How can NGOs use Immersive Storytelling to further their cause

Last week I attended the Orama Festival in London, which explored the future of immersive journalism and storytelling. Several NGOs were in attendance and there was a panel discussion on Immersive Journalism content for Social Impact with Charlotte Mikkelborg, Peter Speller, Mary Matheson and Marisol Grandon. There were also content demonstrations of WaterAid’s Aftershock, Plan International’s Mamie’s Dream and Born Into Exile.

A lot of the discussions were based around the technical issues of filming in 360; where do you place the camera? how do you use sounds to prompt the viewer to turn around;  lighting issues; flow of action; proximity and the ethical dilemmas of not knowing what’s behind you when filming or the fact that many people are unaware of what a 360 camera looks like. There were also a lot of discussions around distribution outlets – how do you get people to watch your films once they have been made?

Producing 360 films is getting cheaper, but I did overhear someone say they produced a film for around $35,000 which is cheap. Is it cheap? What is the return on investment? Maybe it’s more to do with training opportunity cost as I genuinely don’t believe that NGOs will recoup the costs of producing a 360 film with donations. One of the panellists claimed that VR increases the conversion rate for NGOs by 100%, another panellist estimated 80%. I didn’t challenge this or ask what they meant by conversion rate – I should have done. Are they talking about donations? Are we due to see an army of street fundraisers armed with VR headsets in the future? Scary thought. Marisol Grandon from Unfold Stories highlighted the impact of VR as an advocacy tool. I expect she was referring to the apparent success of Clouds Over Sidra and it’s launch at DAVOS.

Apparently the VR headset market was worth $5.2 billion in 2016 and will rise to £162 billion in 2020. There was discussion around whether there will be VR fatigue in the not too distant future, but it was agreed that is is extremely unlikely. As technology improves and the cost of headsets fall, 360 video and VR is likely to grow and grow. One speaker said that  “360 video enables us to step into the facts and engage with them” – I’m sorry but I really do not agree with this and it scares me somewhat. There is a great academic paper which debates the ethics of immersive journalism, which is a must read for all journalists/NGOs experimenting with 360/VR. I worry about people describing VR as “transportive”, “emotional” and “evoking empathy” – the stories we receive as viewers are very much down to the orchestration of the director/producer.

At the moment VR is a solitary rather than a community experience, although in China there are already hundreds of VR arcades. One participant at the conference asked whether VR is a backlash to the “light touch” aspects of social media. Very possible – or is it a ethical timebomb just waiting to explode.

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Save the Children – Syria Six Year Anniversary Photography Project

Award-winning photographer Nick Ballon and conceptual artist Alma Haser have partnered up to produce a series of conceptual, photographs and animations, visualising the mental health impact of conflict on Syrian children, to mark six years since the war began.

Commissioned by Save the Children, the artists worked with six refugee children now living in Turkey. The initiative coincides with a major research project by the charity, Invisible Wounds, which found widespread evidence of ‘toxic stress’ and mental health issues among children still living inside Syria.SAVE-THE-CHILDREN

In order to visualise the invisible, psychological pain these children suffer, Save the Children worked with the two artists to produce a powerful photography and animation project – the first collaboration of its kind. All of the images, photographed by Nick Ballon near the Turkey-Syria border where these children now live, have been physically manipulated and art-worked by Alma Haser using a variety of creative techniques, including ripping, folding, crumpling and origami – each one selected to suit the story the children told.

Alongside the images, Save the Children has also produced a series of short animations which combine video of the portraits being manipulated with audio testimonies from the children and their relatives. In contrast with the now familiar news imagery of Syria’s war, this project offers a different visual perspective, bringing to the fore the brutal psychological scars of war which usually remain out of sight.

For the Invisible Wounds report, Save the Children and its Syrian partners interviewed more than 450 children, adolescents and adults inside Syria in the largest study of its kind conducted during the course of the conflict. It found that children are living in an almost constant state of fear, terrified by shelling, airstrikes and ongoing violence, with devastating psychological consequences.

 

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#MosulOp – Live Streaming the Battle of Mosul on Facebook

I was shocked to say the least when I was alerted to the fact that major news outlets are live streaming the military operation by the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, back from ISIS.

Both Al Jazeera English and Channel Four both have live feeds on Facebook where anyone with access to a computer can watch the war unfold. This is incredibly disturbing – what are the ethical and moral issues of watching the consequences of war live in our social media streams?

Like most Facebook feeds, viewers are able to like, share and comment on the proceedings. The Al Jazeera feed had over 13,000 comments when I took the screen grab below.

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The Channel 4 coverage had a live press conference being translated into English

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Photojournalism and more recently user generated content have been accused of desensitising the public to the graphic images of war.  We have become accustomed to ‘live news’ from the likes of the BBC, Guardian etc, where the viewer receives curated and edited content in near to real time, but what are the ramifications of live, uncensored media coverage?

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Photography and Social Impact – An interview with Everyday Africa

I have been a big fan of Everyday Africa for 2-3 years now, so I was delighted when Peter DiCampo, one of the founders, kindly agreed to an interview. Published on Instagram, Everyday Africa is a collection of mobile phone photography which combats the clichés that depict Africa as a place of only poverty, disease, and war. The photographers who are native to Africa or have lived there for years at a time, find the extreme not nearly as prevalent as the familiar, the everyday. Here are Peter’s answers to my questions.

Please give me a bit of background information about yourself and what motivated you to start Everyday Africa

I began my career as a photojournalist just before moving to northern Ghana as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2006 – so, from the beginning, I questioned the narrative that I was helping to propagate by focusing mostly on stories of disease, poverty, and conflict in West Africa. My two years living in a village showed me that there was much more to rural Ghanaian life, and this extends of course to rural and urban life across the continent and beyond. But, there are few places to share these stories.

Everyday Africa began in Ivory Coast in March 2012. Austin Merrill and I were traveling as a writer / photographer team covering the continued strife a year after the country’s post-election violence and the cocoa trade that is the root of turmoil there. Austin is intimately familiar with the country, having lived there at a couple different points in his life (he was a Peace Corps Volunteer there in the mid nineties and then a journalist living there at various points), and I had been there before as a photojournalist, and of course had lived several years “next-door” in Ghana. During the March 2012 trip we began shooting photos on our phones, very casually, and it occurred to us that those images felt much more familiar to us than the ones I was “professionally” shooting for the story we were there to tell.

Having outlined that story above – as you can imagine, it was a bit preconceived. I think often about the process of photojournalism – going into a story, you often feel you “know” the images needed to tell it. If it’s a story with phrases like “continued ethnic violence,” you feel you need photos of refugees, burned down homes, survivors with horrific stories to tell, etc. These are the images that will make sense to the reader; that he or she will find palatable. But there’s an inherent contradiction here: if we’re giving the reader images he or she already expects, then the story reinforces preconceptions and doesn’t teach anything new. Along the way, we also see a lot of daily life moments, but we often pre-edit these out of our story by not even photographing them. Austin and I decided to photograph them.

A couple months later, we were both on the continent again, at the same time but in different locations – he in Nigeria and Zimbabwe, me in Uganda. We kept shooting on our phones, and this time around started a Tumblr blog so we could share the images with each other and a wider audience in real time, or close to it. In the months that followed, we found that a lot of our colleagues shared our frustrations with coverage of the continent and were excited to have an outlet for the day-to-day images. We migrated to Instagram (but kept the Tumblr too) to extend our reach, and things grew rather quickly.

How did you publicise the blog and Instagram sites? How did you get photographers to contribute?

We could never have imagined how big this would become. The first way of publicizing it was simply on our own – we started the Tumblr, we posted about it on our Facebook page. Other photographers we knew were drawn to it – at first, other foreign correspondents living on the continent who shared our frustrations, and then eventually more African photographers. (The bulk of the feed is now African photography).

Then it snowballed. The New York Times Lens blog wrote about us, and a few other mainstream publications. Instagram put it on their “suggested user” list, and that made our following grow exponentially.

Is it mainly Western or African photographers who contribute their imagery? What motivates photographers to to be part of Everyday Africa?

In total, it is an even split. However, it was a lot more Western photographers early on, and is now majority African. In the forthcoming book, the number of photographers is half and half, but the number of photographs are majority made by Africans. As far as motivations, I think they feel it builds on their profile and career (some have certainly received assignments via Everyday Africa, for example), but the main reason, I think, is more ideologic: they believe in the mission of showing a different side of the continent, regardless of their background. They enjoy seeing their photos used in the educational initiatives we have, and simply having a platform and an audience for this kind of imagery.

Do you have any examples of African photographers contributing to Everyday Africa that have received jobs/commissions as a result of the publicity?

Just a few days ago, a photo editor from Buzzfeed reached out to me to ask for Edward  Echwalu’s info. I’m not sure if the assignment panned out yet, but we get that kind of thing often. Nana Kofi Acquah, Andrew Esiebo, Tom Saater - these guys have all received assignments as a result of their increased social media presence, and I think it’s safe to say that Everyday Africa is a part of that.

We’ve also worked with World Press Photo to create the African Photojournalism Database, because we wanted to find a way to spread these opportunities beyond just our set contributors. See these two links:

signup here: http://apjd.org
database here: https://blink.la/organizations/apjd

How do you curate Everyday Africa? Do you ever censor images?

Actually, we really only curate the photographers, which I will get into. But as far as the images, we give our contributors the login information and set them loose. We don’t select the images. We instruct the photographers to interpret those words, Everyday Africa, however they see fit, and the only real rule is that they don’t post on top of each other. We have never deleted or edited an image. There have been a handful of times (maybe two?) that we have asked a photographer to edit their caption, always for the sake of clarity and not for the sake of content.

As far as selecting photographers, at first it was very organic. People would ask us, and if they seemed to have an intimate relationship with the continent (or a specific country), were thinking along the same lines as us in terms of broadening perceptions, and were skilled photographers, we generally said yes. Lately, it has been more organized, as we are drawing a few new contributors a year from the African Photojournalism Database, and looking more specifically on diversity as we try to find photographers in countries where we don’t currently have anyone based.

How powerful is photography in changing people’s perceptions about Africa?

I think it’s very powerful. We build these perceptions based on what we see – to put it simply, people do not realize that normal, daily-life moments occur because they do not usually see them. In paying attention to the commentary our photos elicit on Instagram, we’ve seen this happen in the most basic way, often with presumably young people: “I didn’t know they had cars”, “I didn’t know they had phones”, that kind of thing is very common in our feed. I think Everyday Africa has much deeper implications than that, broadening in many ways our understanding of the continent even for people who are more tuned in – but providing that very basic burst of those misconceptions for people at a young age is, I believe, very important.

There have been several campaigns to change narratives about Africa such as #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou, #IfAfricaWasABar etc. How important is social media as a counter to stereotypical images of Africa?

Social media is hugely important. I believe very strongly in showing things from multiple perspectives. Traditional media has a role, but as it presents a specific story-based narrative (conflict in Ivory Coast, for example), it doesn’t often have space for these other views.

What are you 5 favourite photographs on Everyday Africa and why?

When I think about my favorite photos from the project, they tend to fall into two categories. The first is, simply, the daily life moments that often go undocumented. Nana Kofi Acquah’s photo of women greeting each other with a handshake by the roadside in Burkina Faso.

Glenna Gordon’s photo of a couple celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary in Lagos, Nigeria. Edward Echwalu’s photo of a midwife gently touching an expectant mother’s shoulder as she speaks to her in a health center in Uganda. The other category is, loosely, the type of photograph that speaks metaphorically to our project, the push and pull of the Africa we imagine versus the one that is more real, the old clashing with the new. Tom Saater’s photo of a woman named Ginika wearing a white wig as she heads to graduate from law school in Abuja, Nigeria.

 

Austin’s photo of a safari in Zimbabwe, in which we see smartphones and tablets but only the smallest glimpse of an animal.

Tourists photograph while on safari in Matobo Hills, Zimbabwe on May 24, 2012. Photo by Austin.

A photo posted by Everyday Africa (@everydayafrica) on

Of course, the list goes on and on!

I understand you are involved with educational work. Can you tell me more about it?

Since Everyday Africa’s first work in school classrooms, in December 2013, we have seen more than 2,500 students. A grant from the Open Society Foundations allowed us to build a pilot curriculum that we launched in March 2014 with a group of 16 middle and high school students in the Bronx, in New York City. That workshop, spanning eight classes over two months, taught students about stereotypes, photography, how journalism gets made, and truth in storytelling. Since then, thanks to funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, we have run similar workshops in Chicago, Washington DC, and Mombasa, Kenya. For the Mombasa program, we had the students collaborate with peers in a Chicago high school—the students discussed, via Skype, their stereotypes of each other, and then shared images of their school and home communities to tell the stories of their everyday lives. Students use Everyday Africa’s photography to learn about what life is really like in Africa, and then apply those lessons to their own lives, telling the stories of their own communities through photography. You can see our current curriculum here: https://pulitzercenter.atavist.com/everyday-africa-curriculum-

Why have you decided to publish a book now? What are the main objectives of publishing a book?

The answer to “why now” is because we wanted to do it while there is still a buzz surrounding the project – we hope there will be for a long time, but we can’t know for sure! Instagram is changing, new platforms coming up – it seemed a good idea to encapsulate this work now. The book comments on a very specific form of communication that is ever evolving, and it seemed best to set it in print before it is unrecognizable. The book, for me, is a very exciting object. It includes the strongest photography, as well as Instagram commentary. Creating it presented us with the unique challenge of translating a social media project to the printed page – including the commentary makes the book into a document not only of the Everyday Africa project, but also of the many perceptions that we cast onto a continent and of how we communicate today.

The comments range from paternalistic and racist to funny to the very familiar, people commenting that the photo is from their hometown, for example. It is a marker of increased connectivity, the need for us to dispel antiquated notions of Africa, and the need for more localized storytelling. Some of the conversations go on for quite a long time, and become fascinating discussions on how we read imagery. For example, an image of women carrying things on their heads (of course a common sight across the continent) prompts a heated debate on our understanding of poverty: some commenters, many of them African, argue that the photo shows heavy labor and serves only to perpetuate a poor view of the continent, while others argue that ignoring this sight would be an even greater disservice, as we would then be asserting that only “Western” can be synonymous with “normal”. The conversation raises many questions on empathy and visual literacy, to say the least. We’ll use the book in our educational programming as well. We’ve worked with a number of partners and supporters – Pulitzer Center, Open Society Foundations, PhotoWings – to create a curriculum on media creation, stereotypes, and photography. Studying the conversations from the Instagram feed adds another layer – it’s a direct lesson in cross-cultural communication, comparing how people see themselves to outside perceptions.

Are there any plans for an exhibitions, and if so where?

We’ve had a number of exhibitions in the past, see our full list of Everyday Africa exhibitions here At the moment, we have work showing in BredaPhoto and FotoIstanbul. The book launches with an exhibition at AddisFoto in December. In 2017, we’re hoping to have a number of exhibitions that coincide with book launches.

What advice would you give to other people wanting to use photography for social change?

Experiment, experiment, experiment. There is no recipe for this stuff. We, for example, never could have known the impact we would have. Look at what is out there already (in terms of subject matter, but also in terms of how it is displayed) and see what you think works for your project, your issue, your passion, the change you want to make, and the audience you want to reach, and then try it, and then try something else too. We’re on social media, but we’re also in classrooms, in galleries, in publications, making a book, and even experimenting with theater. Some of those will reach a broad number of people but only on the surface level; others will have a deeper impact but only reach a few people. It’s very difficult to know what method will reach which group of people, and how. For more specific campaigns, try targeting specific change-makers (government officials, etc). For stories that aren’t receiving enough attention, try very public displays, in the vein of what #Dysturb is doing. Be targeted but be creative.

EVERYDAY AFRICA BOOK

Featuring some of the best images project, the book Everyday Africa: 30 Photographers Re-Picturing a Continent, showcases photos of ordinary life that find beauty in stories rarely seen, shifting perception from the ensationalized extremes to a more textured, familiar reality. Photographs run alongside sections of Instagram commentary inspired by the images. Shocking, funny, and heart-felt, the comments are lighthearted one moment, caustic the next, speaking volumes about widely held perceptions of Africa while underscoring the continent’s increased connectivity in a globalized world. Together they justify the project’s very existence. To be one of the first owners of the book please support the Everyday Africa Kickstarter campaign.

 A huge thank you to Peter for this detailed and fascinating Q&A. I hope you learn as much from this post as I did.  I spent 3 thoroughly enjoyable hours on Sunday familiarising myself again with the Everyday Africa Instagram images.  To finish, here’s a couple of my personal favourites from the project. I can’t wait for the book….

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WaterAid use virtual reality to tell the story of the aftermath of Nepal’s earthquakes

WaterAid has recently launched its first virtual reality documentary, Aftershock. The film immerses viewers in the unique challenges faced by hill-top communities in Nepal to restore access to water in the aftermath of last year’s devastating earthquakes.

Aftershock uses virtual reality technology to tell the story of plumber Krishna Sunuwar, 58, taking on the challenge of repairing the community’s damaged water system.

Produced and directed in-house by the WaterAid film team, Aftershock is set against the stunning backdrop of Nepal’s mountain communities.  Aftershock can be viewed on a laptop, but for the most immersive virtual reality experience viewers are encouraged to use a VR headset or cardboard viewer. The app is currently available for download via the Playstore and Cardboard app and iOS. 

WaterAid film producer Catherine Feltham said: “Virtual reality gives us the opportunity to take people closer to our work than ever previously possible. By using this new medium we hope to engage supporters in the reality of where we work and the challenges we face as well as inspire them by proudly showing how we work alongside fantastic community members and project partners.  The beauty of this medium is that it allows the viewer to be fully immersed and we look forward to seeing the reactions of people all over the world as they are transported to Kharelthok.”

Aftershock was funded by HSBC as part of WaterAid’s global partnership with the HSBC Water Programme.

The film is unquestionably beautiful, partly due to the stunning surroundings in which is was shot, but I still sit on the fence when it comes to virtual reality. I showed this film to my children, aged 8 and 9. One of them was totally engrossed. It was great hearing her talk through the story with her headset on and ask so many questions afterwards. For my eldest daughter the experience merely made her feel sick. One of the the other problems I find with VR is the amount of memory it takes to download the app. This film was 1.4GB and I had to delete loads of other apps in order to view it. 

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I applaud WaterAid for experimenting with this new medium which will undoubtedly continue to improve and become more popular in the future. The story is fascinating and the aesthetics of the production are incredible. I appreciate the attempt to immerse viewers in the reality of the destruction and work that needs to be completed. My youngest daughter was fascinated and wanted to take the headset (and my mobile phone) to school to show her whole class. Like other recent VR films such as Clouds Over Sidra and Waves of Grace, I’m unconvinced that the film warrants the large expenditure. I suppose it depends on the main objective of the film, e.g. fundraising versus education or advocacy. For education purposes I think it has huge potential, but that might depend on whether it is possible in the future to drastically reduce the file size of the films.

 Banner image: WaterAid/Adam Ferguson
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