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BITTER Stories and Transmedia

A talk with Paradox director Bas Vroege.

The Media Communications department of Webster Leiden Campus / Webster University USA, together with Transformations, continue publishing extracts from conversations that took place during the public meetings program Documentary Today: Transmedia and Collaboration. In a sequence of four articles, experts from the field of documentary share their thoughts on collaborating and working across media, and talk about recent projects. This second text spotlights a selection of issues discussed with Bas Vroege, the director of Paradox, a not-for-profit organization developing projects around contemporary issues with documentary authors.

What preceded the appearance of transmedia projects in the field of documentary?

The heyday of documentary started in 1920s and 1930s, when the smaller format, 35 mm Leica was introduced—a camera that was highly portable. At the time, the stories of the world would be coming to you either though cinema or print media: newspapers and magazines. This era gave us what we call ‘picture stories’—long reportages by photographers who were given the time and means to travel and do in-depth research. They were the only ones working with visual storytelling, there was no competition. Then TV started to take over this role, and news came into people’s homes. In 1993, the same year that Paradox was founded, the internet came to being, making it possible to combine images, text and new information on a computer screen. That was a major change: things had to happen faster, speed became more important than thorough research. Traditional journalists began losing their jobs; competition became worldwide. Documentary makers had to find alternative ways of bringing their more extensive stories to audiences.

How has Paradox been developing a transmedia approach?

From the start, Paradox focused on stories outside the main media stream, presented in alternative venues. This combined approach could compensate for the loss of immediate connection with an audience. We developed a practice of looking at cultural exhibition spaces, not necessarily museums, but also cultural centers or public spaces. In addition to exhibitions there were photobooks, but we wanted to go further than that.
In 1991 the first CD-rom was published. That meant that you could distribute audiovisual stories, sound, moving image. Soon after this, the carrier for this type of storytelling became the internet, which meant that distribution of stories was now instantaneous. Shortly before 2000, Flash was introduced. In combination with the now available higher bandwidth of the internet, seamless integration of moving image, sound, and other features was possible. We are used to it now, but that was a major breakthrough. It allowed Paradox to combine a number of platforms: besides exhibitions, books and films, we could now also work online with multimedia. For every project we ask ourselves the question: on what platform—or combination of platforms—is the story best told? A book today may refer to additional online web-based material or real-time data, QR codes can trigger movies on the reader’s smartphone. Standalone websites can also be used to provide layered background information in exhibition environments.

What can the impact of a transmedia project be?

We are often asked this question by funders: what is the impact of your productions and how do you measure it? But how do you calculate the reach of a book? It can remain in people’s homes, at libraries, it can stay around for years. Exhibitions travel. Websites keep on going (we have some websites from 15 years ago, we have hard time keeping them alive, but still they have 15-25,000 visitors every year. So how do you measure the impact indeed? The stories that used to be printed in a newspaper might have been seen by 500,000 people in one day, but the next day it’s on a market, wrapping fish, it’s gone. Our approach, on the other hand, allows you to work in depth, to reach out through a longer period, and to come up with new stories.

Could you introduce one of you recent projects, BITTER Chocolate Stories?

That’s an exceptional case in our portfolio. It started with a phone call from a confectionery company Tony’s Chocolonely. They were looking for new ways to contribute to the issue they engage with—slavery within the cocoa industry today, and the potential for the industry to be slavery free. It was an interesting proposal because Tony’s Chocolonely is a hybrid: while being a commercial company, it also has the ambitions of an NGO. We don’t usually deal with commercial companies, but that allowed us to create an independent project that could bear our name. We started to work on BITTER Chocolate Stories shedding the light on 15 stories of children who worked as child laborers on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast. Joana Choumali (Ivory Coast) photographed children in an improvised studio, while journalist Marijn Heemskerk (the Netherlands) interviewed kids and other actors in the industry.

Could you comment on the visual style of photographs?

We wanted to experiment with a representative model. We thought: “What is the clichéd, traditional image of kids working on cocoa plantations?” The traditional realism of media reports shows a small kid with a machete in a plantation, trees, cocoa, suffering under hard work—everything in one image. We wanted to see a proud person instead. Someone who could be your neighbor, photographed at a studio, with a colorful background. But you still sense that something wrong happened here. In the layout of the book we juxtaposed this clean image with a text that expresses the pain and events the characters went through. By combining a colorful photo with a heavy story we created a montage effect, where a third meaning could be derived from the combination of two components.

Besides the book, you also produced a show at the Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam. What were components of both platforms?

In addition to the 15 portraits of children who had worked on cocoa plantations, their stories and background research mentioned earlier, the publication contained blue and brown pages with words like “paradise”, “joy”, or “love”. The designers, Kummer & Herrman, researched into slogans of chocolate companies around the world, and the notions they bring to the surface. So we brought these words into the book and the show. It was a nice way to break the pages up and confront a reader. But it’s not just random words, it’s a serious study, focusing on ten most important chocolate companies worldwide and including, in addition to the keywords, the entire texts of slogans in the original language, as often these kinds of ads are untranslatable. So, on one side of a spread you see these big brands that seduce us to sink our teeth into a chocolate, but on the other side we see stills and photographs from stories on slavery in the cocoa industry, from CNN, National Geographic, Al Jazeera. The commercial world is always opposed to the realism of journalistic reports.

The final element was the general views of plantations. These were made from above with a drone, in order to provide the viewer with a notion of ‘where we are’, to give a feeling of being an observer rather than a participant. At the exhibition, these views were presented in the form of a large panoramic projection on a translucent screen.

At the show, besides all these image components, there were physical objects: machetes in a vitrine, and cocoa beans that you could touch or take home. The portraits, presented as light-boxes, were floating islands in the darkness. We didn’t want to place texts on the walls as it could have created an enclosed feeling, so they were placed on two very long tables, on which the objects were also displayed. The show deconstructed all the components of the issue, and each was given an individual life, but together they told the whole story. If you have one photo in a newspaper, you have one image that has to combine everything. And here we have the entire book and/or an entire show, allowing the story to be carefully montaged in order to make people look again at an issue they think they know.

It is worth mentioning that with every copy of the book or a ticket sold, there is a donation to GRADE-FRB’s shelter in Burkina Faso, where the children featured in this book were photographed.

Will the exhibition travel?

Joana Choumali had almost refused our invitation to work on the project at first. She is from Ivory Coast and cocoa issue involves almost everyone there: you would certainly have a relative working on cocoa, and then coming up with stories on slavery…. It took us a while to convince her. Now she says that she learned a lot and that the story should also be told in West Africa, so we are looking at Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Mali and Ghana, but we are also looking for venues in the Netherlands, Europe and the USA.

How much will the presentation change if it travels?

This will depend on the venue. The concept can be adapted for public spaces, as with a big poster campaign we did in Amsterdam, where a large audience could see the portraits in the center of the city on Museumplein. Having billboards outdoors allows us to set the exhibition up quickly anywhere, and means that the project goes to people rather than people having to go to it. So it’s a powerful solution, which can be also produced at a low cost locally, so we don’t need to ship the installation.

What were you in dialogue about with Tony’s Chocolonely regarding the content of the work?

To give just a few examples: We first pitched an idea for the publication as a set of posters that could be placed at people’s windows, but they really wanted a more classic book that could also potentially live longer. Tony’s Chocolonely suggested a Dutch star photographer to create images, and he certainly could have made amazing photographs, but what message would we be giving? We convinced the company that the only right way was to invite an African photographer to do the project.

What do you see as the most interesting transformations in photography world today?

The most challenging transition is the fact that photographers, agencies and producers do no longer need middlemen or venues to distribute their stories to their audiences. That may still be true for exhibitions, but for web-based storytelling and apps, as well as good ol’ books, we can now sell directly to individual viewers/readers. Today it is possible to keep the costs of programming online storytelling down, thanks to initiatives like The biggest challenge is how to build up and maintain your (international) readership.
As a potential answer to that we founded—an online environment for documentary productions. Ydoc is (as we like to call it) platform agnostic: in documentary it is the string of subject matter/maker/publisher that counts most, not the platform. So that is how the content is revealed. What follows is a vast array of webdocs, longreads, apps, DVDs, VR productions. It is amazing to see what is being produced worldwide. But then there is another challenge: finding proper investors who will support this boom of ideas and your platform.


Text by Daria Tuminas, coordinator of the Media Communications department of Webster Leiden Campus, and initiator of the Documentary Today talks.