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Keynote – Representing the Pain of Others with Gabo Arora


I’m the founder and creative director of
light shed it’s a social impact virtual reality startup and I was going to just
take you through a little bit of a journey of my experiences with virtual
reality I’ve been very fortunate to have been one of the first people to
experiment with live-action 360 virtual reality that was able to you know I did
a lot of that initial work with the United Nations and I made clouds over
Sidra which was one of the UN’s first vr documentary which some of you may have
have seen already so I’m just gonna take you through it I hope this works
great this talk is kind of funny so don’t be afraid to laugh and and and and
the heckle me too so the first part I want to go through is when I was able to
be fortunate enough to work with some of the early BR rigs and to think about
what we would want to do with this new medium and what kind of stories we’d
want to tell I think there was a lot of unknowns about what this new powerful
medium could do on topics of great concern and for me you know when we had
decided that we were going to do something on the Syrian refugee crisis I
knew that VR wouldn’t be the first time that we would be facing this sort of
dilemma of how as I like to say kind of represent the pain of others and you
know it’s not the first time that this is happening but representing the pain
of others is alluding to an amazing book by Susan Sontag called regarding the
pain of others which I think a lot of these ideas
influenced by and it was a really big influence for me
I’m also New Yorker Susan Sontag is kind of this you know incredible figure and
for me a lot of her writing on photography on thinking about what makes
us react to images I think was something that was fundamental for me and it was
fundamental on how I thought we should approach telling stories in virtual
reality that did that this is not of course the first time that we are always
trying to tell stories and try to say what’s happening in places we haven’t
been to and it’s interesting because it’s only through photography and now VR
with that element of photorealism is coming in where we have this assumption
that the more real things feel and the more we’re able to feel this suffering
and see it and witness it it would in some ways prevent these things from
happening but there is something to the abstract nature of how whether it’s with
cave paintings or even with war paintings from the Napoleonic era that
still can be something we shouldn’t take for granted and forget about it I don’t
know if any of you have seen or read the graphic novel mouse by you know on which
is on the Holocaust and in it you know the very simple act of the artist
deciding to represent people through animals you know whether it’s you know
making certain people as cat or mice or dogs it seems absurd but you know I
think we need to kind of think about some of that that there is even though
we’re moving into a photorealist world that there is something to art and
storytelling that we’ll try to bring in this is one of the earliest sort of
pictures from the American Civil War when photography started coming on and
it was the first time where people were feeling okay we’re going to try to show
you know a kind of suffering that one hadn’t seen before
and you know you were starting to get these types of images that I think
people had never felt before and the idea by a lot of these images
was that if only we can share this with people if only people can see this war
will stop and suffering will stop so when I was going out there ins a three
refugee camp and some of the other films that I’ve been very fortunate to be able
to do I was thinking about it in this way where I just felt there showing the
suffering was not going to be enough that we had to do something a bit more a
bit more I think creative in that way so you know in a lot of ways people would
say that World War one would be the first sort of photographed war where
photography played an outsize role on our relationship to violence and to that
event Vietnam is considered by many where television and television images
coming into your living rooms has this sort of impact on you in in different
ways Syria similarly if you go on YouTube would probably be the first
YouTube war where you have these user-generated sort of images from
cellphones of very horrific things and when I’ve you know talked with a lot of
syrian activists and you know i think you know there’s been a lot of a lot of
sort of work on that a lot of them actually intuitively feel that if only
the world could see these horrible things maybe then we would do something
to stop it but if there’s a thesis to this talk or the first part of it is
that that’s not entirely true you know and in black lives matter i think you
know it’s the first time where you’re in in live sort of way able to see horrible
things so you know it’s important to think about where vr will be in a lot of
this and think about how we would bring some of that and I think the the sort of
idea for a lot of people is to work in that more sensational way
and that wasn’t necessarily the approach that I felt would would work this is
also very very fascinating it’s a book called war against war and it was
actually 40 of the worst images from World War one that became a best-seller
in Germany in 1930 and it was in many different languages and many different
editions passed around with that same sort of thing if only we can actually
have people read this and see this and experience it we would not be so foolish
as to continue to go on the path we do but it didn’t necessarily have that
effect you know with with going forward and Susan Sontag does write a lot about
that you know these are some footages from Vietnam I have a lot of videos in
here that will prevent me from having to bore you with my my lecture and you know
these are some some some things that you can go on YouTube with Syria that was
happening I won’t play too much of it because it is a bit gruesome what’s
happening so why doesn’t it work and this is from Facebook one of it is we
grow numb to sensational images like you might see something horrible happen but
there is this kind of freezing up where it doesn’t necessarily have the same
impact of you if you’re exposed to that over and over you’re not necessarily
going to keep caring or keep being motivated to do it and this doesn’t just
come from you know photography or anything I mean there’s a lot of things
in public health that’s very helpful you know there’s a lot of studies in the
beginning where people didn’t want you to smoke or to have you know certain
practices that are bad for your health you know there was the intuitive thing
let’s just show you a skeletal body or let’s just show you scary things and
there’s you know a whole host of evidence that you know those types of
ways don’t necessarily get you to change your behavior for your health and if
you’re trying to motivate people to care about others and to do something about
it it’s probably not the best way to go but you know like I said you know
storytelling and metaphor in ways that you’re able to bring things I think are
really important and this is you guys know this or am i dating myself
it’s like dad Rock you know so you know something like this was more effective
because it’s this this metaphor and the AG in your brain and I and I actually
you know this is probably more effective than just showing somebody you know like
dying over an overdose on in an alleyway and I think you know similarly I think
we need to have that kind of approach with all of our storytelling but in VR
in particular I think it’s important to be even more sensitive to that given it
so immersive so you know has this new potential I’m gonna start walking around
and you know this this one I have to throw and it’s a little gratuitous but I
just thought it was hilarious maybe it should be updated with like an iPhone or
something like that now but again you get you get the point I can keep I’m
just gonna keep that on and you know I think it is that passivity and it is
that numbness that I think is really difficult that it there you know there
is this way that after a while it’s not making you active if you’re going to
just have these shocking and sensational images you know this is another picture
of I’ll on the three-year-old boy in some ways you know you have to ask
yourself this is very shocking but it was shocking because it came through our
social media platforms but you know is it going to continue to have the same
effect in that way this is some you know the approach that UNICEF had taken
originally in the 70s and 80s where again with every new medium and in every
way the idea is that we just show you horrible things and even you know places
that are trying to raise money at that time you know have used these images and
it’s interesting because these aren’t the images 10 million
children don’t live to see the third birthday those who do live beyond that
ripe old age here with all the dunkers like this
I’ve been asked if I’ve ever gotten used to this misery as a human being with a
heart is different the heartbreaking crying of a two-year-old so
undernourished her teeth are coming loose a child so starved was too weak
to cry and once so dehydrated by diarrhea he doesn’t even have the tears
to cry with now I can’t get used to this any more than you could but we can get
rid of it yes we can don’t call that number don’t call it you know this was
this was not I mean this should make you laugh and it’s cringe-worthy you know a
bit but the whole point is that that was something that was something that was
working for a while and it’s not something we do now in the same way like
UNICEF has this is from the UNICEF page and you know there has been a shift away
from that and a lot of NGOs do that and I think a lot of people think is because
we’ve become more politically correct and there’s ideas of human dignity and
how you do it I think that’s a part of it but I part of it is that wasn’t
working after a while that’s not raising like it can only go so much until you
keep seeing that that it’s not effective so if you go on like the UNICEF site now
it’s a lot more about storytelling it’s a lot more about happy faces and then
like being more subtle and nuanced with what’s happening and this is a lot more
successful for fundraising too so similarly I think when you approach
these types of story in VR you know that’s the kind of way I was thinking
about how we could balance it and the thing is I actually think this goes to
extremes sometimes and being a little too happy and I think in VR I think you
know you can kind of figure out interesting ways that you can kind of
mix a little bit not absence a tional but you can kind of bring in a different
emotion that brings in a little bit more nuance why is another reason it doesn’t
work we have a lustful relationship to violence I gave this talk once somewhere
and this guy came up and he’s like not me
you know I was like I’m sorry but there is in you know an enormous amount of
evidence that you know there is this kind of in showing horrible things in
some ways too it can just kind of sometimes have an
effect of attracting you to it but not necessarily making you empower to do
something about it that you get addicted to kind of seeing some of these things
and you know some of our media and some of our myths and other things I think
play on that and I think of course when I was going into VR people who you know
said well it’s about gaming and guns and violence and those things are gonna
continue to have that because I I do think there’s some sort of biological
sort of perverse attraction we have that doesn’t necessarily fulfill the goal of
getting us to do something about an issue finally it can be exploited and
what do I mean by that if I show you a horrible thing of a certain person from
a certain like part of a conflict or a certain race being in a bad situation or
being murdered or other things that might be something that you feel empathy
towards but on someone on the other side they could actually feel very happy and
or they can use it as propaganda and you know this is just some examples of like
similar things and people watching the same horrible thing for very different
reasons and having very different reactions so going in the sensational
sort of way is not something that is always going to be something that’s
going to work for you and in the long run so the same picture of I’ll on that
was you know mobilized Europe was used by Isis as propaganda what would happen
if you did leave you know and I think it’s about thinking about how you can
build something that’s a little bit different and you know that’s where I
think some of the work you know we’ve been trying to focus on so just to sum
up a bit you know I think sensational shocking pictures I think they kill
storytelling some of the best examples I know is to show a documentary
cloud Landsman which uses no archival footage yet is able to engage this sort
of empathy through storytelling in interviews that I think is very
interesting that the most what’s considered one of the greatest works on
the on the Holocaust is actually something that didn’t necessarily need
those pictures of horrible things happening and that’s something to really
I think keep keep in mind if you go ahead and go into this it’s seems
obvious but actually I’m a butt heads all the time with a lot of people on a
lot of this issue and I’m not going to say I’m totally right I’m just going to
tell you that this is my inclination and why I think some of the work we’ve been
able to be a part of I’ve been able to be a part of has a has that kind of
empathy quality to it I think because you know you need the imagination and
without imagination there’s no empathy I’m team empathy by the way and I’m not
afraid of that word I just want to say that I want to leave you with some
interesting examples that so you can kind of feel that it can be you know
this uses YouTube footage from Syria but weaves it in this elegant way through a
voiceover and story and meaning that I think show you how one can kind of build
something is called silvered water and a very underrated film but someone that
you should definitely seek out of course you know this very famous picture from
the depression the story of this subject too is really fascinating which I think
you can go further into but something like this again makes you kind of
imagine and think of what’s happening and having to kind of put your own sort
of emotions and stories into something that I think is really great in some of
my research my most recent experience is a walk around experience in the
Holocaust called the last goodbye that world premiered in Tribeca Film Festival
and doing research I had to kind of you know look at some what pictures were
there and what was going on and I was in Poland and and you know these pictures
in themselves I think are or what they are the the caption in the museum was
that this is the last moment before people were being
pushed into the gas chamber like you know and you end up looking at it and
having goose bumps a different way so you can kind of you know build a lot of
that and I think you know with a lot of the stories we tell we try to bring that
in this part I think you know he’s a little bit about when my during my time
at the UN and I think it’s important to kind of think about it because we’ve
been able to have a certain amount of impact with the work that I think for a
very new medium like VR there’s all this talk about oh there’s no audience
there’s no the headsets why invest in it why do that until you can you know get
people to watch it what would be the thing and to me in having to make that
case at the UN it wasn’t very easy because at the time and this was about
in the late 2014 there were no headsets there were no apps and here is you know
wanting me wanting to kind of push forward with something that you know in
retrospect feels like wow what what vision but to me I was being motivated
by my first VR experience that I could feel that it was the future that it was
going to change things and I just felt that if we did something that could get
people to care about something in a way that I never felt before even if we
changed a couple of people’s minds or maybe if there were decision makers it
would change it and you know the traditional way that we would get people
to care about things a lot was really starting to frustrate me which is these
guys you know and you know celebrities or traditional ways of doing it and I
think you know it was on that path that you know I thought VR in some ways at
the very least I felt if we were able to do something compelling eventually you
know the the content would get out there but what I didn’t expect and this is
just you know you can let me just skip through some of this this is just like
some of our average viewpoints what happens when you know Angelina Jolie
helps you goes a little higher but you know we’re still kind of always trying
to go at something that’s going to have more more resonance so I just felt you
know with this let me skip through it’s us
I’m sorry I want to bring this up because I was a part of the team that
was helping to co-produce humans of New York’s UN tour and Brandon Stanton is
genius he’s incredible and a good friend and to me I think a lot of the VR work
that I was able to spearhead in the beginning was influenced by this and my
sort of again pitch with working with VR and new media was that this one person
had more followers probably than all of the UN’s social media accounts combined
yet it was also his sort of idiosyncratic way of dealing with
stories that I think we were able to bring in the clouds over sea drop so has
anyone seen clouds over Sidra you could watch on the within that so you know
this was some of our our ways and you know there’s a lot of talk about empathy
you know and I know is like I feel like I feel like you know really
uncomfortable now because it’s become this bad word where you know people feel
it’s overused and everything but I think a lot of it is going to be different if
you actually think about what your definition of empathy is or what your
meaning when you say it and mmm for me it was helpful to kind of think about
what we were trying to say and how we were trying to bring it and I think
that’s what some of the the the you know clouds were procedure was able to do I
think why virtual reality at the UN so when we were able to have clouds of
sidra we world premiered it at at Davos at the World Economic Forum and we
put it on all these decision-makers and billionaires and kings and queens and
for me it was amazing because there weren’t that many headsets and somehow
we’re able to convince Samsung to give us 150 headsets and you know they
brought a team of eight people from Korea that we’re putting it on
everybody’s head and to me I was I just thought well this is a great performance
art you know like this is like like cool weird thing that
you have these people in this elite environment in this town in Switzerland
and they’re able to go to a refugee camp and afterwards we did it I was like that
was great now I’m going to go on to the rest of my life and other things that I
do and I didn’t expect that to continue to have the same impact and at some
point I want to play this video this was an idea that we came up with with UNICEF
was UNICEF was like well you know we have these face to face fundraisers in
40 different countries working in 15 different languages and they’re people
who stopped you in the street and these are some of the volunteers and some of
the people in New Zealand and I just wanted and this is the first video I got
back where they said we why don’t we try to integrate VR with the cheaper headset
so if people stop you usually it’s a one in 12 chance that someone will give
money to UNICEF if they don’t have a VR headset but you know there was a way
with like Google cardboard and these other plastic sort of things where a lot
of these volunteers have smartphones the within had come out and people could
download it and all of a sudden like well let’s see if it makes their job
easier let’s make it something that some people could stop and and and give you
this VR experience and see if it changes it and so before I tell you some of the
statistics around it these were some of the reactions just from the volunteers
who were exploring this new tool and I really thought something was going on
the girl in the video was only like a few years younger than me and the boys
running around were my brother’s age it gave me a real sense of appreciation
for what I’ve got here I thought it was actually there and I could actually feel
the pain of the children and their suffering made the people seem so alive
and I think that’s really important was this that people have to be alive an
order for change to happen was something that I I don’t want to believe is
happening but I can’t ignore it anymore I knew about what was going on but I
didn’t really know the extent of everything that happened there open one
arm and then the other and then walk towards a person and
hug them what are you doing like why are the basic human rights still being
denied in the 21st century why are there still people falling dip falling dead on
the streets why do humans feel the need for my sorrow is one based on you know
me coming to school when it’s raining with them it’s not even being able to go
to school yeah really makes you they said that it will kind of pass like the
clouds and I thought that was really inspiring how they can just find
happiness in a place where there’s not gonna be much these were other girls
like me going through it and actually thinking and feeling how they are
feeling there’s just so much children who need our help and so much people who
need to reach out to so and then we got some great press – I forgot to say this
is actually a real quote from The New Yorker I swear to god I’m not making it
up you can check it out when that started happening I was really I was
really impressed and then we were able to do some measurements and data of a
lot of what was happening and it turns out that rather than one in twelve one
in six people were giving it was doubling donations and it’s something
that I think is probably well maybe if I had a microphone I’d drop it you know it
was it was a real sort of like sort of indication that you know that there is
something about VR and this type of storytelling now the problem is as we
tend to be seduced by technology I think a lot of people felt it was the VR and I
kept kind to remind people that there was a philosophy to how we were trying
to tell these stories and that it was a good story you know and that we had
partnered and I had worked with some of the best producers and minds in VR
storytelling in the world and that had to have been a part of it right like it
wasn’t just VR and I think some of the that’s been very good but I think what’s
happened after is that it’s almost started a kind of
empathy arms race in some ways with a lot of other NGOs too oh let’s try to
double donations because that’s what the VR does but they’re not realizing that
the stories and the way we’re trying to tell them are also just as important as
a technology itself and it’s that combination
we’ve also did something called the Sidra project in Canada working with you
know recently resettled sorry refugees coming into the country working with
host communities and building empathy and showing very similar good results
but in a different type of way and you know we also bring them to festivals you
know and we’re at the White House and all that stuff that we were able to do
this is just a little bit of gives you an example of what it’s like when people
show it on the street and and how it works just to give you a sense of how
this is working but you know a lot of impact is not just about money you know
it’s about also shaping and changing hearts and minds and everything and so
we did something called my mother’s wing which is about a mother in Gaza and we
were able to show it on the streets of Tel Aviv and do questionnaires and try
to see if it changed people’s baseline knowledge or change their opinion on
giving them more information or more sort of sort of a different perspective
on the conflict and that’s also shown some very good preliminary results and
just to show that you know when we build these sort of campaigns they’re all very
they’re all very different and what you mean by impact can be money but it can
have very different very different ways to do it
the just has another impact thing the last goodbye was a way that we were able
to kind of bring testimony on on the Holocaust in a way where it was a big
deal when the Shoah foundation made their first visual video testimony they
have 55,000 of them of a lot of survivors and we work together to try to
make the first in VR to be archived and preserved for
the future and so this thing a lot of you might be familiar with clouds of
Reseda or the other ones that I’ve done where it’s 360 and you can just look
around but you know we were able to use and I know emblematic group and you just
had this presentation we were able to do a photogrammetry of my danik
concentration camp which means that it’s completely recreated through photos of
it being the real place and you put on a vibe and you can walk around and we were
able to actually merge in the survivor to give you that kind of tour and give
you that story so I just want to leave on like a short sort of behind the
scenes trailer on that experience that will probably be available for download
at the end of the year and will have its international premiere
at the Venice Film Festival so I’m just going to now embarrassingly go through
all this which is awesome which I wish I could show you which is about presents
and we’re gonna just go back here and here we gonna play this I make virtual reality films in 360
degrees stuff you can watch in a headset my other films have been on pretty big
serious social issues like the refugee crisis the Ebola crisis most of my films
up until now they bring you into another world but it’s not a world you can
necessarily walk around and this project is you know really pushing the
boundaries of what it means to be in virtual reality
I really felt this type of technology would be really powerful for genocide
survivors there’s this need for testimony there’s this need to to share
there’s his need to educate but also to bring you there and have them take you
there Pincus was one of the few people to
survive this camp I mean today we film in the shower room that he was brought
when he was 11 years old on the day that his the rest of his family members were
killed and then the experience you’re going to be in the shower room with him up until now if you need to move around
in virtual reality they’re usually computer-generated
images this project gave us the possibility to explore with some
cutting-edge technology what it would be like to be in a certain place but also
with someone else who would be able to be your guide you are able to be
confined to a certain space and with a headset you can explore that space and
it really is hacking your senses you know I think these types of experiences
they will give a different type of feeling that one doesn’t get in
traditional documentary or traditional film great thank you thank you so much

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