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Is war reporting no longer viable? 'Welcome to Aleppo' film-maker on the battle to give a voice to the forgotten

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

If journalism’s business model is so broken that it can’t find a way to get Christian Stephen to work then I really think we have a problem.

Stephen is a one-off. Having run away from home at the age of 15 to film the riots on the West Bank, he has since covered conflict in Somalia, Afghanistan, Gaza, the Central African Republic, Iraq, Syria and other places blighted by armed fighting. He is still only 22.

He has dedicated his entire young adult life to studying the human condition in the midst of war and it has given him a unique perspective on the world.

He is also a highly talented and self-taught videographer. As a teenager, he took himself into the anarchy of Iraq to make a remarkable Vice documentary, ‘The Vicar of Baghdad’, highlighting the courage of local Anglican clergyman Andrew White as he tended to parishioners. More recently Stephen has become something of a figurehead for technology-driven innovation, after making 2015’s haunting ‘Welcome to Aleppo’, the first depiction of a war zone made in 360 video and a project that required him to spend hours dodging the bullets of snipers who hunted him like a deer.

He is not a mere thrill-seeker but someone who is largely driven by a desire to give a voice to the forgotten victims of war. “I’m incurably, hopelessly obsessed with talking to people in places that people don’t usually go to,” he says.

Stephen is highly articulate, with a deep understanding of the geo-politics of the Middle East, as he demonstrated in a long interview with Larry King on Russia Today (RT), shortly after ‘Welcome to Aleppo’ was released by news site RYOT (now part of the Huffington Post). “Great interview,” King purred admiringly at the end of the discussion, and the veteran broadcaster has done a few.

Many experienced war correspondents find it harder to venture to the most dangerous hot spots as they grow older and have families and other responsibilities. For Stephen, despite a “rough” experience in Syria that challenged his resolve, this remains his way of life.

And yet for all his talents and courage, he is not sure where his next commission is coming from, or even if there is a demand from news organisations for the type of insight his bravery can bring.

“Finding funding for journalism is incredibly difficult unless you have got reasons that are handed down from (a news outlet) on high and told exactly which two-and-a-half minute viral Facebook video they want you to make,” he says.

He self-funded the making of ‘The Vicar of Baghdad’ and has been living almost hand-to-mouth ever since. “Any money that I have made in the last five years has gone back into trying to get out and do more stuff,” he says. “You would like to be able to have a producer come up and go, ‘You can go here, here or here…’ but all the practicalities and logistics have always proved hard.”

'It would make my year to get $5,000 to cover refugee stories'

Given the news media’s relationship to an entertainment industry worth multiple billions, it seems a shame that audiences are being denied this frontline journalism, which lacks nothing in terms of compelling human drama. “People are getting hundreds of thousands to do strange animations or porn or games and it would make my year to get $5,000 to cover refugee stories but it just doesn’t happen – people who are financing this just aren’t interested,” says Stephen, a Londoner.

He operates through an independent multimedia organisation called Freelance Society, which he co-founded in 2013 with Texas-based Dylan Roberts, who is the chief executive. It has a noble mission: “To source, gather, package and deliver stories from the darkest and furthest reaches of the world. Our exploration of the internal and external human condition is overtaken only by our belief that every man, woman and child should have a voice, no matter how hard to reach.”

Stephen, it appears, wants to be the guy who makes it through, against all odds, to reach those that think they’ve been forgotten by the world. “I dislike fire-fights and air strikes - that sounds absurd to say out loud, of course you do – but I don’t get a high off adrenaline and I don’t chase it whatsoever. My addiction as it were is finding people who never thought that anyone would come and speak to them about what they are going through and asking them how they are doing.”

Freelance Society has embraced 360 filming and a fine example of its work is Roberts’s portrayal of Haitian cities and villages flattened by Hurricane Matthew last October. The film, made for Discovery’s video streaming platform Seeker VR, places the viewer in the midst of the destruction faced by communities still recovering from the effects of the 2010 earthquake. Roberts lives up to Freelance Society’s mission by highlighting the plight of rural people who have not been reached by global aid organisations distributing relief.

Freelance Society tries to avoid being sucked into the transient nature of the news cycle and to do work with enduring value. It is documentary filmmaking in the true sense. Stephen says: “We are less about feverishly exporting something that will be thrown away in five minutes [and] are really focused on context. We believe people deserve to have as much information, as much deep reaching background on things that are important globally, as we can possibly deliver.”

He talks of journalism as a “public service” and his desire to spend so much time on the ground is at odds with the demands of a modern newsroom. “The [news] outlets are full of wonderful people, honourable journalists with integrity but they are battling a tidal wave of demand from higher-ups and the corporate atmosphere,” he says. That demand is to produce, as cheaply as possible, “as much content as they can”.

VR "shouldn't be worshipped"

Given Stephen’s reputation for working in Virtual Reality (VR) and 360-degree filmmaking, it would seem the obvious route for him to market his story ideas to big news providers. I meet up with him at a Journalism 360 event, hosted by Google News Lab at the Google’s London offices, where the room is filled with optimism and excitement for the potential of VR and 360 for transforming the way that news media is consumed.

But, even after ‘Welcome to Aleppo’, Stephen is extremely careful not to overstate the value of this immersive viewing experience. It is nothing more than “a tool”, he says. “If it can draw attention to these issues that’s important and that’s its job as a medium for storytelling. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that the DNA of storytelling is telling each other stories by a fire, trying to conjure emotion. That doesn’t mean that VR becomes the centrepiece, that means that VR becomes something that can utilised. It shouldn’t be worshipped.”

Among those gathered at Journalism 360 are many who believe the technology is potentially game-changing.

One of the speakers, Louis Jebb, founder of London company, has been backed by Google’s Digital News Initiative to create a news app, Sphere, which uses machine learning to guide the user to different pieces of VR content.

He is convinced that the presence of Samsung’s Gear 360 camera with its Galaxy S7 smartphone could be a tipping point, by giving news groups access to masses of user-generated 360 content and simultaneously generating greater public interest in the format. “We are now at the consumer level with cameras and if the consumer is unbridled with what he or she is making that’s when you find out what’s interesting and news organisations [have] opportunities to get follows and shares,” he says.

Both the New York Times and the Lyon-based TV group Euronews recently launched major projects using Samsung equipment. In November, the NYT equipped journalists with the compact and lightweight Samsung Gear 360 cameras and set up its ‘Daily 360’ site with the message: “To Understand the World See it From Every Angle”. Its spherical filming allows the audience to be dropped into unusual surroundings, such as inside boxing rings during a bout, or among the crowds in a refugee camp, as well as bringing a broader perspective to shots taken from cliff edges or mountain tops.

The Associated Press (AP) is also at the forefront of VR/360 experimentation. It has used the format to expose the breadth of heart-breaking vandalism committed by Islamic State at the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud, in Iraq. On its new 360 channel, Big Story, AP has also given an all-round perspective inside the Cannon Ball protest camp at Standing Rock, North Dakota, making the viewer feel as if they are in the presence of those opposing the controversial oil pipeline.

AP reporters have been given access to two dozen “point-and-shoot” $500 Nikon Keymission 360 cameras, lavalier microphones, and a single day of training in what is no longer a technologically difficult operation. Paul Cheung, director of interactive and digital news production at the AP, who attended the Journalism 360 event in London, says: “The technology to produce and consume VR and 360 is still in its infancy but it’s evolving at lightning speed. In 2017, we want to improve our sound quality as well as mastering how these delicate 360 cameras operate across all environmental conditions.” All-around sound would take the news viewer even closer to the story.

The AP, he says, is willing to “share our technical insights and challenges” with other news organisations “so that we can all improve the story experience for our audiences”.

How much this will help Stephen, the first filmmaker to use VR on the frontline, is unclear. He agrees that VR filming from spectacular positions, or in the midst of protests, can make for compelling viewing. “I would say that VR is an expansive media and should be used for stories that demand scope and demand epic visualisation.”

But he also says that this same medium, when used crudely or in more intimate reporting, can undermine the artistry of filming and “degrade the entire narrative”.

Ultimately, the important thing is the story itself and not “the machinery to capture it”, he says, before returning to a favourite analogy. “We are focusing on the fire and not the things said around it.” Whether through VR/360 or traditional 2D, I hope he finds a way to give a voice to the forgotten.

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