Storytelling and ethics, interview by Olena Vozniak, CANactions Kyiv, September 2019

(Note: following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, CANactions was forced to restructure their activities. Their website also underwent significant changes and most of the pre-2022 archived content is no longer available. Below is a copy of the English version of the text.)

Manuel Francisco Sousa is a practitioner and researcher in the areas of documentary and portraiture, a PhD research student at the University of the Arts, London. Before curating the seminar devoted to the storytelling and ethics he discussed with CANactions the importance of storytelling as a research method as well as the communicative skill.

You have been living in Ukraine for several years. What is the story behind it?

Currently I divide most of my time between Lisbon, where I have my main atelier, London, for university commitments, and Kyiv, where I am conducting my research’s fieldwork. But I have been coming to Kyiv for almost 10 years now. There is no big story, I was brought on my first visit to the city in January 2010, pretty much as a tourist. After that, I had some friends here and I had some opportunities to produce work for some of my gallery projects at the time, and so I returned occasionally over the next few years. In 2014, in the aftermath of the revolution, I decided to stay. I did a documentary work, “Beyond the square”, that year, and then I got to know other regions of Ukraine in the East and in the South. I have been here regularly since then. But I think the real question should be how in all this time my Russian and Ukrainian are still so poor, but to that one I do not have a good answer or excuse.

What inspired you to become a practitioner and researcher in the areas of documentary and portraiture?

I have many inspirations and references. In literature and other arts, from authors and researchers within related fields, from philosophical thought, from my teachers and colleagues, and from many practitioners who do thought-provoking work that pushes the boundaries and questions the assumptions of the field. I could not mention them all here. But, reflecting on myself, I would say it has to do with how I understand the medium – what I understand to be my relationship with it, and how it is a place for a relationship to others. Portraiture in particular is something that exists face to face with an other. That relationship and mutual understanding, to me, is profoundly significant, so I think that is why my practice and research has gravitated towards those areas.

What is the significance of storytelling?

That is a very big question in itself, and there are many perspectives from which to try to formulate an answer. Stories are intrinsic to human existence. Stories speak to and help shape the way we understand the world and tell our lives and experiences, and those of others. On a more profound level, and to reference Adriana Cavarero, our own identity is a story that is exposed and given to the idea of another; it is an answer to the most basic question, “who are you”?

So, we can understand storytelling as something inherently relational, and engaged with our knowledge of the world, ourselves, and others. On a more general level, it is part of our dreams and aspirations, cultures and communities, political actions, and our personal historical accounts. And in such, storytelling is linked to power and agency, and it can be as enlightening as it can obfuscate. Plato famously described the banishing of poets from his ideal state, in the Republic.

Storytelling practices help define who we are, thus when we talk about storytelling the questions of representation, and of ethics are always present. Who has the power to tell stories of others? Whose voice and agency are present in any given story? Who do the stories we tell empower or give visibility to? And who becomes invisible or disenfranchised? Storytelling is a practice that creates and enables possibilities of thought, perception and action, and its significance is thus both ethical and existential, inseparable from our being in the world.

What are the benefits of storytelling both as a research method and also as a communicative skill?

The use of storytelling within research can benefit a more comprehensive production of knowledge, and can privilege the understanding of different ways of knowing over the collection of raw data. It can address and represent what the research contexts mean both to the researcher and the participants, how their experiences relate both to the research and to each other. A research based solely in the evaluation of a set of criteria determined by the researcher can ignore, marginalise, and dismiss the voices of others, whereas stories reflect identities and lived experiences. They can open the research to a dialogue with the meanings and interpretations that other participants bring into it, and their own diverse understandings of the research’s concepts and objectives.

Regarding the second part of the question, as a way of communicating, narratives and storytelling can represent, position, and give meaning to one’s personal, social, and political contexts. And they can create a relationship between the research and its audience.

What story has impressed you the most recently?

The word ‘impressed’ can have many different meanings, and by story you could mean a news story, or a fictional text, a non-fiction documentary, or a mix of any of these and others. It can mean many types of stories. Also, stories are many times not just one, but a multiplicity of perspectives, voices, or moments. In fiction, I was recently impressed by a couple of films – ‘Roma’ by Alfonso Cuarón, and ‘A fantastic woman’, which is a Chilean film about a transgender young woman. In non-fiction, I found two books particularly interesting because of their approach to oral histories. They bring together accounts taken from in-depth interviews which are edited into first-person narratives – ‘Lavil’, a collection of stories from Haiti following the earthquake that hit the country some years ago, and ‘Palestine Speaks’, with stories of life under occupation.

Text: Olena Vozniak