Featured Stories

on being a storyteller, not a storytaker

by David Chrisinger

AUG 24, 2021

Back in early August 2014, on a relentlessly hot day in northwestern Iraq, thousands of fighters loyal to the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), armed with hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military equipment seized from the Iraqi soldiers who abandoned it, flooded into the district of Sinjar, about 75 miles west of Mosul, like a plague of locusts. With the collapse of the house of cards that was the Iraqi Army, hundreds of thousands of Yazidi people who called Sinjar home found themselves surrounded by die-hard jihadists intent on one thing only: To kidnap, rape, and sell into slavery the women and children.   

About 40-50,000 Yazidi people retreated to the relative safety of Mount Sinjar, a crusty ridge thought to be the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. Those who couldn’t flee were rounded up. ISIS fighters marched many of the men into nearby fields, where they executed them with wild sprays of automatic gun fire. Next they enslaved over 6,000 women and children in prisons, training camps, and even the personal homes of fighters across eastern Syria and western Iraq. The Yazidi’s, a religious minority in Iraq, were nothing more than heretics in the worldview ISIS promoted.

Less than a week later, a coalition led by the United States launched a series of airstrikes aimed at disrupting the terror group’s movements. Not long after that, another sort of army showed up—this one composed of journalists and photographers—to report on what was happening. Those women and children who had managed to escape their captors became the lead characters in countless media reports. While there were many thoughtful people working tirelessly to tell these stories as responsibly as they could, there were some who seemed to be more interested in piling up clicks with graphic tails of being “auctioned off for sex” or “held as sex slaves” or “sold off as Jihadi brides.”

I have no idea how many clicks such stories racked up. What I do know is that whenever we drift from storytelling to that sort of storytaking, we risk retraumatizing the people we’re supposedly trying to help. Not only that, but whenever we plaster lurid stories and pictures concerning sexual violence in conflict across the Internet, we help normalize such violence as a legitimate weapon of war. And if that weren’t enough, these sorts of sensationalized stories of catastrophe and trauma mostly fail to achieve their intended goals of inspiring action and political reform, according to Lilie Chouliaraki, a professor of media and communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. After more than two decades of studying what she calls “disaster news,” Chouliaraki says such stories reinforce the idea that unless sufferers are “deemed worthy” of media coverage, they are not deserving of a Western audience’s concern. “The sufferers,” she writes, get caught in an “ambivalent existence that simultaneously asserts and denies their humanity.” The result, Chouliaraki says, is a paralysis among readers and viewers and a failure to engage in “ethical action in response to the onslaught of human suffering as they become overwhelmed by their own narcissism, unable to discern on what basis, and for whom, to act.” 

It’s incredibly difficult work to be a storyteller, and so I hesitate to be condemnatory of others’ work, especially when I don’t know what was in their hearts or in what context they made their decisions. And it’s that realization I want to highlight—that just as each of us would hate to be stereotyped or to have our worst experiences described in graphic detail, devoid of context, for public consumption—the same is true for the survivors we encounter in our work as storytellers. I’ve never met another writer or photojournalist who confessed to wanting to retraumatize survivors, or who wanted to mindlessly feed a machine that leads their audiences to “become overwhelmed by their own narcissism.” Put another way: Nobody wants to be a taker of stories.

Our intent, however, is largely irrelevant.

So where do we go from here? For me, it means we must look to experienced professionals who have excelled at what they do. How do they do their work? What sort of approach do they take? How do they understand what it is they do?

Leslie Thomas is the founder of ART WORKS Projects and an Emmy-award winning art director who helped the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism develop a set of incredibly helpful best practices that, among other things, remind us to never forget the wider contexts of the stories we seek to tell. To tell fuller, and more impactful, stories of sexual violence—and to avoid pushing away our audience and marginalizing the survivors we worth with—storytellers should:

  • Give a rounded account of survivors’ lives and consider that there may be other crimes beyond rape that also matter a great deal.
  • Avoid excessive focus on details that might sexualize or sensationalize the story. Such stories might actually limit public sympathy for survivors.
  • Help your audience see potential solutions by doing justice to the full political and social context in which the sexual violence occurred.

Many of the best practices highlighted by the Dart Center, which I’ve used in my own work as a writer, are detailed in my latest book, which was recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing about Trauma is part memoir and part writing craft book that shows readers how to use various writing tools to uncover and effectively tell stories of trauma that lead to connection and understanding.  

Those storytellers who followed such practices—who respected the Yazidi peoples’ rights, safety, and dignity—learned, for example, that the survivors were anything but passive victims defined by their rape and enslavement; they resisted at nearly every opportunity. They also thoughtfully considered the potential consequences survivors could face for detailing the worst days of their lives to anyone with a Wi-Fi connection and took appropriate steps to protect the people they spoke to. Not only was it possible for ISIS fighters use irresponsible media coverage to find and re-enslave women and children who had escaped their rapists, but the Yazidi people themselves draw a clear line in the sand when it comes to sexual relations before marriage and outside the confines of the Yazidi community. It wasn’t clear in 2014, when the first reports of what had happened in Sinjar were published, whether the survivors being profiled in major news outlets would be “found out” by their families or their neighbors and whether their lives would get even worse once the truth of their experiences was brought to light. Fortunately, the spiritual leader of the Yazidi’s has since granted reprieve to any Yazidi person who survived their enslavement. Effective and ethical storytellers, in other words, never lose sight of the history, culture, and politics of a place and the people who call that place home.

As ART WORKS Project takes time this year to remember all the incredible stories it has helped tell over the past 15 years—and all the positive change those stories have helped bring about—I encourage you to notice the ways in which Marcus Bleasdale, for example, widens the aperture of his camera to show the rich layers of a place and of its people. Or how Bassam Khabieh found a way to paint a fuller picture of life and death under a tyrannical Syrian government that routinely slaughters innocent civilians. Their images do more than shine a light on suffering, death, and trauma. They tell a story. They show what has happened, and continues to happen; what effect that has on people’s lives, both good and bad; and they show who the helpers are, and they point to possible solutions. They help us to see, to understand.   

Anyone who takes the time to bear witness to the stories they tell couldn’t possibly fall prey to the fatalism and hopelessness that often come when stories are simply taken.  

As long as there is life, I remind myself whenever this work feels overwhelming, there is hope. And as long as there is hope, there is the possibility that we might pull together, as humans, to ensure tomorrow will be better for all those who suffer today.

David Chrisinger smiles and wears a light dress shirt and dark blazer

David Chrisinger is the author, most recently, of Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing about Trauma and directs the writing program at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. He also teaches personal essay writing for The War Horse, an award-winning nonprofit newsroom that covers the human impact of military service, and his for his next book, The Unhappy Warrior, David is retracing the steps of Ernie Pyle to find out what made him America’s all-time favorite war correspondent.