Lessons from co-constructing digital stories with vulnerable young people in Ethiopia.


Digital stories are increasingly popular with researchers as a means of communicating research findings in a succinct and visually compelling way. The stories, often presented as short, 2 – 3 minute films, can feature   still and moving images, first person scripted narrative, sound, graphics and illustrations.

Young Lives is using digital stories to give voice to young Ethiopians’ diverse experiences of young marriage and parenthood as part of YMAPS (Young Marriage and Parenthood Study)[1].  These digital stories capture rarely heard accounts of the daily reality of marriage, separation and parenthood as experienced by young men and women in two Ethiopian communities, one in Addis Ababa and one in rural Oromia.

Our approach and challenges encountered

Digital stories can be created by one person who selects and takes the images, writes the script, records the narrative then animates, produces and edits the film.  Given our time constraints we adapted this method so the researchers co-constructed the film material with the participants.

Before setting foot in any communities we had much to consider and plan.  

Young Lives is a longitudinal study and we had the possibility of involving participants with whom we have built up a rich life history over many years.  However, to do this we needed to stick to the ethical principles agreed for the wider study - we could not create our own rules for this particular project. Equally, we did not want to compromise the participants’ future willingness to be involved in the ongoing wider study.

We started with a series of questions: How could we involve the young people in this project and secure their informed consent? To what extent could we co-construct the stories? How would we protect the young people’s identity and location as we have committed to do as part of the Young Lives study – and still use image that would capture the viewers’ attention? How should we reciprocate appropriately for their time?

We began by reviewing all potential participants from our research and identified themes from their personal experiences. Next, we shortlisted individuals whose experiences best illustrated those themes considering also who would be most at ease with the process and with whom the researchers had already established rapport and familiarity[2]. Having identified potential participants there were a series of practical arrangements to gain access to the communities. The researchers then contacted the young people by phone and arranged meetings with those who could – and were happy – to take part.

Once in the communities the researchers worked collaboratively to co-construct the stories. They elicited the young people’s experience of marriage and parenthood and then worked with them to choose the images to  illustrate this, take the photos and print them using a portable printer. Using the photos, the young people then retold their experiences and the researcher recorded the narratives. These photos and narratives will feature in the final films. 

Initially, we wanted to create 8 stories. Given our timeframe and the complex reality of the process, we secured narratives and images for 6 stories. The team[3] then met to review and learn from  the process. 

Key lessons learned

  1. Timing and logistics

Although meetings were set up in advance with the young people, availability changed in more than one case due to shifting work, personal or family circumstances. The process involved lengthy journeys and overnight stays in rural areas whilst in Addis Ababa there were security issues to contend with.  It was vital to be flexible and be ready to adapt our plans according to these changing circumstances, right down to who participated in the end.

  1. Equipment, training and photography

We did not want to take conspicuous recording equipment into the communities and equally we did not deem it appropriate to use a professional photographer.  We trained the researchers to use the small portable printers and simple digital cameras. It is not our aim to create highly polished films but more time for photography training would still have been valuable. 

  1. The story: who decides?

The young people chose the focus and content of what they wanted to share, but we were not able to develop scripts to guide the narratives we recorded. To finish the films, we will work with an editor in the UK, in dialogue with the Ethiopian researchers. The challenge of the editing process will be to remain true to the original story.

  1. Protecting anonymity and generating empathy

Protecting the identities and location of the young people presented a practical issue: how would we generate empathy without using any identifying photographs?  In the time available, limited budget and without professional filmmakers, this called for creative, on the spot thinking from the researchers. Representational photos didn’t always make sense to the young people either, as they wanted their ‘best face’ in the films which included wearing nice clothes.  Taking time to explain the method, the purpose of the stories and the need for anonymity was a critical part of the process.

  1. Urban versus rural sites

In the rural area, researchers were able to take photos with the young people outside their homes. However, there were particular challenges in the urban area with some individuals concerned about photographs being taken outside their homes for fear of attracting attention. This restricts their stories to interiors; at the editing stage we may add external shots (taken in similar communities elsewhere in the area to protect anonymity).

  1. Reciprocity

A central part of the reciprocity, was to give the young people photos of themselves and their children. Some of them enjoyed this very much and the researchers felt it was both efficient and a positive part of the process. However, not everyone felt the same way. For example, the young men in the urban area did not want photos taken of their domestic circumstances and some were reluctant to be photographed at all (anonymised or not).  One young man said that there was nothing worth photographing in his home, and he was very specific in what could be photographed with the researcher. We would still recommend the printed photos for reciprocity, but be prepared to be flexible in each case.

What comes next?

Our digital films aim to enable young people to tell their experiences of marriage and parenthood.  We will share the edited films with the young people who co-created them and use them in our research communications for YMAPS.  You can follow the story on Twitter @yloxford and @YMAPStudy, Facebook and at www.younglives.org.uk and www.younglives-ethiopia.org.  If you have experience of co-constructing digital stories, we would like to hear from you.  Contact Young Lives Communications Manager julia.tilford@qeh.ox.ac.uk or message @yloxford 

[1] The Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS) is a programme of comparative research examining young marriage and parenthood in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Zambia.  The study is a collaboration between Young Lives and Child Frontiers.

[2] The Young Lives longitudinal study meant that the researchers had met with some of the potential interviewees multiple times over many years.

[3] A small team made up Young Lives research and communication staff from Ethiopia and Oxford.