What approaches are other countries taking to visual storytelling? How can storytellers thrive in places where journalism has been suppressed or simply doesn’t exist? Pondering these questions, we recently talked via Skype with Liza Faktor, director of the Moscow-based Objective Reality Foundation. We first learned of Objective Reality when Faktor asked for permission to translate some Storyboard content into Russian for the foundation’s new site. The more we learned, the more curious we got.
In recent months, Objective Reality has moved from physical to virtual workshops and is now creating an independent media platform as a public component of its educational website. Here are excerpts from our talk, in which Faktor looks at innovative visual storytelling, challenges to journalism in Russia, and what a web 2.0 model for collaboration on socially relevant projects might look like.
What is Objective Reality and how did it get started?
We’re nine years old—pretty old for a Russian foundation. Essentially we’re doing three things: We support documentation and forms long terms projects by photographers. We show work in photography and multimedia in exhibition form. And we do education.
Originally we started with physical workshops in 2005 and 2006. We did 10 regional workshops in Russia and CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States]. We would specify the regional center in diverse regions of Russia, we would bring the masters there and collect a group of students—from 20 to 50 people—then do one big workshop.
We found it extremely ineffective. In the end one week is not a long time to learn something, although we were trying to teach our students not so much the craft or journalistic techniques but how they can find demand in the market for their work and for them to understand how to become professionals.
Their understanding of the market was very basic. They didn’t even see what the national or international possibilities were. It’s very hard to develop as professionals if they can’t get their stories to their audience. They don’t really know what’s happening in digital media, how to use corporate projects to support their work, and how to raise money for their own projects.
So we decided to reorganize our educational program. First, we were looking for these people, trying to identify them throughout Russia and CIS. But now we’re trying to take this project international, so it doesn’t matter where the students are. Then we invite the masters to teach longer workshops than we’ve had in the physical world. It’s a different model. The masters spent much less time over the course of the week, but the length of the workshop can be as long as two or three months.
Do you focus on those who are doing documentary and journalistic work?
We are not trying to cover commercial photography as much, or the corporate world, advertising or fashion. That is not what we’re interested in.
I used to run a photo agency in Moscow. I constantly ran into the problem of photographers understanding what the client wants versus what he himself wants to do. I think it’s important for each photographer, journalist or artist—it doesn’t matter which—to get some kind of clarity about what you’re doing as your professional strength in your personal work versus what you’re doing to make some money. Some people cannot do purely commercial assignments. It really interferes with their personality.
What we want these talented people to understand is the choices they have and how they can make a living as visual storytellers in this changing market. We don’t divide our activities into market spheres, we just tell them where they can go.
Do you have a concern about documentary standards in this new media era?
I think it basically comes down to the question of ethics of each individual journalist. I think the old standards of documentation cannot always stay unchanged; they have to change with time. I personally don’t understand this obsession with manipulation of images, Photoshopping, et cetera. It takes attention away from the essence of what journalist is trying to show.
It’s so difficult to say what is true and what is staged, what has been done digitally. There are examples of outstanding work, journalistic work, that would be hard to separate from staged photography but it is successful at communicating the point. I don’t see a problem with that unless it hurts the subjects or the viewer. Everyone has to decide for himself what he can and what he can’t do.
What kinds of storytelling are you exploring?
First of all I should probably mention that our most exciting project so far is “Projections of Reality” in Moscow. An exhibition of avant-garde work, mostly, with speakers like Tim Hetherington and Brenda Kenneally. One of the guests at our event, Bjarke Myrthu, was a co-founder of Magnum in Motion. He is now doing work at a company called StoryPlanet, developing a program for nonlinear storytelling. His whole presentation is based around the fact that this is the most important thing developing in media. A lot of people feel there is a necessity to introduce nonlinear techniques, because they’re more interactive.
There is a project from a French photojournalist named Samuel Bollendorff, a huge project on coal in China, where you have to choose which direction the narrative takes. And then you go listen to interviews with coal miners, or you go into the directors’ office and he explains it. These stories can take different directions—I have never been this excited by technology in my life.
As we know multimedia now is very difficult for one person to produce—you have to know Final Cut, video and sound recording—all difficult things. But now there will be more technologies for people to incorporate even if they don’t know each other. If you are strong in video, you can work with someone who is strong in another area.
You were formerly funded by the Ford Foundation?
For five years, but then they left Russia last year, and now we’re funded by the Open Society Institute, and we’re looking for more funders.
Do you think Russian audiences’ expectations differ from those of U.S. audiences?
Of course they’re different. There are many reasons we decided to go international, but the audience is probably one of the main ones. It’s kind of a separate conversation, and a long one, what’s happening in Russia. Russian journalism, as far as a strict definition of journalism, is very young. It would be hard to categorize what happened in the Soviet Union as journalism; I’d categorize it more as propaganda.
Our journalism, young as it is, developed in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And then, even before we had a healthy media market, the global media crisis started to happen all over the world. I don’t think we had enough time in our country to build a strong relationship between media and audience.
But then there are very interesting processes happening in Russia on the Internet, blogging and people communicating though social networks. I think in general now there is more citizen activity than if they were reading a newspaper or magazine. But the problem with visual storytelling is that overall, the Western audience is more visually sophisticated than the Russian audience. This leaves small demand for high quality storytelling in the Russian media.
If the working professional wants to do exciting storytelling, he has to be able to work internationally. He has to be able to get his story to international clients or raise money if he wants to do serious projects in Russia. It’s not only an issue with photojournalism, it’s an issue with documentary film. Some of the most interesting documentary filmmakers are raising all their money abroad to do films in Russia.
Will those films be shown in Russia?
You have to understand we don’t have documentary film released for commercial circulation here. You can only see them at festivals. It’s not a healthy situation. I’m hoping it will find some outcome.
Is it a question of documentary work being discouraged, or is it something else?
I’ve had these problems even before the workshops, when I had my agency, especially with photographers based in central Asia. Also, as we are heading toward working outside of Russia and CIS as well, I think we’re going to encounter more of these issues.
One of our strong motivations is that we realize our projects may be the only serious reason for some of these photographers to continue shooting. Even if it’s not a problem in terms of censorship, if they don’t see any demand, they can get really discouraged and they don’t see the importance of documentation and the value of their access and their geographical location.
Can you talk a little about yourself and your background?
I was trained as a writing journalist but never worked as one. I started to take pictures in the early 90s. I met your [Nieman] Fellow Lucian Perkins, who has been working for The Washington Post forever. He and his friend were based in Russia during this time in the early ’90s. They decided to start a conference for photojournalists, and I worked with them in the late ’90s. Then I went to the U.S. and learned how nonacademic education boosts people in their professional work. I started the foundation in 2001. For many years, I continued to run an agency simultaneously. It became a major conflict of interest. I began concentrating on the nonprofit a few years ago.
Where do you hope to go from here?
Apart from going international, we are doing two major innovations this year. One will involve other people doing exciting nonacademic storytelling. If you’re an agency and educational institution that works locally—in southeast Asia or Africa, anywhere—and you have your own community of people where you do workshops or public lectures or community work but you don’t have capacity or experience for online education, we’re interested in using our site as a platform for those kinds of projects.
The other thing is that I’m starting to build a media component. We feel like there is so much interesting work being produced in the workshops, but so much of it does not reach the audience. So we are developing a media component that will be based in a social network where people will do their own editing and produce the media product, which will look like a Facebook page. It will be a participatory media model, where people will be their own editors.
The only basic difference from the Facebook structure is that users will be able to operate as groups in editorial teams. If you are an exciting media source, you can take your whole photo editing department and register on our site and create a whole media project. Or if you are a nonprofit organization that is dealing with refugees in a certain area and you want to do a project about that and invite people to submit content, you can do that. This is made easier by Creative Commons, where photographers and storytellers and users can speak to each other through this easy license and they don’t have to negotiate it themselves.