What did the Visual Storytelling event in Vienna give us

A journey worth making by Ben Magnus Hausler

This text is not a “how to decolonize” or a history lesson on colonialism, but rather a reflection on the last week and the learning journey it entailed. A reflection on the “Decolonise. Now! – visual storytelling training” by Javier, Hamza and Julieta, which was centred around decolonizing storytelling in International Voluntary Service (IVS).
The training was held in Vienna in the beginning of May 2024 and was organised by Grenzenlos – an NGO from Vienna that is involved with intercultural exchange and volunteering. 

As I myself am still in the beginning of learning more about colonial history and how to decolonize my thinking and hopefully through doing so, contributing to decolonizing our world, I hope for you to connect with this text and ponder the topic a little longer.
To give you more perspective on my position in the topic of decolonization: I am a self-identified man and am white, therefore being in a very privileged position where I come from – Central Europe.
I try and tried to reflect on my position as a privileged person in the training and now as the author of this text about the training continuously in order to check my privilege. I am aware, that I get more opportunities in our society than others, especially BIPOC people, or that I am more likely to be listened to than others. Not because I may or may not have something smarter to say but because I am a white man.
I consciously entered the training space with the mindset of wanting to learn. I consciously waited for other people to give their thoughts before throwing my own into the room in order to give their experience more space and thus being able to learn from them.

During the training, I asked myself why I was about to question what one of my friends had said. Was it due to them being “wrong” or due to them living a different experience to mine that was still valid? Often, I decided to inquire more about my friend’s experience in order to understand them better, which lead to them not sounding “wrong” to me any more and the whole dialogue becoming an enriching experience.
It was a true pleasure learning a bit about chiShona – one of Zimbabwe’s 16 official languages – and the way pronouns are or rather are not used in it. Or learning about Kabaddi – an Indian team sport, I would absolutely love to try one day.

As to why I am writing this text: All my friends from the training would be more than capable of writing this very text. They are smart, creative and know a lot about decolonization and service work. It just so happens that I studied writing and am currently not in an IVS organization, thus making writing this text the best way for me to contribute.
So while reading this text, dear reader, please question it. Question my statements and question yourself. Question your thoughts and question mine. Question the status quo and try to think about where the status quo came from. It might have colonial origins.

Before the training, I wanted to have discussions about colonialism and race and learn more, in order to better my writing, but I feared, I would hurt people, especially BIPOC people, in the process, by asking uneducated or insensitive questions. Further, I was not sure, if I could be able to contribute in this training, due to my lack of knowledge of the topic or IVS.
I remember carefully entering the hostel where the training took place, unsure where to go, ending up sitting down in the lobby, pretending to read a book as to not seem as out of place as I felt. When I noticed two people busily working on a laptop, managing calls and seeming all around very active in planning something, I decided to approach them and ask if they happened to be part of the training. It turned out they were in fact two of the three facilitators: Javier and Hamza. Their warm welcome stripped away the first layer of anxiety, and I was able to feel the excitement that lay underneath for what was to come. It is thanks to them, that the training became such an enjoyable place of community and learning.
On the first day, they set a good foundation for what would follow, with an exercise, where we all could share our fears, hopes and ways to contribute to the training on post-it-notes. After everyone had put their last note onto three big pieces of paper, they summarized our thoughts and put them into context. From this exercise, we got a first glimpse into what a diverse bunch of skilful people there were in that room. The trainers also put into perspective what we could expect from the training and lastly, in the most empathic way, they summarized the given fears and gave advice as well as examples on how to handle these scenarios. Following that exercise, we collaboratively set up a guideline-list of how to interact in a way that felt safe for everyone. Feeling wise, these two exercises created a save space in which we could share and learn freely, that contributed to this week becoming as wonderful as it was.

In the training itself, we critically analysed existing IVS campaigns and brought the imagery used and it’s connotations into our consciousness. We got introduced to the overarching concept of colonialism and how its influences still reach into today’s societies, power structures and interaction dynamics.
This week showed me that there is still so much out there to be learned for me personally, about colonial history and colonial structures, but it also showed me systematic patterns I could look out for and try to work against, even without having the full picture in my head yet.
Especially looking out for power dynamics: We learned, that decolonizing service work means to strive for a collaborative partnership between volunteers and partners. This means that one should not go out there volunteering with the mindset of bringing superior knowledge to a place or to people, but to go somewhere to exchange knowledge and help where help is wanted.
Equipped with this and further input, we set out to create a few short films under the guidance of Hamza, Julieta and Javier, who did an amazing job in breaking down the complex process of creating an interesting story as well as actually filming it and working through the post-production process. In the short time of one day, we created 10 impressive short films.
We watched the finished products together: a room filled with 24 people, absolutely brimming with proudness for each other’s work and their own, giving constructive feedback and appreciation for each other.

And now, that I am “done” with the training? I am not done with it at all. I am just starting out! I already see how my thoughts are changing. They change step by step, but some colonial structures already seem more conscious, more identifiable to me.

I went to a museum just a few days ago. The castle “Juval” in South Tirol – Italy. It belongs to a mountaineering icon – Reinhold Messner – that I love to hear stories about. To give some context: he has climbed several of the highest mountains in Tibet, crossed the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and crossed the South Pole. Up until today he has created seven museums centred around mountaineering, of which I visited “Myth of mountain” which is a permanent art exhibition, showing pieces from Africa, Asia and Australia he has collected during his life. It is an impressive museum and beautifully curated, the way that the pieces are skilfully placed throughout the renovated castle, the view from the mountain on which the castle resides, drawing one even deeper into the experience.
But after having participated in the “Decolonize. Now!”-training I also saw flaws that I would most likely not have seen before. I deliberately wrote “pieces from Africa, Asia and Australia” before, because yes, sometimes it was written on a plaque, that a mask came from India, Japan, etc. but more often than not the labels did not specify the origin of the pieces. They did not include explanations about their native origins, significance or use in their culture, just surface level explanations of for example what the painting of a deity meant. Sometimes there was a slight explanation of what the piece was used for or what it meant. But mostly, what it meant to Messner.
It was still a nice museum; I still love hearing Messner’s adventurous stories of how he climbed seemingly impossible to climb mountains, but in the instance of this museum I feel like my perception was broadened. Like a veil was lifted from my eyes and I could now look further. In the instance of this museum, I was able to see the colonial viewpoint that had been part of curating this experience – even though I would like to imagine this not having been done deliberately, we live in a society and our society is interwoven with colonial systems that were put in place by colonial powers and still take effect today. I imagine the curators not having had a conscious thought of curating an exhibition that has colonial traits but what came out of it still perpetuates colonialism in its own way – no matter the intention!
This is what I have been thinking a lot about these days. The “unconscious colonialism”. I imagine it still hurting the same for people that recognise it for what it is. And I believe it could be prevented if one was conscious of it.
Due to the training I was able to think of a few steps this could be worked against, in the instance of that museum at least: They could have named the specific countries and places of origin, they could have asked local people from where the pieces originated from, for a more extensive context the pieces existed in and what they meant to them, they could have named the artists that created the pieces, etc.
At least feeling a little more conscious of this, now gives me hope, that I as a writer might also be able to use my pen or rather keyboard to create art in collaboration with others. To learn and maybe also to teach something in the process.

In this spirit of exchange and learning from one another, I asked my friends from the training what their main take way from the past week was or if they had also had a moment since then, where they saw the learned skills take effect:

Raksha said: “It was like a space where the wholesome souls exchanged their creativity. It felt like a creative enlightenment. Which was very clear with my reaction, when we were having the movie-screening on the last day, when we saw all the videos and gave feedback and our thoughts and comments about all that we created. I got a little overwhelmed, it was not sad, I was just overwhelmed with the creativity in the space. Like how diverse the videos were, how much effort the person put in, how thoughtful and creative the whole synopsis and the whole thought process, filming process and editing process was. It was clearly visible in each and every thing that we showed and did not show because we were there, like we were there and every single one of us experienced it. So I think that was overwhelming. I got a little emotional there. Other than that, I really enjoyed the small serious and not so serious talks that we had here and there. That was really cool because, then, I got to know how people think and how some people could be very thoughtful about certain things.”

Gül summarized: “I have spent a week in Vienna though all the diversity included in our group which was a spark moment for me.  I felt the proudness and reality of process on the way of decolonizing IVS! I always believe, if we want to hear real problems and produce real working solutions, all parts of society should sit on one round circle. The participants of visual story telling project proofed that we were all pieces of one global cake. All around the world! Just colorful and beautiful!”

Now that you know you are part of the global cake, think of what flavour you want to add to it. We are all in this together, and it is a journey to decolonize one’s mind. I believe it is a journey worth making.