Many years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing the late Chris Hondros speak at the Eddie Adams Workshop. During his presentation, he showed an entire of sequence of images that led up to this 2005 image of a 5-year-old Samar Hassan with blood covered hands following the death of her parents in Iraq.
Not every frame was visually outstanding. Hondros was “working” the scene as an embedded photographer. Although many of the images were swathed with the darkness of night, the sequence still gave me a (foreboding) sense of place that wasn’t accomplished with the single image. Alas, print and online publications are designed for the still image and the occasional embedded video. Only a single image ran in most publications.
The still image can be iconic. It is, after all, a fraction of a second selected to tell an entire story. Video can be more insightful (inciteful?) because it can show the events preceding and following the decisive moment complete with audio. Video, however, has a tendency to be clunky because moments unfold in real-time. A second is a second unless a video has been highly edited.
Other variants exists. Timelapse is familiar to nearly everyone. A stationary camera tethered to an intervalometer captures images at a regular pace, and the resulting set is stitched into a short movie. Who hasn’t seen a timelapse of a flowers opening, buildings being erected, or the Milky Way emerging in the night sky. Less common is the hyperlapse, in which the camera moves through space while images are captured.
Ten years after Hondros photographed Hassan, The New York Times published a feature entitled “Walking in War’s Path” that takes the viewer through a tour of eight different places in and around Gaza on the one year anniversary of the war. The perspective includes both Israelis and Palestinians – lives filled with destruction and fear.
Award-winning Chilean photographer Tomas Munita shot each vignette, walking through each scene taking photographs at seemingly regular intervals.
There is a first-person videogame quality to viewing the featurettes. Munita walks, turns, and pans in a way that a teenager might survey an apocalyptic landscape in DOOM or Grand Theft Auto. The pieces were often cinematic as well. Munita flies his camera over the shoulder of a woman in a piece about a Kibbutz located a mile from Gaza.
The walks were presumably done in a single “take” – reminiscent of the tracking shot in True Detective or Children of God. The feature is highly effective because it is so immersive. The hyperlapse gives the viewer a much better sense of place both geographically as well as temporally – there is a real banality and normalcy to the lives people live even in war zones.
Of course, the subjects are aware of Munita’s presence. A little girl mugs the camera as she jumps in its path. A man performing grueling physical therapy is interrupted as Munita enters the room. Munita is, in a sense, altering and influencing events, which would seemingly violate standard journalist code of ethics. But unless he instructed a groom to wait until he appeared, or told multiple patients to arrive at a clinic simultaneously, I’m not sure his presence creates any objectionable influence.
The Times’ technology is interesting as well. Although you can use a “table of contents” to jump from one featurette to another, you cannot completely skip within a piece. Using the timeline within a piece forces the viewer to watch a sped up sequence of images (in both forward and reverse).
The use of the full viewport leads to the unfortunate cropping of images. However, the Times employs a “focal point” so that even in restrictive viewports (e.g. a vertical oriented phone), you still see the intended subject.
In 2012, The New York Times redefined immersive, longform storytelling with Snowfall. While it remains to be seen whether this style of photojournalistic hyperlapse becomes as seminal a device, I think it represents a pivot within visual storytelling that can and should be exploited by more photographers and publications in the future.