Journalist Stephanie Bakker and photographer Yvonne Brandwijk’s multimedia project ‘Future Cities’ explores five surprising hotspots for growth. The web documentary – which was awarded Innovative Storytelling, third prize in World Press Photo’s 2017 Digital Storytelling Contest – breaks new ground in both topic and delivery. CPN Web Editor Deniz Dirim speaks to the pair on steering away from traditional media and deepening the partnership between writer and photographer.
Imagine the world in 2025. With the majority of the population living in urban areas, which cities will be at the forefront of progress? Is it hubs for innovation; the many Silicon Valleys dotted around the West? Or maybe the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries’ reputedly imminent economic takeover comes to mind? The multimedia project ‘Future Cities’ by journalist Stephanie Bakker and photographer Yvonne Brandwijk is testament to answer C: none of the above.
When researching Africa’s fashion scene for a story, Stephanie “bumped into” a map of Global Cities of the Future by the McKinsey Global Institute. She was surprised to see Congo’s Kinshasa listed as one of the top ten hotspots for growth in 2025. Stephanie and Yvonne decided to dig deeper and found five unexpected cities that were leading in their respective fields: art in Yangon, tech in Medellín, gastronomy in Lima, and fashion in Kinshasa. Curious to know more, the duo pitched a five-part series on ‘Future Cities’ to one of the Netherlands’ biggest newspapers, De Volkskrant.
The initial idea was to cover five cities with traditional articles in the span of a year. “But then we started seeing The New York Times, The Guardian and all these newspapers doing such big things online,” explains Stephanie. (The pair cites The Guardian’s multimedia project ‘Firestorm’ as their main inspiration in pushing the boundaries of digital storytelling.) Stephanie shares, “And so we were back from Kinshasa and someone sent us an article about how the Guardian made ‘Firestorm’: 30 people, 7 months, full-time working. And then we thought, ‘Oh my God! We are only the two of us how are we going to do this?’”
Naturally, they sought out advice from their media partner De Volkskrant, hoping to benefit from their centurial experience. But, in 2014, even major newspapers were grappling with how to take full advantage of the digital storytelling realm. Yvonne reveals: “We thought the newspaper would be able to do a lot of the online thing. Now they know how to do it. But we found that in Holland – when we started almost three years ago – that was just beginning. We thought that they were way more experienced than us but, in the end, we found out that no one is very experienced.” And then Yvonne utters the four-words that can be heard from any creator who is innovative: “We just did it.”
MAKE YOUR OWN RULES
Despite being a photographer for 20 years, Yvonne had never filmed video before. She taught herself how to film with the EOS 5D Mark II on the job during their first trip and Stephanie supported with recording audio. Yvonne admits, “We made all the mistakes you can think of – totally. And when we came back home, we started to think ‘OK, it needs to be edited but we don’t know how to edit.’” The humble, successful pair makes an excellent case in point for storytellers exploring new mediums.
Stephanie explains: “We know how to tell stories. The only thing that’s different is the way you tell it. We tried to discover in the beginning: what are the rules of making an interactive? In journalism, you really have rules: what is a good story. And then we found out there are no rules for making an interactive. And that made it really free.”
Their approach to building the right team to produce ‘Future Cities’, was to do whatever they could themselves – by adding new skills to their repertoire – and then bringing in experts where needed. They often found themselves peeping the credits of projects they admired for direction. Yvonne reveals: “We had to figure it out ourselves. There was no-one who told us this is who exists in a team. So the sound designer came because I noticed the sound could be better. Then an interactive designer because we needed someone who was really experienced in telling a story that way. Of course, you need the web developers. A designer. A photo editor…”
Each of the city’s respective area of success – whether cultural or technological – is portrayed through five or so local protagonists. The website includes ample opportunities to see statistics that demonstrate each city’s development, but it is the characters presented which ultimately convince the viewer that things are not as grim as they might seem. Be it visual artist Nann Nann who against all societal pressure lives alone in her own (one-million-dollar) home in Yangon or Louisan Mbeya a fashion designer living in the ‘Paris of Kinshasa’.
In finding the right people to symbolise a city’s energy, the duo says research can only go so far. Upon arrival, they worked 16 hours a day, recording cityscapes in the morning light as well as attending evening events to meet locals. “They [the protagonists] are not on the Internet because nobody ever talked about them,” recalls Stephanie. “Because we don’t want the known people, we want the unknown people. You find them if you go to these places.”
“We really try to dive into this theme we picked. So for example in Kinshasa the first day we were there we went into a little sewing atelier. We started to talk to the lady and she didn’t speak English or French, only the local language. And she told our fixer that tonight there will be a big fashion show in one of the most expensive hotels in Kinshasa. And I said, ‘OK let’s go there, let’s see’.”
“And we went there and almost immediately we saw a man called Louisan sitting in the audience. He was wearing this yellow jacket, Prada sunglasses and a lot of bling bling – and we immediately saw a nice character. We started talking with him and he was like the star of the evening; everybody knew him and it wasn’t even his show. He invited us to his place where he works and lives. And we said to each other, I hope it’s not a fancy atelier because we are looking for someone coming up. And then we ended up in a slum. It could have been a fancy atelier because he was a really fancy guy but we ended up in his ramshackle house where he didn’t have electricity because it was broken down. And he told us such a great story.”
KILL YOUR DARLINGS
Stephanie and Yvonne first met in a co-working space and there sparked a desire to marry text and photographs more organically. They recount how they even discovered they had worked on the same assignments over the years without ever meeting. Editing ‘Future Cities’ was a reminder that such collaboration also requires sacrifice.
Yvonne explains: “Of course, I have to pick photos that I think is not the best picture. For example, the photographs of [protagonist] Elsa’s best friend in Lima are stronger than Elsa’s photographs. And that I find difficult. But Elsa’s story is stronger so you can’t have a big ego in doing a project together. My photography has changed since I started working closely with a journalist. It’s not about the best image; it’s about the best story.”
“We also realised things that work in a photo story or in a written story doesn’t work if you combine them. So the first city took a long time. It started with a lot text on the photos – and I was very unhappy. The photos didn’t tell a story.”
Stephanie confirms: “That’s what you do in a story. You write about the surroundings to transmit people to the place. But you don’t need it when you already see the photo. And you hear a lot, so you are already there and I don’t have to add much. At the beginning, we had some arguments but we ended up by both having the same attitude. We want to tell the best story – either in text, photography, video or audio. Now it doesn’t matter anymore.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT TIMING
One of ‘Future Cities’ most compelling aspects is its user-driven pacing. The viewer can hear, read or see bite-size chunks of information which ultimately paints a bigger picture. Yvonne explains, “Everyone is trying to find out what is the best way for digital storytelling. Some give the audience total freedom – you choose where you go. People with more experience told us that if you give a lot of choice, people don’t choose and go away so you have to find a part that you give to them – so they have the feeling that you guide them – and from that people think ‘Oh, I can also go there or there.’”
The multimedia format’s flexibility made it possible to flip the usual narrative surrounding urban growth. There are, of course, hardships in the five cities featured. But to create a positive impact, the duo believes the story must begin with the solution before outlining the challenges. Stephanie asserts: “The thing that we wanted to do as journalist and photographer is to tell people what’s going on in the world. And when you tell hopeful stories about powerful people, I think that has more impact. People stay to these kinds of stories. When it’s only about problems people leave with a hopeless feeling. But you cannot talk about the solution without touching the problem. Only the angle is different: we start with the solution, the inspiration and then we come to the problem – always.”
THINK BIG, START SMALL
Stephanie and Yvonne will publish their fifth and final city, Addis Ababa, this September – three years after the project began. When they started, their funders warned them not to be overzealous (they originally set out to do five stories in one year) and their home life (they are both mothers) affirmed their need to re-evaluate scheduling. But in the end, Yvonne tells me you have to think big: “We presented it as big, we were thinking big, we never doubted that we’d go to five cities but we started small with one city.”
Stephanie concludes with her advice for fellow storytellers who aspire to creating award-winning work: “Tell the story you love yourself. I was giving a guest lecture at a university last week and I was showing some of the videos of the main characters. And I looked at them and I really loved them one by one. So it really touches me and that’s the feeling I bring across as well. So I think you can only have this kind of recognition when you really love the story you’re telling and you really can embrace the people you’re interviewing. For me, that’s the most important.”
Photography by Yvonne Brandwijk
Original source interview: Canon Europe