Earlier this year, as the world watched tens of thousands of protesters pour into the streets of Egypt, Jigar Mehta noticed something: Many of the people in the crowds were also holding cameras. “Holy crap, people have probably been recording something over the last few days,” he told himself. Mehta, a former New York Times video journalist, saw an untapped wealth of raw footage from the protests. He wanted to collect them and turn them into something bigger.
Mehta hashtagged his project #18DaysInEgypt, and sent out a call to action on Twitter, Facebook, and various email listserves. He asked people in Egypt to tag their videos and photos from the protests, and to catalog and reflect on their experiences. “All the footage is important to someone,” he told me later. “What I want to know is why they chose to film at that moment.”
When I first interviewed him back in February, Mehta didn’t know what the end product of his crowd-sourcing media experiment would look like, but he thought it would help pioneer a new kind of storytelling. I caught up with Mehta again last week in San Francisco, where he’s a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. What he showed me looked like a marriage between YouTube, Wikipedia, and Google Maps, culminating into an interactive, curated learning experience.
Take, for example, footage like this:
This is clearly amazing imagery, but it’s devoid of context. You might not immediately realize that this video was shot on January 28, 2011, the “Day of Rage.” Nor would you necessarily have recognized that the structure in view is the 1,932 meter-long Qasr El Nile Bridge in Cairo. You may not have known that the bridge leads to Tahrir Square, or that, at this moment, police forces were pushing back on a sea of protestors using tear gas, water canons, and rubber-coated steel bullets. View the same footage on #18DaysInEgypt, though, and all this information would appear with the wave of your mouse. Like this:
“It’s a way to make history come alive,” Mehta says. He and his team have already logged about three hours of video and 800 photos from the protests in Egypt. Now they have to whittle it down. After all, he says, bringing an event like the protests in Egypt back to life will require getting the people behind the content to tell their stories, and explain the who, what, where, when, and how behind each shot. It will also require hurdling over some logistical barriers, like translating a video of protestors chanting slogans in Arabic and reaching Twitter users who might not know how to upload their videos onto YouTube—or even have access to the neccesary Internet bandwidth.
It may take some time, but Mehta believes his documentary can eventually have a broad impact. “Right now a lot of Egyptians there are not ready to be reflective,” he says. “In the next few weeks there will be some quiet moments, and that will provide opportunity to push in and try to engage. Building the documentary is the easy part. The harder part is engaging the community who were a part of it.”