an immersive tour of Selma’s divides
Experience Fractured Tour
This is an experiment in a journalistic, immersive, self-guided documentary “tour” of the economic, racial and ideological divides in Selma, Alabama. Navigate through a series of 360° panoramas of places in Selma – 50 years after the “Bloody Sunday” voting rights march of 1965, and 150 years after the end of the Civil War – with annotated interviews that reflect the fractured conversation about race and a common thread of economic distress in America. Some of these stories are uncomfortable to listen to. In one interview, a supporter of a memorial to Nathan Bedford Forrest (Confederate general, slave trader and first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan) reveals sincerely held beliefs that nonetheless underlie America’s most visible racism. The conversation is included not to legitimize these beliefs, but to be confronted, face-to-face, just as we experienced it.
We urge viewers to take the time to listen to all the pieces. Depending upon the mobile device, the users can download and navigate the tour for tablet or smartphone in 2D, or using a VR headset such as Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift or Zeiss VR One have the full functionality and immersive 3D experience.
Exploring Empathy and Perspective with Virtual Reality
2015 is the year that Selma, Alabama became “ground zero” for media attention — marking 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King led nonviolent marchers across the Edmund Pettis bridge into the face of police brutality, galvanizing the national will to strengthen voting rights in the South. Like most commemorative anniversaries, Selma’s landmark history has been packaged for quick consumption by both media and politicians, trivializing its most important ideas and lessons, while obscuring current injustices.
Within hours of our arrival at the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge, media coverage of yet another death of an unarmed African American man, Freddie Gray, at the hands of police provided a painful backdrop to the beginning of our journey. As we edited stories about the public performances of white supremacy amidst the powerful symbols of the Civil Rights Movement, it was clear the ghosts of Selma’s troubled past had not gone anywhere and continue to haunt not only Selma, but also our country, its language and culture. The experience in Selma eerily foreshadowed the tragic events that would unfold in the following weeks with the massacre of nine African American men and women in the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina
Virtual Reality immerses the viewer in a story environment from a 1st person perspective. Although its current market development is driven by entertainment and gaming, early practitioners exploring journalistic applications have found that the storytelling power of VR lies in its potential as a tool of empathy. Our experiment in VR explores its use in reporting on race and social justice — subjects that are burdened with tension, divisiveness and misunderstanding. We are not using technology for technology’s sake – we look to new technologies to enable, empower and push conversations in new directions.
This remains an experiment in process. In VR, journalists are challenged to rethink the storytelling conventions we’ve learned and how we go about working the field. Do we still need to “clean up” interview audio or do incorporate the cacophony of ambient sounds – birds chirping, the roar of truck engines and traffic noise – that are traditionally considered distractions to the story? Or do we need to capture both, mixing them in new ways to reinforce the immersive experience of “being there”? We have more questions than answers, but we’re documenting behind the scenes to share our own problem solving for other journalists and educators experimenting in VR. The learning potential (and steep curve) was illustrated when Emily Pelland – the student who co-produced this project – commented, “What would I do differently next time? …Everything.”
— Joel Beeson, Associate Professor, WVU Reed College of Media
Another Reality: Selma through the Spherical Lens
The traditional methods of multimedia journalism transformed with the use of the VR. We had to strategically collect the sights and sounds that would ensure a virtual experience. I hid behind large objects to avoid the vast reach of the 360° camera. Fortunately local community members reacted amiably regardless of my bizarre behavior.
Through the Ricoh Theta 360 camera, Selma felt surreal. I was in a virtual reality navigating a true reality. The frame of view vanished, and the story felt more expansive.
The VR program allows the photographer to view the still image shortly after it renders on a connected smartphone via the camera’s Wi-Fi. Because of the globular lens, the camera could be placed closely to the subject, and in the midst of action, without the sense of encroachment. Oftentimes, I felt I could not place it close enough.
VR is a multi-sensory experience, and audio represents as much of the reality as the images. I recorded the ambience of Selma through my personal, portable recorder to help illuminate the immersive experience. The audio on the video setting was fair, but I created extra audio in case the levels peaked, which they often did.
Every convention we have in journalism was subject to question. When it came time to storyboard the piece, we were faced with a whole new set of questions: “Where do we start?” “Is it linear or nonlinear?” “How much should we curate and how much should be discovery?”
Regardless of the immense possibilities of this new technology, the camera alone could not capture the true essence of Selma. Without the voices of the people, the project would be a hollow tour of Selma. With this piece, we hope to present some of the complexities of the history of Selma and the present perspectives of its residents. The user chooses where to travel and who to meet — much like we did in our reporting journey. We hope the accumulated stories enlighten the virtual visitor and give voice to Selma’s survivors.
— Emily Pelland, Multimedia Journalism Student, Morgan State University