By Diana Barrett, The Fledgling Fund

I am fascinated with immersive storytelling projects that are pushing the boundaries of more traditional storytelling modes and have been exploring a range of projects—some are rudimentary and some have great power, such as de la Pena’s Hunger in Los Angeles project.  Many rely on technologies that allow us to move between digital and physical realities and these technologies are becoming more accessible.  Cameras are developing at lightning speed, computer generation is being used broadly, born in the gaming industry and now finding homes elsewhere. For example, Virtual Reality (VR) was once out of reach for most people, but last month New York Times subscribers received Google Cardboard in their Sunday papers.  And, there are an increasing number of platforms where content can be accessed.

Beyond VR, there are immersive essays, projects incorporating augmented reality applications and other interactive projects using both still photography and video.  What is clear is that we are no longer limited to the traditional rectangle so familiar to film viewers, nor to a linear framework through which a plot is developed. We can be part of the experience; we can be “in” the experience and feel it all around us, sometimes unable to separate ourselves from our surroundings.

In order to better understand the potential of this kind of work, we reached out to a range of people in the field including funders, curators, makers and strategists. Our goal is to better understand the technology and from Fledgling’s perspective to understand how different kinds of immersive storytelling move us in unique ways.   I personally have a lot of questions about how we perceive VR, whether what we see affects our brain differently from the way we perceive traditional media. Do we remember them longer?  Are these experiences really “empathy machines”?  

These questions remain and I suspect the answers will emerge overtime.  But one of the key lessons that we have taken away is not to hone in too quickly on one technology, such as VR, but to think broadly about the kind of immersive or interactive experience one wants to create and why.  This is particularly important for those who want to use their projects for social justice.  The storytelling modality needs to be matched to the project’s goals, and of course, to its resources.

I am excited to announce our Special Initiative on Emerging Forms of Documentary Storytelling.  Through this initiative, we will continue learning as much as we can, explore different projects, and do some strategic funding.  We’ve started by supporting Magnum Foundation’s Photography Expanded and Tribeca’s Interactive Media Working Group as a way to support learning in the field.   We also have provided some support for individual projects including Collisions, Oakland Fence Project,  Quipu Project, Water Warriors, and NannyVan.  Each of these have strong social impact potential and provide an opportunity for us to learn.

We are excited to continue to deepen our understanding of this emerging field.

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