Behind NYTimes’ Immersive Virtual 'Walks' Through Israel and Gaza

Photojournalism, meet Virtual Reality

Munita,Tomas - PERMANENT FOREIGN DESK ASSIGN

The destroyed neighborhood of Shejaiya, Gaza, Aug. 1, 2015.© Tomas Munita for The New York Times

For the one-year anniversary of the armed conflict in Gaza and Israel, the New York Times launched an immersive series "Walking in War's Path," telling the story of the aftermath focalized through eight individual subjects and their environments—a series of virtual roads for an online audience.

At the core, this still is an exercise in "straight" documentary photography. A photojournalist, the award-winning Tomás Munita, was working on assignment for two months in the field alongside reporters and stringers, shooting thousands of still images with a conventional digital camera, each of which conformed to the Times' rigorous quality and ethical standards. But the manner in which these images were stitched together and presented in post production, offers an unprecedented sense of place, spacial relation, and landscape which neither a slideshow nor POV video could achieve.

"We wanted something completely different. We wanted to immerse the reader, which is an extremely hard thing to do given the history of photography both in Israel and Gaza," says David Furst, International Picture Editor for the Times. The topic is undoubtably sensitive and one for which there has been a huge audience with very strong opinions one way or the other. It has been covered aggressively, both with traditional photojournalism and a variety of multimedia projects. Many news outlets last year struggled to find new, and arguably more balanced angles to their coverage, assigning multiple photographers to the same scene, photographers of varying backgrounds, styles, etc.

"Readers look at pictures, they look at videos of this all the time, but somehow never sort of map in their minds what it's like to be in one of these places," Furst tells American Photo [emphasis mine].

For the one-year anniversary of the armed conflict in Gaza and Israel, the New York Times launched an immersive series "Walking in War's Path," telling the story of the aftermath focalized through eight individual subjects and their environments—a series of virtual roads for an online audience.

At the core, this still is an exercise in "straight" documentary photography. A photojournalist, the award-winning Tomás Munita, was working on assignment for two months in the field alongside reporters and stringers, shooting thousands of still images with a conventional digital camera, each of which conformed to the Times' rigorous quality and ethical standards. But the manner in which these images were stitched together and presented in post production, offers an unprecedented sense of place, spacial relation, and landscape which neither a slideshow nor POV video could achieve.

"We wanted something completely different. We wanted to immerse the reader, which is an extremely hard thing to do given the history of photography both in Israel and Gaza," says David Furst, International Picture Editor for the Times. The topic is undoubtably sensitive and one for which there has been a huge audience with very strong opinions one way or the other. It has been covered aggressively, both with traditional photojournalism and a variety of multimedia projects. Many news outlets last year struggled to find new, and arguably more balanced angles to their coverage, assigning multiple photographers to the same scene, photographers of varying backgrounds, styles, etc.

"Readers look at pictures, they look at videos of this all the time, but somehow never sort of map in their minds what it's like to be in one of these places," Furst tells American Photo [emphasis mine].

The initial experience of engaging with this feature and ‘walking’ along these routes, I thought was like a highly considered, artful version of Google’s Street View, with powerful human stories at the breaks instead of addresses. Its success and immersiveness, hinges arguably not just on the strength of the characters and imagery, but on this mapping function which so much other storytelling lacks. It underscores the epistemological importance of place and spacial relations. The prominence of idioms like ‘road (or path) to enlightenment,’ and conventional metaphors for narrative and story as a ‘journey,’ further suggests how essential it is to completeness in our gathering of knowledge.

"It was difficult because we had never done it before," Furst says, "and I think one of the dangers of a project like this is it lacks beauty." Even Google's human trekkers tend to come away with imagery that looks automated. Munita, however, seems able to consciously frame the chaos of the world into beauty at nearly every step.

"You get a very different sense than when you do video, because here every frame has some degree of thought to it," says Jon Huang, the multimedia editor for the Times who did much of the coding on the feature. "We really wanted to control and edit towards essentially a slide show, except it's all together, it's all one piece, and very intentional."

In an interview with American Photo earlier this year, Alec Soth spoke to this "power" of still photography as residing in the "absence of sound, absence of time." Teju Cole has also argued that "stillness, in photography, can be more affecting than action." All of which suggests why this particular format was more impactful than a POV video, for instance.

Instead of shooting motion pictures, the team asked Munita to photograph as he normally would, except much more frequently—every three steps or so, to lean around corners and take more, and anytime he saw something interesting and unexpected, like the wedding in the feature's first section. There was a great deal of preproduction, "identifying locations, identifying characters, identifying scenes," Furst says, but for the most part, it was: shoot candid moments first, then get identifying information and the story after. Each section of the feature opens with a portrait, and given the frequency of Munita stopping to take a photo, he probably turned more heads than normal, but the subjects were still usually unaware of his presence. "Its kind of a hybrid," Furst says, much like the final product which exist in a new space between moving and still imagery.

Each of the walks weaves together several hundred images, from the start of Munita's path to the end, without jumps. But many more were taken than ultimately appear. There was a massive undertaking of photo editing to cull through each individual image and leave behind those that hindered the pace and flow. On top of that, Munita photographed twice as many routes as were published. "There were a lot of boxes that we needed to check for this to be successful in our mind," Furst says. "The right route, the right character, the right location, all with proper visual representation." With no precedent, inevitably much of the early work was left on the cutting room floor.

Munita,Tomas - PERMANENT FOREIGN DESK ASSIGN

Lt. Col. Shai Siman, wounded in last year war in Gaza, during rehabilitation in a hospital in Tel Aviv, Israel, August 2015.© Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Given the sheer volume of images Munita had to take and transfer from the field, he was limited to shooting JPG rather than RAW files. And for the final feature, the images between stops were further compressed "tremendously" for a faster download rate on a variety of platforms and devices. Though the initial reception of the feature was overwhelmingly positive, in some corners of the photo Twitter, users singled this out as a fracture point, questioning whether the look of in-between-stop images fell under the Times' standards of toning and manipulation, likening it to the heightened clarity and dramatic effect of HDR techniques, which do not. "There was no HDR photography," Huang says, "but we did loose a good amount to compression."

Those users also likened this look to the graphical interface of first person video games—many of which actually take war as their subject. I think back to when Time Magazine commissioned Ashley Gilbertson to "embed" himself in one: "How do we reach a readership that is accustomed to seeing people dying en masse in war zones as a result of games like this one?" Gilbertson wrote. Games came to mimic the look of war photography, which dulled the ability for that kind of imagery to call to action. Perhaps one answer to counter this is for war photography to somewhat co-opt elements of those interfaces for the real thing. One reporter for the Associated Press, who noted the walking feature as "great work" on Twitter, suggested it was "essentially low-fi virtual reality journalism/documentary."

"We didn't do this as a virtual reality, this is people's realities," Furst counters. "This is not any sort of montage or virtual reality game."

But the disconnect here seems semantic. The subjects' stories may be told under some of the strongest traditional journalistic standards, but the viewer's experience of the final product, is at least somewhat analogous to VR. The feature uses projected images to construct a seemingly multidimensional world, simulating the sensation of walking, at the same time thoughtfully limited and leading you through various stages, but also offering up for you basic controls to find your own path. The user becomes an active participant in the completion of the story.

Perhaps, given the limitations of today's technology, this a stop along what Stephen Mayes, writing for LightBox this morning, describes as contemporary photography's transition from adolescence to adulthood. "It will not be long before our audiences demand more sophisticated imagery that is dynamic and responsive to change, connected to reality," Mayes says, "by more than a static two-dimensional rectangle of crude visual data isolated in space and time."

According to Sergio Peçanha, foreign graphics editor for the Times who did much of the editing on the story, "our goal was to help build empathy between our audience and people on both sides of the conflict." I would argue that the empathy was also built for those on both sides of the camera. The reader not only gets pulled into the subject's story, but into the photographer's shoes, with unprecedented insight and context for such newsgathering, given that Munita's process—and contact sheet, so to speak—was literally folded into the final product.

“We didn't have a model to follow,” Peçanha says, “so we built it as we went.”

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