Mapping the Recent Conflict

Posted on May 10, 2008. Filed under: independent journalism, international journalism | Tags: , , , , , , |

A detail of the Platial map started to document the recent conflict

(Above: Detail of Ras Beirut, where much of the recent fighting is/was, captured from a Platial map created to document the events of the past few days.)

I just sent this email out to everyone I know in Lebanon. Please move it around:

Dear friends close to Lebanon,

I hope each and every one of you is safe and sound in the midst of the recent fighting in Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon.

I am conducting an experiment with mapping this recent conflict with a social web application called Platial maps. On this map, to which I’ve added only a few markers to get started, you can set a marker, create icons (because there’s a pretty limited selection and they weren’t designed to document conflict) upload pictures, and write descriptions of what you saw or experienced or read about while you were inside waiting for it to end.

The map is here:

Whether the powers that be come to an agreement today or not, I would like to try to engage in some safe, yet collective action to document the events of the past few days. Anything that you saw is worth remembering, worth documenting. If a friend told you a story that you think should be on this map, please ask him or her to add it. If they don’t have internet access, ask for the information, what happened and where, and add it for them.

Also, I know many of us work with slow internet connections, and I imagine this map is somewhat bandwidth intensive, but if you can get access to a faster connection through an internet cafe, at the office, or at a friends, I think it will be well worth all of our time to contribute. On our 256k Mobi modem, it took about 3-4 minutes to load. You may have to register with Platial to add data. Again, I hope you’ll think it’s worth it. It will not end anytime soon and you can visit as often as you like.

A note: You can also edit icons. Feel free to do so, keeping in mind that what you are editing is another person’s experience. In most cases, I imagine it is better to add a new marker or to add to (but not edit) an existing marker. This project is much more about preserving and honoring our memories than about reporting facts, though the facts that will naturally appear also help construct the fabric. If you are writing and you’re not sure of a fact, you may want to include a (?). Then, someone else may come along and help.

If you have specific questions about this project, please email me directly. I’ll do my best to answer them. But for the moment, I’ll just say that this was inspired by other maps I’ve seen of conflict, by Zeina Maasri’s maps of the 2006 war, and by the possibilities of working together, though dispersed with online media.

Thank you for your participation and for forwarding this email to others who might like to contribute.



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Watching A’shura

Posted on January 23, 2008. Filed under: photo album | Tags: , , |

Red Hands

On Saturday, we went to A’shura in Nabatiyeh in southern Lebanon. As I understand it, this is one of the only A’shura ceremonies in Lebanon where blood-letting takes place. It’s a disturbing sight to watch men tap each other with straight razors to get the blood flowing, sometimes so profusely that it drips down their noses and coagulates around their ears.

Participants pause

It’s also a media-relations nightmare for the rest of the Shi’a (and Muslim) community, most of whom, including Hezbollah followers, condemn the practice of self-inflicting wounds as a legitimate way to mimic the suffering of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

Little boy on gurney

Making matters more difficult is that parents sometimes encourage and—given the age of some participants—coerce their boys to affirm their faith in this way, too.


Paramedics treated self-inflicted injuries gone bad as well as offered water and alcohol to sterilize blades.

Like a Cell Phone

My husband, Mohamad, who is Shi’a, tells me that he suspects that many of the participants aren’t “that religious.” It’s an opinion shared by a 12-year-old boy from Nabatiyeh who told one journalist/blogger last year “It’s just a bunch of guys showing off.” Couldn’t the dagger in this picture as easily have been a cell phone?

Woman Alone

I watched this woman for a long time. She stood out to me because she was alone and kept checking her cell phone. She told me the napkin was for the smell of the blood. People wearing or holding surgical masks to their noses and mouths was a common sight.

The play

Thousands of people crowded the town center and the grandstands to watch the reenactment of the Battle of Karbala, complete with a rotating set and sound effects.

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What Went Wrong (and Right) with the Cluster Bomb Diaries?

Posted on January 18, 2008. Filed under: independent journalism | Tags: , , , |

Remnants of war

The first project I started as an international, independent journalist was what I hoped would be an insightful, exceptionally produced piece (or series of pieces) that spliced together audio of interviews with cluster bomb victims in southern Lebanon. G, a photographer I met on my third day in Lebanon (about two weeks after the war between Israel and Hezbollah ended), and I got to talking about doing a project together, sound and image. I’d produce the audio and she’d provide the images. We did the fieldwork in October, November, and December of 2006, but we didn’t come close to producing the work we’d imagined. Why?

There are many reasons, lack of resources and time together being key, but frankly, in retrospect, the most debilitating factor was our lack of the forethought. Somehow, despite all my experience to the contrary, I was able to delude myself that just being here, in Lebanon, was enough. We agreed on a topic and then barreled forward, much in the same way that both of us ended up here in the first place. She had dropped teaching a summer photo course to document the injustice, and I had cut short a vacation with my family in Cyprus to hop on a UN boat to Beirut.

We were both horrified by the stories we heard everyday about men, women, and children returning to their homes only to be maimed or killed by cluster bombs and we were both drawn to try to tell them. But before we could start, G returned to the States for a month to do a photo workshop, while I stayed on learning what I could about the weapons by meeting with deminers and reading up on the weapons themselves. When G got back to Beirut in late October, we started to work, still without much of a plan.

We used newspaper articles, a list published in a preliminary report on the situation, and an excel spreadsheet with all the victims names and locations. We started by visiting hospital emergency rooms around Nabatiyeh, because a lot of the injuries and deaths had occurred in or near this city in southern Lebanon. Our other option was to work in and around Sour (Tyre) in southern Lebanon, but because it would have required more driving (and I was the one with the license), we opted for Nabatiyeh, which was only, as it turned out, marginally closer.

We met an ambulance driver, Dahesh, who lived in the town of Zawtar ech Charqiye, where a lot of cluster bombs landed. He invited us to stay at his house, and his daughter, Nidaa, became one of our volunteer translators. (The opening photo is of a windowsill in Dahesh’s house. The hands are his and Nidaa’s.) We also had a piece of paper explaining our project in Arabic, which was helpful.

Eventually, we got into a rhythm of visiting about three victims a day, when we were out, and we often made repeated visits to the same homes. In all, we probably met with around 20 in the six weeks or so that we were working together. G took hundreds of photos and I recorded audio with my little Edirol R-09. We managed to get some exposure for our work, but we made a lot of mistakes that, in my opinion, has kept the end product of our time together from meeting our expectations of what it should have been. I want to jot them down here so that they might be of use to others who find themselves in similar situations.

Mistakes were made

We shouldn’t have made them—they’re media production 101—but they are what happens when you leave the classroom or the computer screen and go into the field, where controlling your environment is implausible at best. They’re also the result of working independently, without having an editor or a producer backing you up and helping you anticipate what you need in terms of raw material, B roll, length, angles, etc. Working independently at its scariest means not having anyone but the people in your story and the people reading, listening, or looking at your story to answer to. Add inexperience, a new partnership, and a foreign language to this equation and the chasm you’re looking at is close to impossible to bridge.

Here’s a breakdown of what I would do now and wish we had done then:

  1. We didn’t know what we were aiming for. Without setting foot in a victim’s house, we should have had a clear idea of what our final format was going to be. We thought we could collect the images and audio and then assemble them into what we wanted them to be. We were thinking broadly, it could be a gallery installation or a radio narrative with pictures or a blog, which we actually tried. We weren’t thinking in terms of producing 8 to 10 two-minute SoundSlides narratives, covering several victims or phases in a victim’s recovery. Granted, I didn’t know what Soundslides was till a year later, but still we tried to case too wide a net.
  2. We didn’t discuss our expectations before beginning the work. We managed our travel very fluidly, and while we’re still good friends, there was a lot of conflict throughout because while G was gone in September, I had started school and taken on another project. I wasn’t able (and didn’t want) to just take off and be in the field for days at a time the way she wanted to. I needed to come back to Beirut for work and for convenience, to decompress a bit. I knew I was staying in Lebanon for a while, but she felt pressed for time. Regardless of our individual preferences, we should have discussed our expectations for each other before we started working. What we did do was apply for a grant. We didn’t get it, but I think we substituted this process for discussing our expectations. We shouldn’t have.
  3. We didn’t document our process consistently. Part of discussing expectations and determining the scope of our project should have been to agree on how we would document the project for ourselves. A writer, I instinctively started keeping a journal of where we went and who we met, asking to G to help compile this information from our brains to the computer every day. But as things got more hectic, we slacked off. I also started an Excel spreadsheet for our expenses, but this too was abandoned and while we managed our expenses fine, we didn’t document them consistently.
  4. We didn’t download and organize our material every day, part 1. G was working with a 35mm Canon and film, so we had to wait until we got back to Beirut to get her film developed. They would develop the negatives and give her back low-res scans with only numbers for file names on a CD so she could see which pictures she wanted to print. G didn’t have a computer so she would download her images to mine, in no particular order. As we worked on special projects, a calendar, a set of postcards that was never printed, some of the negatives were printed and scanned at higher resolutions. The files became a shambles. So, a year later, after I had sorted through the same folders umpteen times, I found myself organizing them by subject and by resolution, because some of the negatives had been scanned at high resolution for a calendar project we were working on. What I wish we had done: Created a file-naming hierarchy and stuck to it.
  5. We didn’t download and organize our material every day, part 2. I was working with the Edirol R-09 digital audio recorder with a built-in stereo microphone, a 1 GB memory card, and 16-bit WAV files at 44.1 kHz. I could record about 70-80 minutes before needing to download, which I did whenever I could and always in Beirut, but if we were out of town, we were less likely to have electricity or I didn’t bring my computer or, or, or… I should have bought the 2GB memory card at the outset and/or purchased a spare. I missed very important sound at a funeral of a man who had died the day before when a cluster bomb exploded on a work site. As if that’s not bad enough, I never learned how to name files in my Edirol on the fly and sometimes I’d wait days before listening to them and transcribing them. This should all be done as soon as possible, because a) it makes the audio less daunting to listen to and b) you can identify and correct your mistakes.

What We Got Right

Surely, there are other things we could have done better too, but for now, these are the five main ways in which we sabotaged ourselves and our work. I’ll add one caveat, though. Blogs have grown up a lot over the past year, and as I mentioned before, I didn’t even know what SoundSlides was a year ago. We tried to start a blog with our material last year but Typepad was cumbersome for us, and not only because the Internet speed in Lebanon sucks. We weren’t quite up to speed on how to organize pictures, and I hadn’t found the Internet Archive or figured out how to compress and upload audio to it yet. Our meta problem, you might say, was attempting to scale too many learning curves at once.

Which is not to say that the attempt or the work was wasted. Not at all. G had a show of her photos in Maryland, I have published the audio I have produced on the Public Radio Exchange and the Internet Archive, where it’s been downloaded a few times. I also used it as the basis for an independent study for my media studies program and incorporated some of the raw material and lessons learned into an online journalism workshop for Arab journalists here in Beirut.

We partnered with a local mine awareness organization and helped them produce a calendar to be distributed to families living in cluster-bomb and mine-affected areas. Another collaborative move we made was to share everything we created. So G is welcome to use all my audio and I can use all her pictures. We credit each other, of course, and vice versa.

Another good thing we did, though totally unintentionally, was to pick a topic that is, unfortunately, evergreen. But 2008 looks like it might be a big year, with the negotiations for a global cluster bomb treaty (minus the US, Israel, China, and Russia, and a few others). I still have the photos and audio and the desire to transform my disappointment into something useful and something I’m more proud of. It’s time to hatch a plan.

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Talking about Independent Journalism in Northern Lebanon

Posted on January 14, 2008. Filed under: independent journalism | Tags: , , , |

Checkpoint into Nahr el Bared

Driving up to Nahr el Bared last Friday with my friend Tariq and another journalist I’d just met, we had a very different kind of conversation from the ones I remembered having after the summer 2006 war in Lebanon. Instead of exchanging information about the places we were about to land—Beddawi and Nahr el Bared, the two Palestinian camps in northern Lebanon; Nahr el Bared had been just about bombed out of existence this summer by the Lebanese Army in its attempt to eradicate Fatah al Islam, and the people fleeing the bombing sought refuge in the adjacent Beddawi camp—we spent most of the time talking about the changes we were observing in the practice of journalism.

Don, the third journalist, was here with a travel grant to cover the temporary housing situation for the Nahr el Bared refugees. He and a partner had pitched the story to several print and electronic outlets before coming to follow up on some work that Don had done in Lebanon the past summer, when the conflict was ongoing.

Tariq, with whom I had done some audio work about cluster bomb victims last fall (Track 1, Track 2), after the Israel-Hezbollah war, had invited me to come. It was my first time in the field in quite a while, and I was entirely just along for the ride. So I hung back and watched and listened and snapped some photos. If an idea for a story or a new project emerged, all the better.

I don’t quite remember how, but before we ever mentioned the camps, we started talking about multimedia journalism. I wish I had recorded the conversation.

I talked about a recent online journalism workshop I’d co-taught at the American University of Beirut. Tariq had just completed an online course with the Knight Center at the University of Texas in Austin and was looking for a video camera to borrow to record the upcoming Ashoura festival in Nabatiyeh. And Don, a recent Columbia J-school grad (where he told me they are now integrating online into each of their tracks), was here to do video, audio, and print. He was thinking of at least three stories while we were out (a commentary, a video documentary, and radio piece), and maybe more. (more…)

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