Writing is part of the digital story: examples of powerful multimedia presentations that incorporate (not just link to) good nonfiction writing
[Earlier this week, Jacqueline Marino wrote about the many words that often accompany multimedia stories on Interactive Narratives, a showcase of such work sponsored by the Online News Association. Today, she provides some examples of presentations that integrate writing into the storytelling.]
Even though The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting sent poet Kwame Dawes to Jamaica to write an article on HIV/AIDS for The Virginia Quarterly Review, Dawes’s poems became the blueprint for the work of photojournalist Joshua Cogan, who retraced Dawes’s footsteps, gathering visual stories for the incredibly moving multimedia presentation. “We used the poems because the poems also handed to the photographers and designers an emotional and visual series of ideas and images that they could vamp on and expand on in their work,” Dawes explains.
One stop was “Hope’s Hospice,” about which Dawes writes:
These days, the language of death
is a dialect of betrayals; the bodies
broken, placid as saints, hobble
along the tiled corridors, from room
to room. Below the dormitories
is a white squat bungalow, a chapel
from which the handclaps and choruses
rise and reach us like the scent
of a more innocent time.
The people Dawes interviewed are inspirations for his poems, and readers can meet them through photographs and videos on the site. Dawes uses the first person, develops his characters and plunges his reader into the emotional lives of his subjects. He includes the symbolic details of everyday life, as well as various points of view of his subjects.
Produced by City Lore, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving and celebrating New York’s cultural history, “City of Memory” is an interesting form of map-based storytelling enabling people to post their own stories from the city. Funding by the National Endowment for the Arts and The Rockefeller Foundation has made quality control more obtainable than it is at other sites relying on user-submitted content. Poetry, short essay, video and audio stories all flow from the little orange or blue dots on the map of the five boroughs. The edited stories include dispatches about “Macy’s Information Lady” and the “Delivery on the C-Train.” The user-generated pieces, though grammatically imperfect, reveal important personal moments experienced in public places. From one entitled “coming out Hollywood diner”:
16th street and 6th avenue, new york, ny.
it was January 2000. perhaps the first weekend of the new year. i sat my dad down at the Hollywood diner and told him about my trip to san Francisco, when i visited jeff. There was no other way to say it but “I’m gay.” His eyes bulged a bit and he needed some water. When he has high stress he can faint. And so I put ice on his forehead from his glass of water, paid our bill. We both probably ate the greek omelette and we left and walked in the snow around the block. He sobered up a bit and drove back home to new jersey.
This reminds me of another type of map-based project (not featured on Interactive Narratives), Hitotoki, which means “a moment” in Japanese. Its mission: to help people anywhere in the world “store literary ‘sketches’ of moments you experience every day.” The site is a map of the world. Clusters of circles denote where people have contributed their moments in 140 characters or less. “drinking Laphroaig whisky with old friends,” one contributor wrote from Poland. “Fields of yellow,” wrote another from Japan. Definitely moments. Not quite literary, not yet. But this is a young form—one so easy to access. All you need is a Twitter account and a GPS-enabled device that allows you to Tweet.
Photographer Phillip Toledano’s large pictures are accompanied by the photographer’s accounts of his elderly father’s life. The navigation of the story is initially confusing, just as life has become for Toledano’s father after his wife dies. At first, it feels as if there’s something wrong with your mouse. When you click on the top or the bottom of one image, you see part of another. It shakes a bit, but then you figure it out. Once you can read Toledano’s words, it makes sense.
I find these scraps of writing all over the house . . . they are a glimpse into his mind, the disquiet he tries to hide from me/Where is everyone/What’s going on/How lost he feels.
Jonas Bendiksen of Magnum Photos documents life in five urban centers of the world, focusing on the fastest growing human habitat, the slum. Although the photography is large and captivating, often filling the entire screen, words are given top billing in two ways. First, Bendiksen writes short, vivid, to-the-point descriptions that instill a sense of place immediately. Second, the words of the photographed subjects appear on the screen as they speak about how they live. Bendiksen explains in his blog that he did not try to photograph the most extreme poverty and did not understand any of the languages his subjects spoke. He simply asked someone from each family to “tell me about life around here,” recorded their answers and did not have their words translated until months later. The result is a collaboration with his subjects, an approach that evokes Studs Terkel.
In an interview with Ron Steinman, he said, “I love working on stories that get left behind in the race for daily headlines—journalistic orphans. Often, the most worthwhile and convincing images tend to lurk within the hidden, oblique stories that fly just below the radar.”
[Read Jaqueline Marino's post from earlier this week on the use of words in multimedia projects and her consideration of the evolving nature of literary journalism in a digital era.]
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Jacqueline Marino is an assistant professor of journalism at Kent State University. Her nonfiction stories and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Christian Science Monitor and River Teeth: a Journal of Narrative Nonfiction. The Narrative Digest featured her story, “Blood Brothers,” as a Notable Narrative in 2006.