Each time I come to New York I wonder why I have come. Each time I leave the city, I leave wondering why I hadn’t come earlier. I get tired of being there, but no other city clears my mind, and adjusts my focus. And once again discussions and dialogues with friends in New York have helped inspire some new ideas for the coming year. A quick summary and I will write more as some of these things are still running around in my head:

First, a re-structuring of the Pakistan justice work. I finally figured out how to re-write the texts and connect them more explicitly to the images. This is something that I have wanted to do for some time but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. Or perhaps I just had not given it enough thought. But now there is a re-design in the work. It is not a web-site redesign, but an information structure re-design. It has been clear from the earliest stages of the Pakistan work that it was going to be very text intensive. After all, I am exploring fundamental issues of structural injustice and violence, social and economic history, and much more. You can’t capture all that in a few captions, or even a nicely written paragraph or two. The project requires the inclusive of a broad range of literary, historical, academic and other works to accompany the portraits and testimonies. In fact, the structure of the project is such that the individual testimonies are meant to lead us towards all the vast range of questions, and issues I want to explore. It is the personal stories that begin the search for the academic or intellectual one. But there was no obvious way for me to make this connection – a way to start with a personal history, and from within that history, connect to broader policy decisions, historical choices and such that affected lives at an individual and societal level. But now I have figured out a way to do that and am re-working all the texts in the project to reflect this testimony driven approach. Here is what it will look like:

The first image here shows the active buttons that appear next to the testimonies – the user arrives at this page and read the individual testimony – note that the user can already see the ‘active tag’ buttons next to the testimony:

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As she reads the text, she can move the cursor onto the active tag buttons and read more details about an issue or a question raised in the testimony text itself. For example, the image below shows her selecting a button to see where the prisoner mentioned in the testimony comes from:

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Next she can select another active tag and learn about what the Pakistani government has done to support women like her who may have lost their principle bread-winner and have to now rely on charity and family help to raise her children:

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And she can also learn more about the prisoner himself and how he ended up in Bagram:

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And finally she can see the work that is being done by legal activists to help release the men from detention in Bagram, and learn about an organisation that is involved in this effort. She can also use this active tag to link to to the full report published on the situation of the prisoners in Bagram

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As you can see, what I am trying to do now is that instead of long text essays, I have broken out the text into shorter pieces that are more accessible, and directly connected to the testimony and circumstance being read about. The same image to information mapping is done for landscape images where the scene may be for example a view of the home of a prisoner, and the tags speak to the economic conditions in which he lives, where his house is located, how many people live there and so on. The point is to make it more intuitive to learn about the issues I am raising in the Pakistan work and do it through the stories of the people I am meeting. Using these tags connected to the text makes it easier I feel to not only read more, but also to understand the broader, underlying issues that have created the problem in the first place.

You can see a live version of this effort at this link: Ameena Amanatullah, Wife of Prisoner # 1432 – Amanatullah Ali

As the user goes through all the 30 testimonies, for example, she would then have read active tag texts that will give her details about:

  • The history of the Bagram prison
  • Why innocent men have been captured and imprisoned there
  • The evolution of America’s indefinite detention policies
  • The meaning of habeas corpus rights
  • The use of torture and how it was legally justified
  • Pakistani collusion in the practice of extraordinary renditions
  • The legal actions taken in Pakistan and elsewhere on behalf of the imprisoned men
  • Why it is difficult to release prisoners who have not been charged or accused of a crime?

And more. The testimonies provide the link to each of these broader discussions which the user can read a summary of on the image , and then click into the larger piece on the website itself.

As you can see, information has now been divided up into discrete packets, allowing the viewer to navigate it as they see fit. They can just read the testimony if they wish, or read a bit more about the issue the subject is speaking about, or read in more dept by clicking and going to the website. The tags also connect to other photo galleries, audio recordings, google maps, online articles and so on. Each image, each panel then become a rich navigation mechanism to other information that can be explored.

The Pakistan project is undergoing this design shift as we speak. Some of it is ready, but I am re-working the entire project, removing the long texts, re-editing them into discrete pieces that can then be connected to the images. It takes time, but only because I am coming at it after a year of work.

The thing to do now however is to go even a step further. This is going to now take place in a new project in Rwanda. It is the culmination of the first step I took when I was in Srebrenica last summer. The goal  now is to begin with text, and to create images that begin in facts, history, commentary and ideas, and then to travel out and figure out how to visually accommodate these ideas. The information architecture becomes the driver of images sought. What I am trying to do is to create images that become the key to the texts, and the actual interface into the ideas. Not to make it pedantic, but the idea isn’t to just create a 1;1 mapping of text / fact to image. The idea is to explore a scene for its informational and as well as its aesthetic and creative possibilities.

The viewer has to navigate inside an image and read more details in the places she finds interesting. This is a deeper level of embedding and I hope to experiment with it starting this spring. I have two collaborators that I have invited to joint he effort. I will contribute my diaries, and personal writings, they – two PhD researchers from Harvard, will contribute their ideas and perspective. Each image will then be a site of visual exploration, but also intellectual exploration, with information divided up to be easily readable and understandable. Such an information architecture driven photography hasn’t been tried before. At least not that I know of. Well, strictly speaking there are two projects that I know of that I can only guess emerged using a similar approach. I will talk about those later.

I wanted to share this here because I am trying to work through the details and would love to hear from anyone who has been thinking of similar things. I see a lot of so-called ‘new’ things that are being tried, but I find that almost all of these attempts are largely design oriented – cooler interactive features, smoother web work, nice presentations and what not. What I feel is missing is a fundamental re-thinking of the very method of doing documentary. We have a lot of people speaking about tools and toys, and we have lots of multi-media works that use photos, audio, video and text to produce what was once just simply called a documentary film. But what hasn’t really been looked at is you can create documentary assets and information packages in a fundamentally different way. That is, that it is not just about captions, or an article, or an introductory paragraph, but about re-thinking the discrete information elements that go towards creating an online photo project. And to do this as step one, and not an after-the-fact arrangement of gathered information. I don’t have a good example projects that have tried to re-work the entire way of doing the project, and re-think the data sets, information arrangements, and their relationship to the photograph. I would love to see more ideas so please do write to me and share. In the mean time I will continue to write here and share my schematics.

The first test will be in Kigali, Rwanda. And I hope to begin it in January. I am waiting for permission to begin the work.

On a different note – the Pakistan Justice Project has been placed onto Instagram, and it will also make an appearance in New York Fashion Week next February. Inspired by the portraits of the Bagram prisoner families, the lovely designer Ammar Belal has come up with a fascinating concept that begins with the portraits as inspirations for his designs. It isn’t as simple as it sounds, and I have only allowed this to happen because I loved what Ammar is trying to do with the work. And how he has made it something more than what it is as photographs. More importantly, he has been engaging an entirely new community of people – people whom I could never quite reach. And this is fundamental to the entire campaign we put together. So I am excited to see how ti all comes together in February.

And we are still working to have an event at Columbia University in the Spring of 2014 to talk about the ‘war on terror’ and in particular the struggle for the release of the men being detained in Guantanamo and Bagram.

More soon.

Time to leave New York behind and concentrate on getting new work online.