GUAGE: by Jennifer LaFontaine and Camille Turner socially engaged media


The Story of the Story Project

The Story Project is a collaborative community media art project that brought together women from downtown east Toronto, one of the most diverse communties in Canada. The women used photography and digital media to tell their stories and express their visions for social change. Thirty women - representing twenty-three languages - bridged their cultural and linguistic gaps and created a uniquely vibrant visual representation of their shared experience. They found power in coming together, sharing stories, and learning from one another. Their participation in the project also lead them to reflect on their experience of living in Toronto and explore new aspects of that experience 


In the photography classes, women learned how to use automatic and single lens reflex cameras and how to compose creative images. They went on photo shoots throughout the neighbourhood, practising their skills and looking for inspiring shots. Women went to the darkroom and learned how to print black and white photographs. They experienced the excitement of seeing the image first appear, and the pride of producing something on their own.

The beginner photography classes was led by three peer facilitators, long-time participants of the intermediate photography program who trained to teach a ten week basic class. This process placed them in leadership roles within the program, and encouraged their own skills development as they taught new women.

In the digital media class, women learned how to record and edit sound and video, shoot digital photographs, scan and manipulate images, and make websites. In this process, women became the creaters rather than the consumers of technology.

After the completion of the skills component, there was a coming together of all four groups for three Story Sessions in December. In the first Story Session, women shared black and white photographs that they had printed over the last few months, and talked about the reasons why they liked them. Some women connected to an image because of the feeling it evoked, such as serenity, comfort, or calm, while other women identified the value of representing themselves, people in their community, family, friends, and home. We talked about the story behind the photos and representing our own personality through the photographs. One woman talked about not wanting to seem self absorbed for printing photographs of herself, which lead to a discussion of how uncommon it actually was to see images of ourselves, in the media, on television, in magazines, and in day to day life, and the importance of making ourselves visible.

Women were asked to bring in objects that represent part of themselves, as a way to tell our stories. To get ideas about what aspects of ourselves we might want to share, we listed parts of our identity, and the list was long!

Women thought about which words on the list best represented them that day, as our identity shifts and changes from day to day and year to year. The words that they felt most strongly connected to were to guide them in deciding what kind of object they could bring to share their story. The lists that women made had some common themes but each list was distinct. One woman's list reflected her experiences with sexuality and gender identity, while another highlighted the importance of religion and culture in her life. One woman, who had been an artist for over forty years, explained the importance of the tools, books and images she used that were a reflection of her art and of herself. We shared ideas of objects to bring in to tell our stories, such as photographs, awards, musical instruments, food, art, writing, and religious artifacts.

The second Story Session began with a discussion of how language can be a powerful way to tell our stories, but, in a room where women are coming from so many different countries, it can also be a barrier to understanding one another. We made a list of all of the languages that women spoke in the room. Our group of thirty women represented over twenty languages! We broke into partners and taught one another our languages. The room was alive with laughter and sharing of so many languages .

And then the stories began! Women gathered in small groups and took out the objects that they brought to share. Family photographs of weddings, children, and holidays were passed around. We learned how to put on a sari from Bangladesh, and a sharsh from Somalia. We heard a Tamil Christian hymm and the Bengali national anthem. Several women brought books that influenced their spirituality. A woman from Ethiopia brought hand woven baskets that were given as wedding gifts between the bride's family and groom's family. We heard stories about generations of women passing down stories. One woman had Jamaican bangles that were passed down from her grandmother to her mother to her. Another woman met with her mother and grandmother every year to make Christmas cookies. Shells, a jewelry box, origami, poetry, drums, knitting, and trophies were all objects that told stories of these women's lives.

At the third Story Session, we feasted! It is amazing how food brings people together better than anything else. Women from different countries discovered the similarities between the dishes they cooked. Not only did we feast, but we exchanged recipes, tried new dishes and learned the stories behind the food. One woman's family was Japanese Canadian, and she brought mandarin oranges, a sacred fruit that is placed in front of the altar in Shinto religion. Another woman spoke of all the food allergies that she had, and it's impact on her life, so she shared soymilk. Another woman made borscht, a Ukranian beet soup that was taught to her by her mother and grandmother.

In the end, we talked about what we learned from one another. Women told about how telling their stories made them feel proud, happy and connected. But sharing stories in not always a simple thing. It is difficult to share ourselves with people we do not know that well, and our lives are not always happy. Women also identified feelings such as apprehension, shyness and sadness when sharing their stories. We learned about values, customs and cultures, about our similarities and differences, and gained a newfound appreciation of one another. Women felt that this process was important because it increased our understanding of one another, helped us accept differences and feel connected as women. One woman explained that she found out these simple things can bring her joy. With many women away from their families, they felt a sense of kinship and community which filled a gap in their lives and created a new support network. When asked to sum up with three words the process of sharing their stories, they came up with the words "sisterhood", "friendship", and "celebration".

In January 2004, the groups returned to their skills workshops, and worked towards creating material for the exhibit. In the darkroom and at the computers, women produced vibrant photographs, videos and sound. Their stories came through these mediums loud and clear. This was a real celebration. The final result is a dynamic community collaboration in the context of media arts that challenges the audience to broaden their understanding of who is visible in the media, and who is making that media.