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What it’s like to lose sight and smell: An Interview with award winning immersive storyteller Michaela Holland

Photography by: Michelle Gabel

Very early this summer, as I was standing on public transit and thumbing through my Twitter feed, an immersive installation that features virtual reality named FACE TO FACE caught my attention because it was so well received at Sheffield Doc/Fest. While I couldn’t make the journey to see it myself, I researched the project online and introduced it as a prime example of meaningful immersion that utilizes VR at a workshop delivered in the Hub101 series at Impact Hub Istanbul last June. Afterward, still wanting to learn more, I reached out to Michaela Holland, immersive specialist on FACE TO FACE.

Images from FACE TO FACE ( Photography by: Michelle Gabel)

FACE TO FACE tells the story of a mother who was tragically shot in her home. The mother survives, but loses her upper face, taking away her ability to see or smell. Can you give us more details of this story? How did this dramatic story come to you and co-creator Michelle Gabel? What motivated you to help tell it? How do you describe the resulting work?

FACE TO FACE is a story about a woman who was accidentally shot by her ex-husband. Her daughter was five years old at the time and was in the room when it happened. Due to this, her daughter suffered from PTSD and blamed herself for the incident.

FACE TO FACE is an intimate look at gun injury and human resilience. It’s an immersive installation that takes you through three rooms. Each room is unique in the medium that it uses to tell the story. It starts in the living room as a space of comfort, inquiry, and decision-making. Act Two is the bathroom, a space of examination, intimacy, and risk-taking. Act Three is the Dining Room, a space of discovery, interaction, and breath-taking.

Michelle Gabel had been a newspaper photojournalist for over 25 years. She was assigned to a story about a woman celebrating a facial prosthetic completion. Since that first assignment, the woman and her have been almost inseparable. Gabel went back to school to finish a Master’s Degree and the woman and her family became Gabel’s thesis project. Gabel has been documenting the story for over four years. Gabel and I were introduced via a mutual mentor in January this year. Once I saw the material Gabel had collected over the years, I couldn’t help but feel passionate about telling the story in a unique way that combined my background in VR and Gabel’s background in photojournalism. The work that results is a genuinely personal project for all creators involved.

FACE TO FACE Installation Breakdown

You’ve been called an immersive storyteller on your website and social media. What does immersive storytelling mean to you and how is it different from stories told in other media?

Immersive storytelling is a very open-ended title, which is why I embrace it. It can expand into numerous fields in both traditional and experimental mediums, like VR, AR, theater, dance, projection mapping, and so on. It can also cross into multiple genres, including non-fiction and fiction. Storytelling is a baseline for many, many possibilities. Immersive is an adjective that allows the blending of tools for the artist/creator as well as a potential for larger impact on the audience/user.

As a viewer, one of the most impactful things about this project might be how we’re transported into the mother’s daily life through a VR Head Mounted Display, but we experience it as a surrogate. Does this seem to be the effect it has on visitors?

I think the elements of transportation in FACE TO FACE begin before the VR experience. It begins the moment you step into the first room. You are a guest in a space that is free for exploration. The VR section of the experience is completely optional. While the VR documentary enhances the work of Michelle Gabel in collaboration with our individual, Gabel’s photojournalism and documentarian work stand on its own. The experience of the installation itself, and the VR integrated is not meant to be any sort of surrogate. As one of the creators, I don’t believe the framing is to go in and become our individual. Instead, the framing is to go into her environment as a welcomed guest through the curated activation of each room, you begin to realize that you can now understand her better, as if you were visiting any friend or acquaintance you want to get to know better. It is not a piece that presumes that it is recreating her life for you to experience, or we would blindfold you the minute you came into the installation.

Does it change how people relate to the woman in the film?

It enhances the work of Michelle Gabel in collaboration with our individual, but Gabel’s work stands on its own. I believe you can relate to our main protagonist by just absorbing the gorgeous photography of Michelle Gabel. Just like Gabel’s photos are a window into our protagonist’s life, so is the VR documentary. While completely immersive, the VR documentary is still a limited window, it is not meant to set-up an experience where you are replacing our individual in any way. The VR piece is a peek into her day to day life that is guided by our protagonist. A large chunk of the piece is you as a fly on the wall while she goes about her day-to-day routine. The full installation experience is what impacts and effects, not the VR explicitly or as a standalone. The FACE TO FACE installation is an attempt at balance and collaboration of traditional working in tandem with experimental. The conversation is less about VR and the headset and the technology and more about the content.

Is this connected to why you decided to tell this story in this way?

Yes, the full installation, photos, videos, moments of discovery, moments of choice and agency, and immersion, are what impacts and effects. It’s meant to be a fully sensory, fully tactile, and fully visceral experience.

FACE TO FACE — Behind the Scenes ( Photography by: Michelle Gabel)

Over the past few years, a community of immersive storytellers has emerged. I’m sure you’ve experienced many of these projects personally. What are the elements of immersive stories that you most often see?

The structure of immersive experiences tends to include some sort of onboarding, some sort of prompting, and some sort of personnel to assist the audience through the experience, whether the experience is meant to take 1,000 or just 50 people a day.

What would you like to see more of with regard to topics or voices?

I would like to see more diversity in the storytelling. This extends beyond the content and into the content creators, producers, and funders themselves. Technology should allow stories about certain demographics to be told by those demographics themselves and/or in deep collaboration with storytellers that identify similarly or closely. I have coined the term “compassionate storytelling” The first pillar of compassionate storytelling is for journalists/performers to work with individuals/directors that have lived or have written powerful stories in a deeply collaborative manner. The second pillar of compassionate storytelling is not only to take special care of the story/performance, but also the guests/audience members experiencing the story.

Are there any practices might new immersive storytellers avoid?

I don’t believe in limiting any person’s vision or creativity within the confines of best and worst practices. I do want to call attention again to the importance of being conscious about diversity within your story and sensitivity to your audience. Sometimes the most action-packed or technologically advanced isn’t the most successful way to give a narrative. In regards to business, it’s best to be upfront about weak spots in your own knowledge and experience. Also, carefully choose your collaborations and partnerships.

Now that FACE TO FACE has premiered, already receiving awards and high praise, what does the future hold for FACE TO FACE and yourself personally?

The beauty of FACE TO FACE is that is truly a work of art. It is a living and breathing piece of storytelling that can grow and shape into many forms. The future of it is not clear, but now that it has premiered at Sheffield Doc/Fest. It can never truly disappear.

Myself personally, I want to continue to explore fiction and non-fiction storytelling across every medium. I am open to leading, supporting, and collaborating on activations, installations, experiences, whether for museums, theme parks, brands, or artistic spaces. In a more specific lens, the immersive theater space has really captured my attention as I have a background in dance and performance art. I’d love to pull a showcase of immersive theater together that integrates experiential technology seamlessly into the performance.

Michaela Holland (Left) Michelle Gabel (Right)

Please follow the links below to learn more:

Michaela Holland

Michelle Gabel





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Lance G Powell Jr

Lance G Powell Jr

Graduate of Cognitive Science, SocialVR Researcher/Designer/Enthusiast. Also, a Writer of Books and Father of One.

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