Vignette Interactive: Technology, teamwork, and local knowledge in the Middle East

Social entrepreneur Matt Ford and photographer Tara Todras-Whitehill tell us about their journey to cofounding an interactive storytelling company.

Matt Ford calls himself a nerdy, detail-oriented, nothing-falls-through-the-cracks bean counter while Tara Todras-Whitehill is a passionate, creative dreamer. Turns out, the differences have helped the two start a successful business.

In 2011 Tara raced around Egypt and Libya with her cameras, covering the Arab Spring for the Associated Press (AP). While she became a photographer to delve into social issues, it turns out she was also really good at covering spot news. Matt worked for the AP in Cairo too, where he meshed graphics, coding, design and video together as the interactive producer for the Mideast region.

Before moving to Egypt in 2011, Matt worked for the AP in Washington D.C., and he quickly noticed that the new media ecosystem he left didn’t exist in the same way in the Middle East. As he watched non-profit organizations fly in people from London and New York to tell stories, he asked himself if there was a better way to cover these political and social issues.

Meanwhile Tara, after about eight years of covering mostly spot news, yearned to work on long-term projects. In 2012 the two started talking about forming a business, along with another friend and fellow coder in Cairo, Joseph Francis Marsico.

The Egyptian Revolution unfolding. Photos by Tara Todras-Whitehill/Associated Press

In 2013, Matt moved in with Tara to cut costs, left his job at the AP and, shortly after, the three started Vignette Interactive — “a team of journalists, developers and designers who are passionate about technology and pushing the boundaries of visual storytelling, software development, and media production.”

For the first year the trio worked really hard, kept costs “super, super, super” low and didn’t focus on advertising their projects. When they picked up individual assignments, they contributed a percent of their earnings back to Vignette in what Matt recalls was a “nutty system.”

Today Vignette Interactive is a registered company with lawyers, accountants, a salaried staff of five, a paid intern and several subcontractors in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. At any given time, at least a dozen people are working on projects. Harnessing the power of technology, Vignette bucks the norm of having everyone at one central headquarters. Their full-time staff is based across four countries, which strengthens their connections in the region.

Tara, Matt and intern Sydney Guthrie are now based in Istanbul, Turkey, where the company has offices in the Impact Hub. The co-working space opened last fall and shares a mission with Vignette: to foster social entrepreneurs and ventures and give them the support to succeed. It also gives Vignette and its team access to other Impact Hubs and their networks worldwide.

Behind-the-scenes of a Vignette shoot in Erbil. Here displaced Iraqis interview each other for a UNICEF project. Photo by Matt Ford

Both Matt and Tara see more strength in working with others than building up their individual careers. Since the company’s early days, they have focused on building Vignette for growth, even though at times that has meant earning less in the short-term or passing up personal opportunities.

And while there is plenty of news coverage about the Middle East and Africa, Tara and Matt wanted to create more interactive storytelling from the region, not just straight documentaries, written articles and photo coverage.

“We are using the most advanced tools available to best tell a story: data visualization, interactive media experiences and documentary mixed with other information,” Matt says.

It’s not uncommon for Vignette to have collaborators from as many as eight different countries on a project. They say their goal is to handpick talent for each project — to find the best designers, developers, coders, shooters and writers. Tara says Vignette puts emphasis on diversity and values seeing the same story from different perspectives. For that reason, they try to build out teams with at least a few people who live in the country where they are telling stories.

“This helps you to understand how the story will resonate before it’s even published,” Matt says.

On the Greek island of Lesbos a Vignette team interviewed dozens of refugees about their dreams for International Rescue Committee. In their “Imagine a School” project for UNICEF they tell the story of how many Syrian refugee children aren’t in school in an interactive and personal way. The experience starts by thinking back to your own school days. If you were bullied or had to switch schools, for example, you then click those buttons to hear from Syrian children who face those challenges today in Lebanon.

That project wasn’t Vignette’s first experience turning stats into relatable stories. Two years ago the Center for American Progress released two reports detailing four years of research about how the Islamophobia Network in the United States operates. Vignette synthesized the information into a slick website with charts, videos, texts and graphics. And the information is as relevant today as it was two years ago.

“Our journalistic background plays a huge role in how we approach stories,” Matt says. “Truthful and accurate stories are critical when discussing complex issues. Authenticity is crucial for developing trust with your audience and taking the first steps toward creating real social impact.”

While Vignette takes their work and the issues they report on seriously, they also occasionally make time to have fun on the job. One of their projects — Set Wars — took them to a party in the Tunisian desert while documenting Star Wars sets that George Lucas left behind.

“Creatives don’t do well when they have to burn the candle at both ends,” Matt says. “They need to leave space to actually be creative.”

Both Set Wars and the Islamophobia Network were finalists for the 2015 Webby awards. Set Wars was awarded the People’s Voice Webby for the best use of interactive video.

Tara and Matt in a light saber duel on an old Star Wars set in Tunisia. Photo by Mohamed Ali Mahfoudh.

In the future, Tara and Matt say they hope to double the size of both their full-time staff and subcontracted team. Yet they appreciate the nimbleness of an organization of their size and the ability for each of them to play a wider range of roles.

Tara says she doesn’t chase smaller assignments anymore and is glad to have shifted her focus to telling more in-depth stories. Recently, they both celebrated receiving their salaries on time.

Though Istanbul has seen an exodus of foreigners in the past year, Matt and Tara remain committed to the region. “Much to the chagrin of our parents!” Tara laughs.

Jokes aside, Tara feels a responsibility to listen to the voices of the communities she has lived in and reported about for the past 12 years.

“I came for the issues, and I stayed because it started to feel like home,” Matt says.

From left: 1. A woman tries to sell flowers to people sitting at a cafe in Fethiye, Turkey. 2. Paragliding in southern Turkey 3. A man waits next to an old building in the Fatih area of Istanbul, Turkey. Photos by Tara Todras-Whitehill

Sign up for Vignette Interactive’s newsletter to keep up with their latest projects and regional news. Follow Vignette on Instagram and Twitter. You can also find Matt and Tara, who is also a contributor to Everyday Middle East, on Instagram.

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