Hypertextuality, Photography (and Trauma), The Internet & Lots of Big Words

This week, I have been tasked to write a response on “What is the Place of Web Documentary in Journalism?”. First of all, my apologies to my teacher. Because this post will be a little (ok, quite) rambling and I may end up branching off to parallel themes or ideas, as opposed to solely seeking to answer the question directly.

To begin, the question itself begs an epistemological dissection. To read the question implies that there a whole spectrum of possible answers. “What is the place” implies that the genre of the web documentary somehow requires an argument defending its position within the field of journalism. A justification of purpose, of meaning, so to speak. I hear the question spoken in my mind by a dark-suited corporate manager intently looking at a prospective employee in the same tones as the eternal question: “Why should I hire you?” (An existentialist question if there ever was one. Yeesh.)

So, why should there be a space for the web documentary, or webdoc? First of all, let’s look at what constitutes a web documentary… First, there is a medium by which information is transmitted, i.e. the Internet; Second, a close inter-relationship between text, photos, videos, sound, and increasingly, with the reader. Third, it seeks to educate, inform, and enlighten its audience. In all these three points, the webdoc parallels that of journalism’s characteristics. If anything, I would argue that the webdoc is an evolution in what we would traditionally call journalism.

Take for example, the bastion of traditional journalism – the newspaper. By itself, the newspaper can be seen as a hypertext, very much like the webdoc. Reading the front page leads you to another page within the main section, a photo with a short by-line leads to another article on another page. Articles link back to previous articles on previous days (for example, the continuing coverage of a news-worthy event), and even the commentary section allows the reader to contribute feedback and respond to articles in the paper! If one were to view it in that light,  wouldn’t the webdoc be considered another evolution in journalism?

Given the near-possibilities for story-telling in the webdoc, I applaud Katerina Cizek’s international web documentary project, ‘Out My Window’ (http://interactive.nfb.ca/#/outmywindow), and the overall vision of her project, ‘Highrise’. Where a traditional journalistic project would seek out an issue to focus on, such as France 24’s award-winning documentary on rape in the Congo (http://www.france24.com/static/infographies/webdocumentary-congo-peace-rape-goma-drc-north-kivu-un-goma/index.html), or any of the documentaries featured in this article in the European Journalism Observatory on web docs (http://en.ejo.ch/?p=2872#more-2872), Cizek instead looks at an over-arching idea, or theme – i.e. people living in high-rises, and from there, stories begin to emerge almost organically from each city. From inner-city gangsterism in Chicago, to the issue of Tibetan Exiles in Canada, and even the homeless/squatters in Brazil.

But what is remarkable isn’t the fact that such stories arise from interviews. But rather, the fact that these stories have a very real impact on each family that was interviewed is what makes it stand out. If traditional journalism tended to focus on the macro with little to no focus on the micro, Cizek’s stories are built up from the micro, on the individual level. In so doing, Cizek forces us to question WHY these individuals are affected by such issues. And if so, shouldn’t we do something about it?

After all, it’s easier to ignore an issue if there isn’t a human face attached to it. (Case in point, http://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2009/05/06/napalm-attack/ was among the photos that highlighted the atrocities of the Vietnam War)

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Moving away from the question posed, a couple of statements made my Cizek reminded me of my readings in Photographic Theory…

(A) Seam(less)

In her director’s statement, she says, “We decided that the photographs of people’s spaces should not be seamless 360 degree views… We would create collages, overlappings, doublings. Many seams. Leaving room for interpretation, for the unspoken, the unsaid, the private, the personal.”

An example of this photographic ‘seam’ may be seen in those videos which feature a balcony. A black space divides the photos of the outside, and the photos of the inside. What is this black space if not a demarcation between the interior and the exterior? Does this demarcation separate the concerns of those who inhabit the interior, from the concerns of those who live beyond the interior? Think carefully about the Tibetian exile living in Toronto. When we click on the 1000 towers in the distance, we are immediately transported out to talk to a Caribbean musician who talks about his drum playing. While the two are tied together by their music, beyond that, what else? If one of the aims of the webdoc is to examine the possibilities of social unity/interaction within the confines of the apartment block, what does it say if it separates the block from the other places around it? How about the Sao Paulo clip? Being one of the fastest growing cities in Brazil, is the plight of the squatters becoming disconnected from the general concerns of San Paulo inhabitants? This reading problematizes the whole work, and deserves to be considered in greater detail…

Again, another reading of the seams is that the breaks highlight the possibility of trauma. In his book, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma, Ulrich Baer looks at images that reveal “experiences that have not been, and possibly cannot be, assimilated into such a continuous narrative”. Again the question arises: Why the doubling? The overlapping and breaks between images whilst making this 360 degree view of people’s homes? – Another answer? Because of trauma.

Take the Chicago webdoc. One of the first images you see when the page has loaded is the two photographs sitting on the living room table stand. Moving your cursor over it, the spectral words “friends are gone” rise over the photographs, and it is from the accompanying video that we realize that the interviewee’s brother died in a gang-related shooting when she was young. The surrounding images of the photographs are a doubling of each other. Overlaid upon each other. Obscuring that which remains unforgotten, yet deeply personal.

So while I applaud Cizek’s attempts to give her subjects privacy, and the space to express their emotional breaks and trauma within the photographic representation of the physical space in their homes; on the political level, I cannot help but to be disappointed by her iconographic distinctions between the home and the outside, because of the implied separation between the private and the public (as elaborated earlier).

 

Next time you visit a site, don’t just admire the pretty pictures. Ask yourself WHY they’re shot the way they are.

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On a slightly light-hearted note, I’m impressed by the use of 360 degree cameras in shooting the music videos. Breaking away from the traditional 2-D spaces that dominated traditional uses of cinematography and photography in webdocs, this new technology is quite remarkable for presenting the illusion of ACTUALLY being there, being sung to by such talented musicians.

However, one cannot help but to be a little unnerved by the sight of people dancing around the camera (i.e. you). I strangely feel like I’m a sacrificial lamb about to be roasted by a group of cheering villagers dancing around me and celebrating the coming feast. But that’s just me. =)

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