"We ain't getting nowhere without women."

Lauren L. Finch

Writer, editor and translator

Art is a powerful tool for change. It can attract attention, seed empathy and inspire participation and action in a way that words alone cannot.

But a well-designed visual takes time, energy and resources that many organisations and individual changemakers just don’t have.

That’s where Fine Acts comes in. The non-profit brings together activists, artists and techies from around the world to collaborate on projects for social justice. One of the ways they accomplish this is through creative bootcamps called “Sprints,” which then nourishes TheAmmo.org, their free vault of curated graphics that changemakers anywhere can use or adapt for non-commercial purposes. TheAmmo.org is currently in beta, with plans to expand over the next several months.

We wanted to learn more, so we recently spoke with Campaigns Director Svetla Baeva. Svetla is also a 2018 Fulbright Scholar, and as part of the program, she works on effective practices in digital campaigning and mobilisation at Change.org in the US.

What is Fine Acts?

Fine Acts is a global non-profit for socially engaged creative solutions that operates across issues and borders. We believe in the power of art and play. As an organisation, we design creative actions and campaigns, as well as formats that drive human rights innovation.

Why a focus on visual artwork? What importance does it have in a campaign?

Effective communication is not simply about getting your message out. “If they only knew what we know, they’ll support us” just doesn’t cut it anymore. In the context of information overload, research shows that opinions are changed not through more information but through empathy-inducing experiences. What is more, if people perceive information as threatening or contradicting how they see themselves or their values, they’ll simply ignore it (Stanford 2018).

For this reason, campaigns need to strategically tap into what shapes people’s feelings and values – and what better way to do it than visual storytelling! When done well, visual content shows, rather than tells, and goes straight to one’s heart.

Tell us more about the concept of playtivism. 

Activism can get quite dreary and difficult somеtimes! When in it for the long-haul, many activists tend to burn out, working long hours, neglecting loved ones and themselves, and giving into the immense frustration that comes from slow and incremental change.

Furthermore, to stay novel and strong, activism needs to constantly evolve. It needs collaboration across disciplines. That’s why incorporating play and experimentation in activism is so vital. TED just published an important talk by our Director and Founder, Yana Buhrer Tavanier, on the value of what we’ve dubbed ‘playtivism’ – play in activism. In play, we grow our communities, we create bolder and better ideas, we learn, we laugh and we keep fear and gloom at bay. With play, we seek new ways to empower activism.

Let’s talk about the Sprints. If I were a fly on the wall, what would I see?

You’ll see visual artists – graphic designers, typographers, illustrators, filmmakers and photographers – hard at work on a specific social justice topic. Participants are briefed by an activist expert and then have 48 hours to develop and produce a visual artwork that communicates a respective message. You might find them setting up a photo shoot, filming a video for Instagram, drawing on paper, or cutting out their work and painting.

What benefit does an in-person group setting have on the production of visual content? Do the sprints have an element of community building or “activating” artists?

Through our formats, we inspire the creative communities to become active supporters of the human rights movement. I would say this is Sprints’ biggest impact. Bringing visual artists to work together over a weekend on a specific human rights issue is an exhilarating challenge for them. The artist groups are usually diverse and include people who have previously worked on the issue through their artworks and others who are newbies and besides curiosity and open-mindedness, might not know much at all. It’s a great chance to get people acquainted with a pressing social problem. They get to create a visual artwork, interpreting the issue using their own artistic style, experience and vision.

Also, sometimes it can be quite daunting to work on human rights issues. Many artists are afraid that they mind offend someone (the community in question or activists) or send the wrong message. So, a lot of artists refrain from working on social justice issues. That’s why Sprints is a great place to experiment. It allows you to ask questions and present your ideas without judgment. The artists are fully supported along the way by our pool of expert mentors. Our Sprints always end with a pop-up exhibition, which showcases the works. The exhibition brings together diverse audiences, which helps us avoid another frequently faced problem by activists – preaching to the converted.

TheAmmo.org artwork is Creative Commons-licensed. Why? From your perspective, how important is sharing and collaboration to achieving social change?

All the artworks on TheAmmo.org are licensed under Creative Commons, which allows works to be shared and adapted for free, non-commercially. The visual content can even be remixed, transformed or used to create other materials. This can all be done just by giving the appropriate credit.

It’s only the big NGOs or international organisations that have the resources or network to work with visual artists. Thus, non-profits and activists with less resources can use the artworks on the platform and adapt them in any way they want so it works for their specific context.

We plan to build TheAmmo.org into a global arsenal of powerful visual content to support human rights campaigns and communication. Later this year, we’ll be launching a fully-fledged platform, an upgrade from our current early beta version.

Many more physical and online Sprints editions are planned over the next year, which will fuel content on TheAmmo.org on a range of human rights topics. We also urge artists to contribute to the platform on a topic they are passionate about. And we also encourage other organisations to license their artworks under creative commons so that they can be used not only in one project but many, across the globe.

What’s been the impact of TheAmmo.org so far? Do you have any examples of campaigns or actions in which some of TheAmmo.org’s artwork has been used?

Since we launched TheAmmo.org in March earlier this year, we’ve had hundreds of downloads. Each Sprints edition was strategically organised around key international human rights days or months. Our first edition in February focused on women’s rights issues, specifically domestic violence and gender stereotypes, while our second edition in May dealt with LGBT+ rights. The created works were then made public for Women’s History Month and Pride Month. For example, our works were used in Pride campaigns from Botswana to Berlin to Sofia. The more visually appealing protests are for the media, the more coverage they’ll get in the media and thus, more visibility.

Throughout the experience of TheAmmo.org and Sprints, are there any big lessons that you’ve come away with? 

One of the biggest lessons that we’ve come away as a team with Sprints and TheAmmo.org is that visual content that evokes positive emotions works far better than imagery that makes you feel sad, helpless and forlorn. Over time, we’ve also gotten better at briefing the artists on the issue at hand, focusing on concrete sub-issues, part of wider human rights issues. It gives people direction. We’ve also learned to provide messaging and slogans as references for the artists so they aren’t working in the dark.

Imagine someone in the world wants to undertake a similar project. What three things would you say are absolutely necessary to do so successfully?

When working with an artist or creative, it’s important to give them a general framework, but don’t cramp their style. They may have a perspective that you’ve never thought about, which might be scary, but it can also be fresh and innovative.

We encourage visual artists and NGOs to play with positive messaging even when communicating a difficult issue. Try to tap into positive emotions such as hope, happiness, and inspiration.

And of course, it’s also about making a human connection. So have some beers and keep it light.

Check out the full collection of social change visuals on TheAmmo.org and learn more about Fine Acts on their website.

Top image: “We ain’t getting nowhere without women.” Art by Rozalina Burkova for Fine Acts. CC-BY-NC-SA

Lauren L. Finch

L. Finch is a writer, editor and translator who has spent the better part of a decade shaping narratives that inspire empathy and action.