38/Outstanding New Approaches: Documentary
AJ Contrast, Al Jazeera Digital
DATE CONTENT WAS ORIGINALLY MADE AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING
September 16, 2019
Still Here is a groundbreaking immersive multimedia project about incarceration, gentrification and erasure in the US. The story is told through a composite character named Jasmine Smith who returns home to Harlem, NYC after being locked up for 15 years. Her narrative is based on real life experiences and was crafted in collaboration with nine formerly incarcerated women from Women’s Prison Association (WPA). Still Here comprises three components – interactive VR, audio with AR and a photo gallery. The project was launched at the 2019 Afropunk Music Festival in Brooklyn and was showcased at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the US with a 750% increase in numbers since 1980 – in 2017, there were more than 225,060 women in jails and prisons. 80% of women in jails are mothers and two thirds are women of color. The lives of these women are marked by more than the trauma of physical confinement because when released, they enter a social prison. They struggle to find jobs, affordable housing and to reconnect with family. Around 60% of women end up back in prison within three years of being released. Still Here focuses on the reentry process for black women – one of the segments of our population hit hardest by injustice, and often underrepresented and forgotten in the national discourse.
While gentrification is a universal phenomenon, what sets apart gentrification in the US from gentrification in other parts of the world is its inextricable link to incarceration. Hence, Still Here not only tells Jasmine’s story of reentering society after prison, it also sheds light on how the reentry process further impacts her when she returns to a neighborhood she scarcely recognizes. Together with over-policing of low income people of color, gentrification has also led to a steep 31.4% decline in black-owned businesses in NYC from 2007 to 2012. Instead of feeling safe and supported in their neighborhoods, people like Jasmine feel further alienated and are locked into a cycle of poverty and crime.
AJ Contrast wanted to retell the story of incarceration and gentrification in a deeply meaningful and engaging way. To accomplish this, we experimented with a non-linear and innovative storytelling approach for Still Here. We combined our robust journalism with creative fiction writing, surrealism, cinematic visuals and immersive technologies to create a pioneering and forward thinking project not just in editorial but also in form.
Created for VR headsets, the interactive film follows Jasmine as she returns to her grandmother’s brownstone in Harlem. Through 360° videos and audio snippets, the viewer gains access to Jasmine’s childhood and prison memories and her possible future as she navigates and seeks to rebuild her life post-incarceration. The infographics highlighting the scale of incarceration in the US provide the journalistic and factual foundation for Jasmine’s individual struggle. We consciously divided the room-scale 3D model of Jasmine’s house into ‘zones’ in order to restrict the viewers’ movements and choices. When you’re in the living room, you can see the kitchen from where you’re at but you can’t walk there. Your path forward and your interactions are controlled and predetermined to give a glimpse into what it means to have your actions restricted in and out of prison, as many formerly incarcerated women describe life on parole as an illusion of being ‘free.’ Hence, we felt that interactive VR was a powerful tool to tell the story of incarceration and reentry.
Optimized for iPad Pros, the audio and AR story about gentrification is divided into three chapters in which Jasmine interacts with her uncle, a coffee shop owner and a homeless person. Since the audio story is location specific – it takes place in the Harlem neighborhood, the AR filter allows us to “take” the viewer there – the viewer steps through the portal or door and finds himself/herself on a street in Harlem. Additionally, AR also allows us to overlay the space with visual information that more effectively demonstrates the toll of gentrification on Jasmine and her community, making the audio story more nuanced.
The Still Here online photo gallery showcases the lives of the women whose stories informed the project. Behind the gruesome statistics are real people with real stories, and we wanted to use traditional photojournalism content to highlight that.
Our collaboration with the formerly incarcerated women from WPA began in January 2019. We started with workshops on immersive storytelling, storyboarded the VR and AR scripts with them and included their feedback during the post production process as well. “Working with AJ Contrast was a unique experience because we, as systems-involved women, were sought out as experts in our own stories,” Elaine Daly, WPA graduate and Still Here collaborator, said.
Still Here is widely available online for viewing and download through the AJ Contrast website, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Valve Index headsets and the App Store. It was also presented to millions of Al Jazeera, Afropunk and Sundance online audiences through social videos, Instagram stories, posts and Twitter threads. The project prompted two panel discussions in NYC with community activists who addressed the issues explored in Still Here. We collaborated with LinkNYC on a 29-day Black History Month campaign featured on 3,546 HD displays in the five boroughs that highlighted New Yorkers’ thoughts on incarceration and gentrification in their city. The showcase of Still Here is envisioned as a multi-year, evolving and continuous process with emphasis on taking the project to churches and community centers in low-income neighborhoods.
Described by Essence as a “must-see”, and by Park City Magazine as an “unexpectedly moving” experience, Still Here has received significant attention from media and other organizations. “I was so taken with this project,” Patrick Gaspard, President of the Open Society Foundation, said. “You’ve told an important story in a newly immersive format that doesn’t dazzle with tech but instead manages to center the humanity of the challenge.”
INSTRUCTIONS FOR VIEWING
You can watch Still Here even if you don’t have a VR headset and/or an iPad Pro:
- Interactive VR
- This 3-minute video shows how the experience works in the headset.
- This is a video recording of the complete 25-minute VR experience.
- This 3-minute video shows how the experience works on the iPad Pro.
- This is a video recording of the complete 18-minute audio and AR experience.
- This is the website for the online photo gallery.
In case you have a HTC Vive, Oculus or Samsung Gear VR headset and/or an iPad Pro:
- Interactive VR
- You can watch Still Here VR on HTC Vive, Oculus Rift or Valve Index here.
- You can watch a 360º video adaptation of Still Here VR on the Oculus Go or Samsung Gear VR headset through the Al Jazeera Contrast app here.
- You can watch Still Here AR by downloading the AR app for the iPad Pro here.