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Case Studies in Cross-Media Journalism and Collaborative Story Telling

“This work is really moving the field forward, disrupting our physical and digital world to create new experiences and new movements. These are people who had a vision for a future of storytelling and went out and started to do it,” said PhotoEx moderator Wendy Levy, introducing a panel of artists presenting their work as case studies in modern multi-media journalism. 

Pierre Terdjman and Benjamin Girette, Zohar Kfir, Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Nonny de la Pena have each tackled topics that have surely been covered in traditional ways, but with massive shifts in media technology and the dizzying pace at which information travels, they have adopted unconventional methods to tell their stories and reach audiences.

Taking an analog street-style approach, Girette and Terdjamn’s #Dysturb project is a prime example of how artists are rethinking how, and where, that work can be shown. In the age of screens, #Dysturb sees our streets as still being the greatest social media – and they’re clearly on to something.

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#Dysturb presentation

“Instead of waiting for things to move, or for there to be room in newspapers or magazines, we decided to print really big pictures on simple paper and paste them on the street, to create a relationship between the pictures and the people on the street,” Terdjman said. In a matter of months, the pair were wheat-pasting large format images of underreported international events all over Paris. Those photos have spawned a network that has spread worldwide.

Zohar Kfir began working with B’tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, in 2013. The organization distributes small, handheld video cameras to people living in conflict zones in Gaza and the West Bank, and provides fundamental training that allows citizens living under occupation a chance to document their everyday lives.

After what she called a depressing eight-hour viewing session at the B’tselem archives in 2008, she realized that the footage, which she had initially intended to use in an experimental video project, needed to be distributed in a wider, more accessible and concrete way. Her solution was Points of View, a map-based, interactive, documentary project that she said would “weave together the video for change movement, citizen journalism and human rights into a unique trans-media project that evolves over time.”  The resulting website is a virtual landing page for a constantly updated series of video trails, connected geographically but that “resist the fixed conclusions that can be provoked by linear documentary film making.”

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Points of View presentation

As web-based, non-linear, long form documentary projects go, Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s Hollow  piqued the interest of the Peabody Awards, World Press Photo, SXSW and Filmmaker Magazine this year. The project, which addresses the generational depopulation of a county in rural West Virginia, is a cascade of audio, video, still imagery, slideshows, archival material, data visualizations and sweeping design prowess, all rolled into an fully interactive web-based experience.

“Growing up nearby the county that was documented, I was very aware of the issues of brain-drain and youth exodus, because I was part of that problem,” McMillion said, “When I returned to make this project, I wanted it to be collaborative, because Appalachia has been pretty misrepresented since the 1960s. I wanted this project to turn all those stereotypes on their head, and to be available to the world.”

By matching personal stories with data, McMillion said she was able to create a powerful narrative that not only spoke to specific issues facing the community she worked with, but was told through the lens of the people themselves. Much like Points of View, McMillion and a small team of designers who worked on the project, allowed the story to be led by direct experiences, and for the story to then dictate the look, feel and functionality of Hollow.

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Slide from Hollow presentation

The final case study, presented by Nonny de la Peña, proved to be one of the most provocative of the day, fueling an important conversation about fabricated realities and immersive journalism in the sphere of politics and constitutional rights.  de la Peña, who has a background in print journalism, has been the driving force behind a series of virtual environments that utilize source material to replicate news events, including her controversial Gone Gitmo, project, where she created a version of the notorious prison in Second Life and invited people to experience a virtual simulation of ‘enhanced interrogation.’

“We really have this connection to our virtual selves, and it’s a powerful experience, but we’re hard wired to draw representations of ourselves as real,” she said, “so this idea of immersive journalism is to take that feeling and bring it into the gaming platform and virtual worlds. I put audiences on scene, in virtual reconstructions of scenes, I use material from real photos, films, documents, everything gathered in traditional journalistic methodologies, and then throw in that sense of presence to try and make people have a connection to the stories.”

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Project Syria presentation

Some audience members during the Q&A following de la Peña’s presentation wondered if turning often violent and unsettling real-life events into game-like situations could potentially desensitize or devalue the actual suffering of people involved in the events her virtual worlds were based on.

“I don’t think anyone is as naive to actually believe that this is real,” she said, “but they do have a better understanding of what happened. Yes, these are gaming tools, but they’re getting more and more photo-real. You don’t get to change the story. You don’t clear levels and you don’t get points. It’s like a lot of my films, with a linear narrative and vérité scenes, where you’re in the center. You’re in the middle of it.”

While the case studies covered a truly vast spectrum of social, political and human rights issues, they were all connected by a core motivation to tell compelling stories in unique ways. Each presenter realized early on that their challenge would be to adapt and deconstruct traditional forms of story telling. Their achievement, as evidenced by their final products, was having the vision and ambition to do so.  

This is the second post in a series that will recap and reconsider the issues and ideas presented at PhotoEx. Our next post will feature highlights from Project Updates from this year’s PhotoEx Labs by Pete Pin, Katja Heinemann & Naomi Schegloff, Alissa Quart & Alice Proujansky, and Mark Strandquist.

Written by Krystal Grow

Krystal Grow is an arts writer, photo editor and producer based in New York. She has written for TIME LightBoxTIME.comLIFE.com, the New York Times Lens BlogStranger Than Fiction, and the DOC NYC blog. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kgreyscale.

Katerina Voegtle