Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her weekly column, Outside the Frame.

“Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must change.”
          — Bertolt Brecht
I’m on a mission, and I need your help.
I want to bridge the gap between documentary filmmakers and those skilled at crafting compelling visual stories online. Our culture needs the stories that the best documentary filmmakers tell, and these stories will reach more people if they’re told online. I’m not talking about distribution — plopping video on a Web page and calling it a day. I’m talking about really embracing the power of the Web — its interactivity, its non-linear nature — and creating a compelling, multimedia storytelling experience online.
A screenshot of the Soul of Athens website

The Soul of Athens website uses images, sound and more to tell the stories of a community.

I’m not alone in this call to arms. If you dig, you’ll find a community of folks who are just as passionate about creating new kinds of visual, interactive narratives online, for the purpose of social good. Tom Kennedy, who built the award-winning multimedia unit at (and before that, was National Geographic‘s director of photography), is a pioneer in this area; back in 2002, he wrote,

“… the Internet permits us to blend still photographs with audio, text, video, and databases to make compelling content that is far richer than print or broadcasting typically deliver. This new world of visual story telling gives us a chance to reinvent the form and to adapt integration of various media types to tell the most compelling possible story.

Visual journalism on the Web offers the chance to tell narrative stories that speak powerfully to underlying truths of the human condition.”

To which I say, “Amen.”
Kennedy went on to say,

“I believe we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of the Web ‘s potential as a story-telling device. We’re in our infancy, not unlike Hollywood in the 1920s, radio in the 1930s, or television in the 1950s. It is a time for experimentation and creative ferment as we seek new ways to provide information and stories that enrich the lives of our audience.”

Seven years later, I believe we’re still just scratching the surface. Part of the problem is that the Web has still not sparked the imagination of the documentary filmmaking community in any significant way. Publications and festivals still focus much more on digital distribution than they do on digital storytelling. That’s not to say great multimedia storytelling can’t happen online without the participation of documentary filmmakers — but it thrills me to think about the potential for this new storytelling mode were doc makers to get involved.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be reaching out to filmmakers, digital artists, producers, bloggers, designers, professors and others to generate a dialogue around these issues. If you know someone whose perspective would strengthen this discussion, please let me know. And please help spread the word — I’d love to hear from anyone who feels passionately about any of the issues I’ve raised.
For now, here are some examples of sites that embody the kind of storytelling I’m espousing:

On Being –

Soul of AthensZach Wise, executive producer (Zach’s website)

Sicily: A Bridge Too Far? – Mary Spicuza for FRONTLINE/World

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Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.