Along with HI’s own research and development of different tools to aid media producers study impact and the ways media interacts with the social landscape, we are also excited to speak with those working in the media fields. In our new series, HI will be talking with media makers, highlighting their projects, learning what inspires them, and showing the kind of change and impact they hope to produce.
Elaine Sheldon and Jeff Soyk met while attending the Media Art MFA program at Emerson College. Elaine, a filmmaker, and Jeff, an interactive media designer, decided to work together in 2012 on an interactive documentary and participatory project titled Hollow. Launched June 20th, 2013, Hollow examines the issue of deindustrialization in America, focusing on a coal mining community in McDowell County, West Virginia that has lost population after the coal industry left the area, a trend taking place all over the country and across different industrial landscapes (steel, manufacturing, etc.). By exploring a specific case, Elaine and Jeff provide a glimpse into why people choose to stay, and what the future of the area looks like to the remaining residents.
Hollow trailer. Courtesy of Hollow Interactive, LLC.
Elaine and Jeff selected McDowell County not only because it was the “poster child” for deindustrialization, but also because it was a chance to get the community involved in the telling of their story, to put real faces and experiences next to the data that exists about the area. Additionally, Elaine is a West Virginia native and grew up in the county next door to McDowell. With this project, the Hollow team also explored the potential of new media technologies and popular online platforms, showing how they can augment and enhance the storytelling experience and create a more engaging narrative.
Hollow is the first project these two media makers embarked on together, but it is by no means the only media project each of them will work on. HI had the chance to sit down with Elaine and Jeff, learning about what and who inspires and influences them, their long-term goals in storytelling and social impact, and how HI and our work might help them achieve their goals down the line.
Tell me about the situation that inspired Hollow and how you chose to approach it?
Elaine: 80,000 people have left since 1950, they’re down to 20,000 and the project explores why these people have stayed and what they feel the future of this place could be, both young and old perspective, from people in their 90s who have been there and ran a business for 60 years to people who are 12 years old and seeing it in a totally different way.
There [are] 30 short films, some of them were shot by me, some were shot by the community. There [are] data visualizations that demonstrate McDowell County, WV; it’s a county that you can Google the headlines and you get a lot of sensational headlines about poverty and lack of education and it’s sort of the poster child for a lot of these issues. We wanted to take those data sets that are often used to identify this community and put a story next to that because data is a lot easier of a pill to swallow but a personal story next to that data isn’t.
It’s about a 2 ½ hour experience, 6 chapters. It’s nonlinear. Jeff created this experience that’s parallax scrolling; the more you scroll, the more images appear, the more sounds are triggered. There [are] parts where you can unlock additional content that the community contributed, and it’s really just a mix of video, photo, audio, data, user generated content, and Instagram, API, Google maps, Twitter. It’s kind of a crazy conglomerate 3 hour experience of what it’s like in small town WV.
Elaine filming at the Olga Coal Co. Machine Shop. Photo courtesy of Hollow Interactive, LLC.
What are your long-term goals in the fields of media and social impact?
Jeff: I’m trying out various techniques in this field of documentary and cross platform storytelling, so I’ve got a few projects I’m working on currently. [I’m] just trying to experiment with different strategies and ideally work with story content I feel is meaningful, either helping tell the stories of underrepresented communities or groups of people or just trying to tap into something I think is important. For example, there is one project I am getting involved in relative to prisons for profit, which I think is a huge issue, one relative to green spaces in Boston, which I think is very important to our collective relationship to green spaces in the urban environment, and another project relative to a small town in Bisbee, Arizona, which is like a borderlands town in southern Arizona,
Right now everyone is experimenting a lot in this field and trying to mix media, so my long term is really to ride this out as far as I can and see what meaningful stories I can help be told through various combined mediums, and see what kinds of opportunities arise.
Community Footage: A Walk Through Keystone from Hollow Interactive on Vimeo.
Elaine: My goals are in the same way as Jeff’s, my goals aren’t really platform driven or technology driven, they’re more driven around stories. I’m interested in stories that maybe we’re not hearing as much about, we’re only hearing one side of or that could be fleshed out a little bit more, or about getting a bit deeper with the people that are actually experiencing them. I’m also interested in stories that have a clear action associated with them. I think in impact it’s really messy and frustrating at times to try to make media and make change and I know in the case of Hollow, major infrastructural issues and health issues and education issues can’t be changed over the course of one year of the project being launched.
I’m in the process of trying to identify stories that have strong linked communities behind them that need action on the ground where we can connect our users with that action. I think Hollow just sort of opened my eyes as a filmmaker, that’s what I had done previous to this, I had never done anything in the new media realm and it just opened my eyes that storytelling offline and across platforms and reaching people where they are is where I’m interested in going.
Jeff: I’m not really focused on platforms so much, I am looking at strategies to bring meaningful stories to light and I’m interested in social change as well, I don’t come from much of a traditional film/storyteller background but I am interested in the unique collaboration between media makers who have those kind of varying backgrounds. Just figuring out what the most appropriate techniques are, project by project and not necessarily coming up with a strict platform or set of standards that we should all be following within this genre. So many opportunities to stretch the limits, push boundaries, not just put it into a box.
How might HI, and our forthcoming platform StoryPilot, help you achieve these goals?
Elaine: I think any tools that help filmmakers take more of that facilitator and impact role are important. When we were first fundraising for Hollow there wasn’t a whole lot of money out there for the post side of impact. It was like “raise enough money to get this out there and then do what you’re going to do,” but there wasn’t a whole lot of emphasis on how you would do that. I love now that you have to think of all of those things before you start production. It sounds like a great tool, because right now we’re measuring the impact on our own; to have a tool that would help us do that would be interesting.
I will say I think I measure impact for Hollow a bit different that other interactive documentaries because I measure more on the individual level and the impact that I’ve seen and I’ve heard from community members after the project. That’s not seen through Facebook likes or comments or shares or Tweets, really it’s an individual feeling of pride that’s been brought back to the community and a sense of agency. I think some things are hard to measure, is what I’m trying to say.
One-person shoot in December 2011. Photo courtesy of Hollow Interactive, LLC.
Jeff: I think it’s great to have those kinds of tools but it can’t be the only thing to rely upon. Using a combination of the various tools that are out there for analytics, I think things like that can help maybe with funding and case studies and so forth, relative to how successful a media experience has been and the audience that it’s pulling in and things of that sort. I do it so we can look at things a little more closely and, on an individual level, to see the impact on real people, it’s incredibly important as well.
What do you think of impact measurement? If you had to do our job, what would you do?
Elaine: One of the things that I feel is missing in this space is I there’s too much pressure on filmmakers to do [the] role of a community organizer. When that pressure is put on the filmmaker, they not only become the person that is carrying the weight of storytelling but also the weight of organizing community and sustaining that organization. Something I would like to see in the impact world is a mentorship, or a pairing up of people that have experience in carrying out participatory action on the ground and have experience with creating campaigns and stop putting as much pressure on filmmakers and media makers to make that.
I think it’s a lot to ask honestly, and I think we fall short because it is too much. That’s the biggest thing I see the need for; I would love to partner with someone who has experience in holding public campaigns and events and how to organize those because when I do them, they’re not the same because I don’t have experience. It would be like a community organizer who has no experience making a film being expected to make a film that accurately tells the story of what they’re trying to do. It’s kind of silly. That’s the gap I see personally.
Jeff: I think that’s a good point, having support on that end would be huge and it’s difficult also in terms of the approach. You get professionals who work in the ad world and have a lot of marketing background and things like that. I’d be careful in terms of being a kind of grassroots effort vs. being a heavily tailored marketing campaign, depending on the project, the story, the way it’s trying to be told, and the goals of the project. It’s hard to know where to draw the line; it’s a lot of grey area.
Like Elaine’s saying, you get invested in a community and I know that she’s in contact with people in the community in McDowell County and where do you draw the line? Where does the project eventually end or does it not end? And then who’s responsible for keeping things sustained over time? Maintenance, if you want to talk about web projects, just things being monitored and maintained over time. A lot of roles and responsibilities aren’t accounted for and then it falls under somebody’s lap. Having a support program like that is a great idea.
How has a piece of media content influenced you?
Elaine: Two things for me: when I was going into Hollow, if we’re talking specifically about Hollow, one of the things that I tried to propel us away from were the typical representations of Appalachia. You can see them on popular MTV shows like Buck Wild and other things like that, so I’d say that’s the anti-inspiration, but it’s just as much of an inspiration to get away from those images. That’s one thing I would say, looking at typical media representation and trying to do the opposite of that.
The second thing I would say Kate Cizek’s second round of the High Rise Project, One Millionth Tower, where the NFB worked with a group of people living in high rises to redesign the spaces around them and they actually took it to city hall. It’s not really the web GL side I’m inspired by, it’s the process of including the community to work with architects, to say “this is what we’d like our spaces to look like.” I think we pulled a lot of that [off]; we didn’t have the resources that they had to do that thing, but we did have kids draw what they wanted their future community center to look like and we tried to do some lower tech versions of that. I just think there is a lot of power in telling people “you have the skills to figure out what it is that you need,” we don’t need to come in here and tell you what you need. I’m very inspired by that form of media, giving control back to the people who live it.
Jeff: I’m definitely inspired by projects that blur the line between media maker, filmmaker/storyteller, and audience and subjects. I think any effort that works on getting people more involved, empowering those other individuals and making it more of a collaborative storytelling process are huge because the more and more I watch things, I become more aware of how certain forms of media are very manipulative in certain ways.
I think it’s really interesting to challenge that a little bit; when you get more people involved in the storytelling process, it breaks down a lot of boundaries when it comes to our expectations and our control over something. A lot of audiences don’t really go into some of the forms of media. I think it’s really interesting with interactive that we can empower so many different people and make them a part of generating content that has a huge effect on how the story’s told and becoming a part of that process. They become more educated about what goes into telling a story as well, and I think educating audiences is huge.
Elaine spent the day in a deep mine filming Bobby Lee, a McDowell County resident who runs a continuous miner. Photo courtesy of Hollow Interactive, LLC.
Are there any storytellers that you especially respect for doing innovative or impactful work around a social issue?
Elaine: I actually find more inspiration from photographers, people who use the power of one image for change. Ami Vitale is a woman who I really look up to; she’s an international photographer, whose work you can see in NatGeo and other publications. [Also] Katerina Cizek, I’m very impressed with what she does; there’s no doubt that she has a huge heart for this topic that she’s been covering for so long. I have a lot of respect for her.
I think there are a lot of other areas to look in to be inspired by, whether it’s photography or performance art, you can find inspiration [for] making change. Even muralists that are using their public art to make statements are pretty impactful, more so than a website maybe. I’m sort of in that space, that’s where I look for [inspiration]. I don’t necessarily look to the person next to me for inspiration I look maybe across the way.
Jeff: I would say I’m definitely into this kind of work because of the iDoc world. Beyond that, I think photojournalism, I have a lot of friends in that field. I guess it would be all over the place for me as well; I’m having a tough time thinking about individuals, especially in the field like iDocs right now, it’s kind of all over the place, but I can go all over the place. When you’re thinking of murals, I can think of Banksy too with graffiti art, people just going out there and manipulating their environment and challenging our idea of certain things, like consumerism.
I think it’s a great point; I’m definitely in support of Elaine’s idea of looking across multiple mediums and people doing all sorts of forms of social change. Beyond Katerina Cizek, [who] Elaine mentioned, since she has worked closely with communities in her project, another that comes to mind would be the Yes Men, whom I had a chance to meet as they were working to translate their community activism efforts into the digital space. They’re obviously very issue driven and working hard to empower activists.
Elaine: There’s one group called Dysturb, a photo collective, I think they’re in Paris right now, they’re not in all cities yet. They print one huge news photo of the week and plaster it on the side of the building. Whether it’s a school or whatever, educating people with one photo, bringing [images of] conflict or war into an area and just making it more public because even though we have a lot more access to news now I don’t think people are any more educated now before one way medium.
I’d Be Lost To Death Without This Place from Hollow Interactive on Vimeo.
The second is a project called Quipu interactive doc, it’s a Peruvian project about forced sterilization of women in Peru. It’s a beautiful project; working in a community that’s disconnected, they use phones to allow women to call in and tell their stories rather than taking video cameras and doing all this high tech media, and it’s this beautiful story. Those two people really inspire me because I think that they’re taking “this is our mission” and they work backwards. “Our mission is this, now what mediums do me use to achieve that mission?” which I think is a really important step to take.
Do you have any upcoming projects and/or events that you’d like to promote?
Jeff: I mentioned a little of them before. Regarding the green spaces project called Wander Wonder Wilderness, it’s part essay film, mobile app and website. The essay film is the personal experience of a former professor of mine, Paul Turano-who is a filmmaker- and his experiences with green spaces. Urban wilds is the term used, and his personal experience you can see through the film. Then we encourage audiences to access this mobile app that allows them to generate their own content in these spaces and access green spaces in the greater Boston area. Then that content becomes aggregated on the website. We’re looking to see how people are responding to these spaces and what’s meaningful to them at various times of day and seasons and so forth and see what kind of stories come out of that.
Also the Bisbee, Arizona one, which is a small town that also has some challenges similar to McDowell, not at the same level but is definitely experiencing depopulation and issues relative to that. But the story that we’re looking to tell right now is about an individual young man: bi-racial, openly gay senior in high school. He’s actually an example of youth exodus, in a way the opposite story. The Bisbee community is a very heavy arts community and it’s all about his support system, his decisions, and trying to find opportunity elsewhere. From the Plantation to the Penitentiary project relative to the prison for profit system, I am just now in early talks with the team members there, but that’s potentially one that is upcoming.
Keystone Youth Workshop. Photo courtesy of Hollow Interactive, LLC.
Elaine: I am starting a podcast with a friend that was actually one of my editors on Hollow and focuses on women working in the intersection of film, online media, television, fiction, and nonfiction. We’re launching on January 14th with our first episode with Katja Blichfeld, she won an Emmy for casting on 30 Rock and is the writer and director of High Maintenance, Vimeo’s first original series. We wanted to do this series because there is a growing amount of women in this space, but there is not a very cohesive community. There’s a small community; we wanted to make a show where we could all have a conversation and create more of a community.
Then I’m working in Miami on a project about the invasive lionfish, it has taken over the coral reefs in South Florida, the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico and it literally eats everything and has no predators. It’s decreasing fish populations up to 90% on some reefs, which is pretty devastating. We’ve been diving and filming with those fisherman and meeting with restaurants and trying to get lionfish on the table of hotels and restaurants in south Florida and the Caribbean. That’s a project that very much has an action attached to it. That will be launching in the spring or early summer.
This interview was conducted on December 22, 2014 over Skype.