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January 2010

By Lucas Menget

Press is dead. Photojournalism is dying. TV is boring. No future? Well, not yet, maybe… Let’s think again and try a few solutions to improve our ways to inform people and communicate...

Basically, that’s what I thought when I first saw Samuel Bollendorff’s ‘Journey to the End of Coal’, a long web documentary published on a French television website (France 5) in autumn 2008. For me, it was a shock. As a TV reporter and former radio reporter, I had been wondering for many months how I would manage to stay in touch with a new generation of viewers and readers.

© John McDermott

FRANCE 24 senior international correspondent Lucas Menget – pictured here presenting at a Visa pour l’Image screening.

Before Samuel’s work, what we had on the web wasn’t really convincing. It was mainly sorts of audio slideshows: newspapers asked their photographers to add to their pictures a comment or, worse, a few notes of music. You had then a chance to watch wonderful pictures of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan with Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ in the background. Not exactly a new way to inform people… but it was a 'try' and we were all wondering how press should do and reshape itself.

I remember, two years ago, on a winter morning near Baghdad. I was with an Iraqi army unit, patrolling in a dangerous Shia area, where supporters of young radical leader Moqtada al-Sadr were fighting Sunni militias. The convoy stopped in a remote place, sad and dusty. The Iraqis soldiers had an appointment there with their American counterparts. Everybody was tired and tense. I then saw, getting out of a Humvee, a famous photographer (who, obviously, I won’t name). He was upset, lost, and terribly angry against his newspaper. “Look, Lucas, what can I do? I have two cameras, one for colour, one for black and white. But they also gave me a video camera for the website. When something happens, I don’t know what to do, and I fail to do both still and video images.”

At that time, it was a perfect example of what we, as journalists, should refuse to do. I had the same kind of discussions and problems with my editors-in-chief at the TV station. Because we did not know what to do on the website, and because we thought it was easy, we were lost. We did videos for TV, which were too long for the web. We did still pictures with smart phones, but the quality was too poor.

Samuel Bollendorff, and a few others around the world, has understood that we were going the wrong direction. He is and remains, a pure photographer. With the eyes of a professional, and the help of great web designers, he managed to create a new form of narration. He came back to the basics of the job, which is going on the field knowing what kind of story you want to tell.

Journalism will always be ‘the five Ws’ – Who? What? Where? When? Why? A web documentary shall answer those basic questions. It’s not just a tool and it’s not a game. Telling a story on the web is not only about knowing how to use new tools, but also about learning how to import into the web the same spirit and seriousness. And, more importantly, web documentaries need an angle.

This is why with Jean-François Leroy, founder and director of Visa pour l’Image (the biggest photojournalism festival in the world), a few months ago we started to think about the reflection we should have about this new manner of telling stories. Visa is the place where that kind of discussions and questions are to happen: with the economic crisis of the press, a lot of photographers are thinking about turning to the web. However, competition will be hard, because, at the same time, TV reporters have realised that their future is probably not anymore on a big screen, in the middle of the house, in front of a family watching without interacting. Therefore, I tried (and it was not hard) to convince the editors-in-chief for FRANCE 24. They knew, since the beginning of the channel, four years ago, that our website was as important as our broadcast channel. They immediately agreed to be partner for the new ‘Visa d’Or for the best web documentary of the Year’.

I know it is not easy: for example, last April, going to Somalia on a French navy vessel, I tried to do video and stills, plus sound with a tiny sound recorder. The result was, of course, not as impressive as I wished, because, again, the difficulty is to work for two screens - TV and computer. You don’t have the same needs, and the same narration. But, let’s say, it’s do-able.

With proper equipment, it’s possible to film high quality video and, almost simultaneously, high quality pictures. The most difficult part was when I got back to Paris: I had to tell the same story (‘Pirates in Somalia’) on two different supports. And you do not write in the same manner for the web as you do for TV. In a sense, it is much easier for TV, as you just take the hand of the viewer from the beginning to the end. On the web, you need to give your viewer a lot of freedom: he is not idle, and will be quick to leave your story if he gets bored within a few seconds!

© Dan Kendall

The multimedia team from Le Monde receiving their Web Documentary Award for ‘The Imprisoned Body’ at Visa pour l’Image 2009 from Samuel Bollendorff (far left) and Jean-François Leroy (with microphone in hand).

That is why the selection was not straightforward. With Jean-François Leroy, Samuel Bollendorff, Jean-Baptiste Garat (Le Figaro) and I, all received more than 100 projects and had to choose 10 of them for the jury in Perpignan. At first glance, we were disappointed. Too many projects were only pictures, with a voice or some music and few captions. But in the middle of the pile were some incredible, real web documentaries. In Perpignan, the jury was astonished. On the screen in front of us, a new, not yet defined page of journalism was being written. Press is dead? Too bad, guys, but it looks like it’s alive, and kicking!

* You can click on the ‘Links’ with this article to view all of the shortlisted films for the inaugural France 24-RFI Web Documentary Award that was presented at Visa pour l’Image 2009.

Biography: Lucas Menget

Lucas  Menget

Lucas Menget is the senior international affairs correspondent for the international news channel FRANCE 24 that broadcasts in French, English and Arabic, both on TV and online. He is well known for his work for the FRANCE 24 programme ‘Reporters’ and has extensively covered the conflict in Iraq as well as reporting from and conducting major interviews in other ‘danger areas’ such as Somalia and Afghanistan. In addition to his television reporting work Lucas Menget is also a key script writer, presenter and interviewer at the annual international festival of photojournalism, Visa pour l’Image, that’s held in Perpignan, France.