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.