Quest for Land is "a comprehensive photoreportage about land issues in Cambodia over a time span of more than 10 years."
Shot by photojournalist and Magnum Photo member John Vink, the project looks at what is probably "the most important issue in this country recovering at a very fast pace from the Khmer Rouge era," says Vink. "That speedy recovery in an unbridled market economy highlights issues which are common to many developing countries."
But, when it came to publishing the work, Vink turned away from traditional publishers and decided to build his own iPad app.
The app, which is available from today, contains more than 700 images in 20 chapters, with slideshows, soundtracks and a series of essays written by former Phnom Penh Post editor and journalist Robert Carmichael.
Vink tells BJP why he chose the iPad for Quest for Land and how he went about creating it.
BJP: When and why did you decide to publish Quest for Land on the iPad? What attracted you to the device?
John Vink: I am interested in the digital aspects of photography since over 15 years, when I first started scanning prints and tried to build a database on my Mac. My first digital publishing experience was in 1994 with a CD-Rom I put together with my work on refugees. It combined sound with pictures, it had geographical or thematical access to the photographs, captions, story descriptions, a video interview etc... Nearly all the things you would find on an App today minus the tactile interactivity and the fancy user interfaces. CD-Roms were a dead-end though, and the market collapsed some fifteen years ago. The arrival of the iPad seemed to finally give me the opportunity to pick things up where I left them. The portability, packed with multimedia content, a quality screen, and the increased possibility to be involved in the publication process, as well as the incredible public response to the device are great assets. Hopefully its longevity will be better than for CD-Roms.
BJP: What does it mean to take on such a project - how do you plan for the creation of the app?
John Vink: I did not plan this project for the iPad when I started this story on land issues in Cambodia (the iPad was nowhere in sight back in 2000). But an App is just yet another way of "packaging" a story, next to a printed press publication, an exhibition or a slideshow. When you are working on long term projects, you are just gathering pieces of a puzzle, and you always gather much more than you can use for the traditional distribution channels. The possibility to add sound and video increases the possibilities and the difficulties. You get a bigger puzzle. You have to look at the story with a broader mindset and consider the relevance of sound, of movement. But besides the fact that the integration of all these elements is easier now thanks to the technology, there is nothing really new here. It has been done in the film documentary since ages. Access to the content in an App is different though, as it can be done in a less linear way than in a film.
BJP: Are you using an existing publishing platform to develop the application, or are you building it from scratch?
John Vink: I am not the developer of the App. I do not have the necessary skills to do that. Robert Starkweather, with whom I have been closely working for several years, isn't either. He is more of a webdesigner. But at least he is not afraid of diving into code. He is using Titanium by Appcelerator to, if I understood well, generate the file which Apple's Xcode will use to generate the file to be uploaded on Apple's servers. On my side I used AppCooker which is an App that allows you to make a dummy on the iPad. It helped me a lot to sort out things in terms of navigation and organisation of the content and made communication with Robert much easier. I have another project up my sleeve about the Khmer Rouge Trial called "30 Years for a Trial". For that one I used iBooks Author, which is a free application. It gives you a more limited UI but it works... Now Apple lets you even get rid of the developers.
BJP: How do you organise the content of the app?
John Vink: The amount of content you can put in an App is staggering. There will be about 750 pictures in the App, texts, captions, a bit of sound. So, it is a matter of not getting drowned. Navigation and organisation should be kept simple and straightforward. You cannot have any dead ends. A couple of introductory chapters, actual land grabbings in chronological order and a couple of chapters on the consequences of landlessness. It's not rocket science...
BJP: How do you select the images that should go in the app?
John Vink: I want this App to be more content-oriented than form-oriented. I am interested to convey the story of these people being denied their most basic right of having a roof more than anything else. With a book, in which you can include fewer pictures than in an App, you have to be a bit more metaphorical. The pictures must be strong wrapped in outstanding form. You aim more for the imagination of the reader. In an App, because of the available storage space, you can include more context. You can go for the details, the more subtle differences in content. The photographs you would use for a book would obviously still be in the App but you can add many more. And with the readers having tremendously increased their capacity to read and understand photography over the last 10 years, I think that "feeding" them with many more photographs will not be a problem. What comforts me in that regard is the incredible job Kadir Van Lohuizen did with his Via Panam app. It is the perfect example of what can be done on an iPad. It's so much more than a book; it has so much more information; and it integrates sound, film, photographs; it mixes colour and black-and-white images, hundreds of them... How much better can you get? The big advantage Kadir has over me is that the whole concept was set up with the iPad in mind and that, I believe, he has a considerable team behind him.
BJP: How do you finance the production of such an app?
John Vink: 95% of all my projects were self-financed. This one is no different except that this time I am financing it all the way up to the distribution stage. How I am financing this? I'd rather not tell. My wife may read this... But it is certainly not something reason would tell you to do. Luckily I live in Cambodia. Financial needs are not the same over here. And the team supporting me in this endeavour is really small: one writer, one web developer, both living in Cambodia. Add a few copyrights for historical pictures and that's it. That keeps the payroll to probably 1/4 of what it would be in Europe.
BJP: What are your expectations for the app?
John Vink: At a sales price of around $10, I will need to sell around 1500 copies of the App to break even. That would be nice. But more importantly the story of those people will be out there, and as a cherry on the pie I will have kept total control all the way up to where it goes public.
For more on photographers publishing their work on the iPad, read the following articles:
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