The something is still missing

So let’s take a look behind the scenes.

Last year, I wrote an article about the first “anniversary” (horribly inappropriate word in this context) of the complete closure of the Gaza Strip. It was exactly one year after the Egyptian President General Abdel Fatteh Sisi had closed the Southern border between his country and the Hamas controlled strip, which meant that, combined with the siege imposed by Israel, 2 million people in Gaza were effectively locked in.

Photographer Ezz Al Zanoon and I went down to the city of Rafah to get an idea of the deserted border crossing that hadn’t been opened for more than three months at that point. When we arrived at the big gate where people normally enter from the Palestinian side, the security guards told us that that day the body of a shahid was allowed to cross — a man from Gaza had died in the Ankara bombing last year and his body returned to Gaza. The security man said they only open the border for special occasions.

“Rafah only opens for the dead,” said Ezz to me. “So maybe I should die in order to leave.”

Ezz, 24 years old, has left Gaza only once in his life, and that was through a tunnel. He went to Sharm al Sheikh. But since Egypt decided to flood the tunnels with water and shut down the border crossing, Ezz’s hopes to one day get out of this tiny strip of land that were crushed.

Anyway. Long story short: In an attempt to get the reader closer to where we were I opened the piece with exactly this scene — us at the crossing, Ezz saying what he said. I thought the fact that even the photographer of this story is affected by the closure would be a way to show how real this is and how really everyone is affected.

The website we did the story for decided to run the piece without Ezz’s pictures and take agency photos instead, arguing that he is the photographer and thus cannot be one of my “sources” (I had about 15 other stories that I could have used as examples but Ezz’s words were just so exemplary of what the youth in Gaza feel).

We were baffled.

And we wondered: What is our role as journalists? Isn’t it depicting reality as it unfolds in front of our eyes?

But often news outlets, or editors sitting far away, have their own idea of what’s going on on the ground. And sometimes, I admit, a responsible outside perspective is good and even healthy for a story.

But often it is not.

And that’s where my project comes in.

In my last post, I wrote about how the plan to start a platform for raw journalistic content came about. I guess the Rafah story also played into this endeavour.

It definitely does so now, as thoughts about what it is exactly that I envision are beginning to take shape.

It’s about counternarratives.

And this is what the idea has come to: There’s a certain narrative in everything we get from mainstream media, and we need that (as long as it is done responsibly, which is a whole other discussion). There is, of course, a need for some sort of purposefully framed and edited stuff in order to understand the wider context of what’s going on in this world. We need the background articles and the features and the analyses and the interviews so we can comprehend.

But, as written in the piece before, that’s not enough in an ever-faster globalising world that is globalising by the day, where the risk of misunderstandings and misconceptions of the “others” is growing. The others being the ones who are not from the same cultural and/or societal background who, whether one wants it or not, the West is forced to deal with — as an inherent result of globalisation.

My theory is that in order to really understand what’s going on somewhere else, we cannot rely only on what the foreign correspondents think they see and understand. We need to be taken by the hand by someone who is really close to the ground, who is from there and can tell us what they see — without an editor as an intermediary. And ideally it is someone like Ezz who has a story to tell himself and happens to have an incredible talent with the camera in his hands.

This is the goal of counternarratives: to be the first portal for the raw material journalists collect every day that doesn’t go into the story.

If we imagine the foreign correspondent to see 180° — counternarratives would give us the other 180° so together we have a whole big view of things.

In the example above, this would be Ezz’s story, and the photos and clips we collected while we were exploring the deserted checkpoint.

The idea for now is letting the user navigate through the site by:

  • people
  • land
  • theme or
  • form

The user could dive into the different sections and find raw material. This could be a video that someone took at a protest. Or Vine a journalist took during his/her research, like Lara Abu Ramadan:

Lara Abu Ramadan‘s’ vine accompanying a story on Syrian refugees in Gaza that she shot for AlJazeera English

It could be a Facebook post about life:

“The highest authority in the city — is the energy authority” / by Ahmed Balousha, journalist, writer, poet from Gaza

Or just a beautiful view.

Lara Abu Ramadan

As long as it is raw, anything is allowed.

This is an example of what will be collected in the portal (although I shot it, ideally it’s not the foreigner who shoots it). It’s taken with my phone when walking through the destroyed neighbourhood of Al Shoja3eyya in eastern Gaza City with the journalists Ahmed Balousha and Tareq Hamdeya. Tareq’s house used to here, we are walking towards the remains.

If we dream on, the project could grow into a database of raw material that one day can serve big news outlets to enrich their stories with behind-the-scenes material.

It has the potential to become something inspired by the Palestine Remix, one of my most admired pieces of interactive storytelling of all times.

My first potential audience survey showed that in our age of information overflow news and stories from the Middle East are considered as heavy and dry and not easily accessible. But it also showed that the general interest is there, “if you create something that is different.”

The beautiful thing about the Palestine Remix is that it makes the dark history of the Palestine conflict accessible through incredible footage and the possibility for the user to discover the stories on his/her own. It’s fun.

Multimedia can be fun. Meeting people of another culture can be fun. And even if someone in the West cannot (and might not ever) remotely be able to relate to what a refugee from Aleppo goes through, who’s spent the last three years waiting for something that is not going to happen in an overpriced damp garage in Eastern Lebanon: if we can get raw, real (and often shaky) videos from inside that garage; or of the walk to the bakery, or the photo of the Friday lunch plus description what we see — maybe we can become a complementary part of the already excisting media landscape out there, and feed it with a bit of humanity.