather the challenges of any unexpected differences. For that and probably other reasons of which I am ignorant, our interactions have become vastly more amiable.

Unfortunately, there is one required part of my job with which I doubt I will ever be comfortable. I do not like asking the artisans to smile for the camera. Rather, I do not like having to ask a second time. A follow-up request means they did not agree to the initial request.

Refusals are awkward. For me. For them. For everybody.

The awkwardness is not why I feel so uncomfortable. The majority of my interpersonal conduct is fairly awkward. I’ve always managed.

No, my discomfort stems from something far more systemic than an awkward exchange.

I abhor putting a positive spin on the lives of those in poverty for the comfort of the well-off.

Alright, perhaps that statement is overly and unnecessarily pessimistic. In fairness, I will provide some context.

When Daniela first explained this project to me, she outlined that it was critical that the artisans smile. She said that would be difficult, referring to the numerous photos without smiles on the Bridge of Hope website, but that it was a common request from clients.

Similarly, the purpose of the video interviews is to provide Bridge of Hope’s customers, the intended audience, with a window to the lives of their producers. That is an admirable pursuit and an answer to increasingly complex commodity chains, which masked the struggles of producers to the consumer. Transparency improves solidarity between artisans so it befits fair trade.

Transparent messages are rarely clear-cut and concise though. These artisans have dynamic work lives that are difficult to express in short, digestible snippets.

I wrestle with whether I can reconcile transparency and accountability to our customers. It’s an editor’s dilemma. What do I cut? How does that spin their story? Is that transparent? Is the authenticity I have in mind unattainable?

Not every artisan group has a commercial-worthy success stories. Most are understaffed, underequipped and under-skilled. Consequently, most struggle to meet deadlines and stay creative.

This was most true for, Tupaq Yupanqui, whose situation I detailed in a previous post. They receive minimal orders and are struggling to meet the quality standards for export to fair trade shops in the United States. During our visit, we discovered that each member had unique knitting needles, which contributed in a large part to their quality struggles. While that’s a good discovery overall, the group was founded in 2007. That length of time speaks volumes to their success.

The older members of Tupaq Yupanqui seemed disdainful of my request that they smile.

Daniela suggested that minimal success creates a sort of vicious cycle. Groups with little success do not tend to prioritize their fair trade work because they are working to support themselves through countless other means like farming, construction work or clothes washing.

Of course, it is far more difficult to succinctly explain why a group does not prioritize their fair trade work. Sure it makes sense when you take the time to read, but many supporters and clients want to hear that fair trade is making a positive difference.

Other more successful groups are happy to smile and share during their interviews. Even in these interviews though, a moment comes when the group brings up a recent drop in orders. My guess is that the demand for fair trade artisan work, a decidedly luxury good, has not recovered post-recession.

Do I include this request for more orders in the videos? I’m often torn. I want to tell an honest story, but is it in poor taste to include their need for more orders in videos created for their clients?

I do not have the answers to those questions. As the only one who views all the interview footage, I likely overthink it. At the same time, it is exactly that position that requires me to be cautious.

My role affords me substantial power over the narrative. I am the bridge (no pun intended) between artisans and customers. I help amplify the artisan’s voice. I have a genuine responsibility to relay their words without swaying the message.

Unfortunately, that is impossible. Customers lead busy lives. I do not fault them for not wanting to sit through an amateur short film even if they prioritize solidarity in their lives.

As a result, I keep the artisans’ videos below five minutes, which I consider a stretch.

In five minutes, I cannot feature every answer from an interview or every word spoken by every artisan. So I cut and I paste until I have a straight-forward short film on a group. I try to feature the artisans’ voices and downplay my own as much as possible.

Privileging artisans’ voices is one of a few solutions I have implemented to reduce my natural bias.

Additionally, I will share these interviews with the artisans at our 12th annual gathering in March. Also, I will provide each group with access to the digital files, as well as a few hard copies of photos from my visits.

The intent is to honor that the artisans are equal, if not more important stakeholders to the customers.

What can a fair trade customer or retail store do on their end? Well, you can start by watching videos and seeking to learn more about artisans. Following that, ask fair trade collectives and intermediaries like Bridge of Hope to share the footage that does not make the cut. At the same time, recognize that some information is privileged. Transparency ends where privacy begins.

Most importantly, for me, for you, for anyone involved in fair trade, continue to face these challenges. Traditional commodity chains erase suffering. This work is some of the most capable at ending that injustice. It is not without issues, but this does not invalidate the larger goal at work.

8 thoughts on “Smile!: Am I biasing the narrative?”

  1. Most non-profits that work with the poor and seek funds from the US through commercials like the Christian Children’s Fund or whatever it is called now, shifted from sad looking children to smiling children, because they find people give more when the children look happy. The sad looking children generate guilt, and makes people turn away from it. I read this in a marketing report on non-profits a while ago. The reason for artisans to smile is to increase the likelihood of people like me buying their product. Of course, it is there choice to smile or not, but they should at least be informed how it may impact sales.

    1. Yeah, Daniela told me to make sure to mention that it has to do with the US clients.

      It is awful that smiles sell, but that information is also vital to the artisans.

      I did find that speaking Quechua usually got them to smile, so that was good.

  2. I figured that was why . . . it was meant to be a challenging question, more than an “I don’t know the answer question.” I was surprised you were buying into that . . .unless its part of your instruction. Just didn’t seem like you to tell people to do other than what was natural for them. Had I seen your answer sooner, I was going to suggest that you make sure the artisans knew that “smiles sell” in the US, so they could make an informed decision about their facial expression, but not necessarily insist that they do it. Looks like you or the organization already thought of that. It reminds me of when you and Keith were little, I sometimes kept the video camera going even if you were upset, or took pictures of not so happy moments–and people thought I was weird. But– those were part of life too. And, oddball that I am, I’m probably more likely to buy from the serious looking folks than the smilers . . . .

    1. I’m being told blatantly that they have to smile. That was an explicit instruction from the beginning. Did I not say that in the piece? It’s very relevant.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, but smiles sell it would seem. And if one group smiles and another doesn’t it creates a preference to help one group over another. At least, that’s my org’s thought process.

      I am getting better at engaging with them to bring a smile to their face. Whether that be through friendship or being honest about the power of a smile with regard to sales.

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