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The Whiteness Project: confronting race through interactive documentary

In All posts, News & Events by Jess Linington

It’s not often I will sit and watch everything within an interactive documentary project. I often skip sections, navigate past video or glance over text – this isn’t a criticism of the documentaries necessarily, it’s more the nature of the internet – sustaining attention for a long period of time on one site is not the norm.

However, when I opened Whitney Dow’s ‘The Whiteness Project’ yesterday I was transfixed. I watched every single video – granted there are currently only 24 – and remained engaged with every single one and will definitely revisit the site once more are released.

“I believe that the country is not just ready for a discussion on whiteness, but is hungry for itWhitney Dow
The project, which is one of the 6 featured on POV’s interactive shorts, seeks to investigate how people who identify as white experience their ethnicity. The videos range from out-right bigoted to those who are very aware of their white privilege.

Dow’s artistic statement outlines his reasoning for making the project: “I believe that the country is not just ready for a discussion on whiteness, but is hungry for it. My experiences working on this project have repeatedly shown me that when white people honestly engage on this topic, it is incredibly freeing for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, and makes discussions about race more productive, ultimately helping to advance a culture of true equality.”

I’m not going to attempt to review the content much further than this; there are people out there who have already done this and will probably do far better job than me – check out this review from The Slate, this write up from KillScreen, or this CiF piece from the Guardian.

I would however like to comment on the realisation of the documentary; the techniques used, the design and its effectiveness.

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A tendency with some interactive documentary projects is to see the opportunities and affordances the web/interactive technology can offer and use them all – making projects so complex, they become almost impenetrable. Especially to those outside of the interactive documentary community.

This is where I admire Dow’s work – he hasn’t employed any particularly advanced techniques, just full screen video and the option to click on to the next piece of content. You are then able to view comments, make your own and see the academic sources for the statistics used throughout. This is an interactive project that is accessible to anyone who uses the internet.

The statistics that appear after each video are a way to reinforce what has been said, without imposing too much judgement. For example, the statistic ‘73% of whites believe blacks should receive ‘no special favors’ to overcome inequality’, merely highlights that this video is not just one persons contained opinion, but something that is prevalent within white American society – these opinions then become something that can’t be ignored.

The camera technique used also adds to the engagement, you feel like the subjects are talking to you. Much like Question Bridge, the subjects maintain eye contact with the camera, sitting in front of a plain white back ground. This format pushes forwards a stark feeling of openness, forcing you to confront your own thoughts and feelings – inviting you to think of how you would respond to these issues.

The release of the project is also very considered – there was a build up until the initial release of the 24 interviews from Buffalo and at roughly 4 minutes per video, there is not a daunting amount of content. Whitney is conducting 1000 interviews for the project, posting further instalments in the future.

Staggering the release of content encourages you to revisit the project;  videos from different areas of America are likely to include very different responses and raise a variety of issues that have yet to be covered. This format also allows for an ongoing entry point for people to engage with the project – new audiences may only become aware of the it once videos from their locality are uploaded.

For documentary makers who are seeking to embark on an interactive project, I would offer up The Whiteness Project as mandatory watching for inspiration. I’m not suggesting this is now a template for all interactive documentary projects, i’m simply positioning it as an effective alternative to a lot of the more tech-heavy work.