“Last winter, I swear we burned our clothes to stay warm.” Saddam Hussein al-Gasi’s voice cuts through an image of the tent village outside Aleppo where he lives. As a 360º video, viewers can change what they see with the turn of a smartphone to explore the canvas streets of Jop Kass that are home to some of Syria’s 6.7 million internally displaced people. The story is just one example of how Frontline in Focus, an independent media agency co-founded by award-winning photographer Khalil Ashawi, is experimenting with conflict zone storytelling.
Ashawi began reporting from Syria, where he filed photos for news outlets and agencies including Reuters in 2013. Five years later, he launched Frontline in Focus with colleagues, first under in the form of a Facebook page to showcase his work, and then in the form of a wider range of stories from around the country. Today, Frontline in Focus produces film and photojournalism from Syria and thrives in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) storytelling, for media clients such as Dutch broadcaster NOS and Swiss media FRS.
The agency works with (and helps train) local journalists inside Syria, the country where most of its team is based. From Syria and Switzerland, Frontline co-founder Ashawi and product thinker Hail Khalaf chatted with me about how the agency is investing in immersive ways to tell human stories of conflict and crisis.
Laura Oliver: Your reporting mainly focuses on Syria, but you work with partners in Yemen and have also produced reports on Libya. What stories does Frontline in Focus tell?
Khalil Ashawi: From the beginning of the war in Syria until 2017 – 18, all the news [organizations] we were talking about was fighting and how it was going on the pitch. Most of them did not talk about what happened to people who had fled their homes. We cover some stories from the military side, but we focus on human interest stories. For the past two years we’ve focused on one specific person with something to say because the media wants that kind of [character-led] story too.
Hail Khalaf: At the beginning of the war, there was movement within the conflict and the news agencies were interested in these stories. It’s been 11 years now and it’s a protracted crisis. You have people who have been living in tents for 10 years. We try to emphasize this human side, which is often overlooked. This includes our story about the man who founded a stray cat shelter and a report about the man who can see his home from camp because he’s on the front lines but can’t go there. War is not just combat and conflict.
People liked the concept of citizen journalists at the start of the conflict. Agencies and embassies gave people materials to take pictures and send them. However, no one gave them any training, even though it was the only source for the outside world to see what was happening inside Syria. It has worked for some, but there are others who need attention and mentorship. We need to build the capacity of people who consider themselves journalists but who sometimes need this professional training.
LO: How does virtual reality and augmented reality storytelling help tell these stories?
KA: Producing media stories using VR and AR technology is a new and revolutionary approach in media production that helps viewers step out of traditional news viewing and become immersed in the experience. Have you imagined yourself walking down a destroyed street in a conflict zone? It’s something we provide.
Hong Kong: You can show a lot more in a VR or AR story than in a normal video. The spectator lives much more and puts himself in the place of the subject. AR is amazing technology: you can have a person in your kitchen or in your living room telling you the story of how their family died in a chemical attack.
KA: We produced a VR livestream to tell the story of a Syrian refugee camp with journalists able to speak to anyone in the camp with live translation. We also produced a story for Dutch TV using this livestream. We are currently working on the development of the AR project, focusing on children’s stories in conflict and war zones. The project is expected to produce over 30 stories using AR technology.
LO: What equipment is needed?
Hong Kong: Equipment and assembly are expensive: some 360º cameras cost $800 and that does not include microphones and cables. Some 8K cameras cost $4,500, so we try to partner with a manufacturer. Stories can also take a lot of time and resources. There were five people on call to provide live translation for the VR livestream.
KA: Editing for VR and AR is difficult. For AR you need a scanner to scan the object you want to display. Objects often come out with formal flaws, especially for moving objects such as human beings or animals. We then export them to processing software and process them little by little until we get the best possible shape. We then reduce the object size, as the objects come out in large sizes which cannot be viewed online if the internet connection is poor. The final step is to link these objects to our press hardware using software applications and display interfaces designed specifically to display AR models.
Another problem in Syria is the Internet: outside of homes and offices, we don’t have an Internet connection, so we have satellite Internet that travels with us.
LO: What are the challenges for journalists, the public and newsrooms?
KA: Because we are reporting from Syria, security is a concern. We provide our staff with helmets, body armor and safety training. We use a 360º live feed to know where our correspondents are: if the connection is lost, there may be a problem.
Hong Kong: On the security side, we always do a thorough assessment before sending someone anywhere. Also, although citizen journalists often have a good relationship with the community, you should explain to the community why you are taking these photos.
KA: Technologically advanced countries have no difficulty watching such stories, with their high-speed and excellent internet infrastructure, and the availability of various types of VR headsets. Viewers in countries with poorer technology and internet connections can watch stories using their mobile phones. We are also looking to reduce the size of our stories to make them accessible and available to everyone, regardless of the quality of the internet connection.
Hong Kong: I think these technologies are the future. It’s going to happen whether we like it or not – and we love it. It’s good to be one step ahead of the game.
This post was originally published by the Reuters Institute and is reproduced here with permission.
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Laura Olivier is afUK-based freelance journalist. She reports for the Reuters Institute for the study of journalism at Oxford University, and has previously written for the Guardian and the BBC. She is co-founder of the Society of Independent Journalistsa global Slack community for freelance journalists.