Photostories © The Nederlands Fotomuseum.
Online is the future, says Hedy van Erp, reporting from the recent Photostories conference held in Nederlands Fotomuseum. As photographers face declining commissions from newspapers and magazines, they can reach an audience of more than two billion people online.
Stills photography is no longer the basic format for documentary photographers. Over the past few years, new technology has brought them an array of new possibilities, helping redefine their concept of storytelling and offering new ways to share and publish their work.
"Photostories - where photography meets multimedia storytelling" is an international conference in Rotterdam from 19-21 May, which gathered prominent pioneers to review the changes. They discussed key questions such as how to tell stories in this new environment, how to cope with the publishing industry's new needs and how to handle new technology.
In short, it gave a guide to surviving the media revolution, although it wasn't meant to evangelise about the best way to use new technology or which direction to take it in. Instead the audience was shown the options, told what worked best for the world's leading photographers and multimedia producers and left to make their own minds up.
What is multimedia?
How do we define a multimedia documentary? For Henrik Kastenskov, photographer, producer and founder of the Bombay Flying Club, a facility house for multimedia productions, it's not as simple as you may think.
"Some photographers seem to think a multimedia piece is when you shoot an image for a newspaper, and the 12 extra images you shot can be posted on the internet with an added Stones tune from your iPhone," he said. "No, it's not - that's crap." For Alexandre Brachet, e-producer at web-documentary maker Upian, multimedia is something more holistic. "It's a matter of semantics but yes, I think multimedia is a good word for what I do because there is internet, there is connected TV, there is mobile phones and slides," he said.
Magnum Photos' Bjarke Myrthu's interactive documentary The Enemy Within set the standard back in 2004. Using all the possibilities of new media, including photographs, sound, a storyline and graphics, it makes each element work hard for a living and really engages the viewer. As Todd Heisler, staff photographer for The New York Times and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his 2005 work Final Salute, put it, new media documentaries can add to the viewer's experience, "helping the viewer to connect to the subject even more".
"For decades people have been predicting the death of photojournalism; my faith in the medium has been rekindled again," he continued. "As I've begun to work with multimedia, I've realised every approach is different, just as every project is unique, but that so many options and so many ways of storytelling embrace great photography. The still photograph still continues to resonate.
"Even though the public has become exponentially inundated with imagery, one photograph still has the power to make people stop. We have multiple platforms available to give new life to these images, where we can accentuate them. By embracing multimedia and by using sound and video we are able to give the subject a greater voice. Something as simple as literally just hearing the subject's voice has the power to move beyond the photographs."
Heisler tries to use the new technology sensitively and effectively rather than shoehorning every technique into every project. When he shot a series of images of Colorado marines coming back from Iraq in coffins, for example, he felt filming would be too obtrusive, and the resulting video too direct. Instead he published the story in print magazines, then posted the images online with audio interviews, such as the frail voice of a pregnant widow talking through how she felt. Stark and spare, this simple addition makes for a profound experience.
Todd Heisler at Photostories © The Nederlands Fotomuseum.
As Kastenskov and Jeremy Mendes, who works on interactive projects for the National Film Board of Canada, put it, multimedia needs to have really effective sound. "Really good sound adds to your story, it never subtracts," said Kastenkov. "But bad sound kills great photography. A photographer has to address sound with the same level of quality as his images." "Make an audible thinkprint," added Mendes. "What does your story sound like?"
Point of view
According to Kastenskov, web documentary-makers have just eight to 10 seconds to convince the audience to stay. After that, they'll just click or swipe away from your story, especially if they're young. "A recent study performed by the national Danish radio showed that only 19 percent of 12-39-year-olds watch a TV news show daily, and only six percent of 12-19-year-olds watch the news on TV," he said. "When they go online, they first look at entertainment, second comes socialising, and in a poor third place, they look for information. It means we have to approach the audience where they are - somewhere between Paradise Hotel, American Idol and the next blockbuster flick in the cinema. What we do at Bombay Flying Club is employ character-driven storytelling. It's a way of making the narrative personal. We therefore employ some of the storytelling techniques that are being used in Hollywood."
Brachet used video-game technology for his production Prison Valley, which was shot in a town called Cañon City, Colorado, where nearly everybody is part of the prison industry, and which won the first Multimedia Award at World Press Photo 2011. When you log in you see the other people also on the site, and can link with them to share and discuss content. You then explore and investigate the site as if playing a computer game, clicking onto live spots such as maps or objects to release information and moving through time and space. It's a clever approach to linear storytelling because it allows you to take some control but leaves the overall direction firmly in the hands of the producers - the further you go into the story, the more information is made available to you and the more options you have to unlock content.
The gaming technology also gives the project a fictional, Hollywood feel though (tellingly, even Brachet calls the people interviewed in it "characters"), and it cost a breath-taking €300,000 to make. It was co-produced by French/German broadcasting company Arte, who made it financially possible and brought in the technology know-how. For those with slightly smaller funds, there are other options. Myrthu recommended online tools such as Wordpress, iLife and Final Cut, for example, which are fairly cheap to install and easy to use. "After installing iLife, which can be bought for around $25, you can produce quite high-quality content," he said.
Even so, it's almost impossible to make a multimedia documentary alone, the experts agreed, if only because it's so hard to record good sound when you're filming or shooting a close-up portrait. An editor will also probably be a good addition to your project, and you'll definitely need a producer to co-ordinate a big production. All this makes multimedia documentary production much more collaborative than the average photographic project, and you'll need to have a clear idea of the basic concept to make sure everything works. Ultimately, observed Mendes, this will also make for a better project too. "The temptation is always to add more bells and whistles. It's the same for any medium, but less is always more. You have to start with a strong idea, a really good story, as you want your audience to get goosebumps right from the start."
He and the other experts recommended putting together a marketing plan, working out who your project is aimed at, how to get it onto social media and whether to advertise an excerpt on Youtube. This thinking will influence what you do early on, because if it's an iPad application, you won't be able to use Flash and, with static design, you should firm up as much as possible before programming anyway, because it's so expensive to change further down the road. The easiest approach is via information architecture, using wire frames to make a blueprint of what the site will look like and its components.
If you do not want to be programming and don't have the budget for a producer, you'll find it helpful to visit Myrthu's website, www.storyplanet.com. Here you can quickly upload images, video and load maps from Google, which can be combined into an interactive package without being coded.
Photostories includes a number of inspiring examples about what to do with the technology. This Land, a documentary about photographer and filmmaker Dianne Whelan's journey across the Arctic with the Canadian military, is told in a linear manner, with a beginning, a middle and an end based on a journey that took a few days. Welcome to Pine Point, made by Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons and funded by the National Film Board of Canada, tells the story of a Canadian town wiped out when the local mine closed, and draws on books, films and family photo albums, to mix in sound, scoring, video, collage and illustrations. Amnesia and a camera: Photos as memories, which was made for iPad users by Time, is about a British woman who suffers memory loss and uses photos as an aidememoire; Postcards from Paradise, by Poul Madsen and Kastenskov, tells the story of a Bangladeshi man lured to the Maldives by the promise of a good job, but tricked into near slave labour.
As Mendes put it, "There are lots of tools online that are proprietary; you do not necessarily have to go and do all these production cycles. If you have a great story to tell and you have great images, there's no reason you can't get your ideas online and out there. There are lots of platforms for doing this, the most basic being Youtube."
The only question is whether you need to go down this route at all. For Kastenskov, the main benefits are reaching a younger audience and broadening your horizons, but Brachet pointed out that "traditional photo journalism will not disappear all of a sudden. Whether a photographer wants to do multimedia or not, both is fine," he added. "The main thing is he or she can choose."
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