Labin Rai from Sikkim faced a harsh childhood. Violence in the community and at home kept his early days in chaos. He dropped out of school early because the teacher physically abused him at times. ‘After that I struggled a lot, sometimes working as a cleaner in trucks, sometimes as a driver, sometimes doing other jobs’, he remembers. Finally, he saved enough money to buy a camera and with this camera, he began taking pictures of both rights and wrongs in his community. When he joined Video Volunteers, Labin knew what stories he wanted to bring out. He knew about the ethnic misunderstanding that happens in small communities. He knew of the deforestation going on in rural parts of North India. And what he captured with his camera are stories far more stunning that many of the stories shown on mainstream Indian news channels.
Labin is one of many unique reporters from Video Volunteers, a non profit organisation that delivers its name: Videos from Volunteers. Founded on the truth that no news agency or TV channel can report all of the issues that happen in our societies, especially not the issues related to the poor and rural population, Video Volunteers strives to bring marginalised voices to the fore. If someone from a similar community can take up the stance to bring out these unheard voices (India Unheard is one of the programs by Video Volunteers), then even such small places will be able to speak up and out to the big world. That is the true essence of Video Volunteers.
Jessica Mayberry founded video Volunteers in 2003 while spending time in India. Jessica is a TED Fellow, it is just one of the many awards she has won and the foundation itself has many awards likewise. Since then it has come to grow as a multi-national non-profit organisation with headquarters in New York and operational offices in Brazil and Goa, India. The volunteers in India are taught by Stalin K, an Indian documentary maker with his own great ideas. Jessica herself spends her time between India and New York. For this edition of Verse, Jessica has been kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
What led to the conception of Video Volunteers?
Jessica: There are hundreds of millions of poor people in India who don’t have a voice – meaning, the media doesn’t provide them the information they need, and their knowledge and ideas and stories are absent from the media. I started to see that today, rather than bemoaning the challenges of the mainstream, the poor can ‘make their own media’.
What were the first days like, especially keeping in mind the context of India?
Jessica: In the early days, I was spending most of my time out in the field training people, learning from rural women, being inspired. I still get to do that, but now I have a full organisation to run, so other people get to train the community members in video, so you could say the early days were more fun. It’s always hard to start a social enterprise or an NGO, but it is also very rewarding – and it makes me feel lucky to have been born in this time in history, when it is so easy to create cross-cultural exchanges and to work across time zones.
What has the reaction and support from government authorities been like?
Jessica: We are under their radar. Sometimes community producers run into problems with authorities, but also, there are times where the producers take help from local officials, or publicise programs that they run, and they find that beneficial. We do a lot of work on corruption, and that can of course attract attention. But our community producers also find people locally who are doing good things too.
How welcome are the general public to this idea? Do they open up to talk about their problems easily?
Jessica: People in villages are no different from us. Just as we love to publicise our daily activities on facebook, so they love to share their ideas on camera, in our community films. But it’s not always easy. People like to talk about what other people are doing that’s bad – ie,the government! But to talk about what they are doing, that’s hard – domestic violence, caste-ism – that is harder. But we’ve been lucky about that in many of our areas, we’ve been working for five years now, and we’ve had the staying power to show people that they can now open up about the tough things
What notable challenges have you faced, as a company or as field agents?
Jessica: We’re trying to professionalise our network of community producers so that we can expand more, by partnering with the mainstream media. But so many of our people face challenges that make it very hard to work the way the media will expect – they wake up at 5am to cook and clean; to get an interview, they sit for three hours on a bus, and then the official won’t talk to them. They have to courier their footage to us because there is no internet. These are the realities of working with the poor, and so we have to find partners (media buyers) who also buy into the mission.
Who are the major supporters behind VV? Has the collaboration with other NGOs/INGOs been fruitful?
Jessica: Our biggest supporters have been the Knight Foundation, Echoing Green, UNDP and a few others. And yes, NGOs are so crucial to our work. We got our start through six NGOs giving us the seed money to start our first programs. Only after we could say, ‘look, these local NGOs think media will make, a difference and are willing to pay for it, we must be on to something!’ to encourage funders to come on board.
What are your future plans for expansion, particularly Nepal?
Jessica: We would love to come to Nepal! We have a dear friend Thomas Kelly, www.thomaslkellyphotos.com, and we hope to bring Video Volunteers to more places through him.
What would be the number one thing you’d tell to a ‘video volunteer’ that wants to set afoot capturing the hidden stories in our society?
Jessica: Think about what you have, that no professional journalist has. Learn to discover the power of your own community connections, and the fact that you are someone who has lived through these hardships, and use this personal connection to become a valued journalist.’
We at Verse would like to thank Jessica for her time. We wish her luck and hope that all her future efforts be successful. Jessica can be found at:
Watch our videos: indiaunheard.videovolunteers.org