Life on hold: Al Jazeera web documentary reflects on the Syrian refugee crisis

Update: The second phase of this project launches today with five new people, five new circumstances and personal human stories.

Reem Shaddad (Al Jazeera) commented:

Phase I of Life on Hold was well received and our goal of bringing attention back to the human story as opposed to focusing on numbers is our only strategy moving forward. These are stories worth listening to and they represent millions of others that are equally as important to painting a complete picture of life on the ground in Syria, Lebanon and anywhere refugees are currently seeking to start a new life.

You can see the full project here and check out our interview with the developers below.


The war in Syria has raged on for four years, claiming  thousands of lives and displacing almost a third of the population. Lebanon has borne the brunt of this forced migration. Life on Hold is an interactive web documentary highlighting the plight of ten Syrian refugees dispersed around Syria’s smallest neighbour in a variety of conditions.

The project launches in two phases across the Al Jazeera network; phase one (five characters) will coincide with the 4 year ‘anniversary’ of the Syrian crisis on March 15th – this Sunday – and phase two will roll out four weeks later on April 15th.

To gain more insight into the project, discover the creative process and find out where it sits within the ‘future of journalism’, I spoke with the senior producers Reem Haddad and Dima Shaibani – who have developed the site with KNGFU, a Canadian digital and interactive media organisation.

“Technology is to be used as a means not as an end in itself”

A focus on audience engagement extends into Life on Hold as well, which has two layers; the documentary layer and user-generated content.

Whilst the documentary layer is more linear in its design, featuring first person stories – vignettes – as well as the audio journeys of their crossing into Lebanon as recalled by the characters themselves, plus additional videos shot by the AJ team. Although the content is linear, it can be viewed and listened to in any order and fashion the user choses with the navigation segmented into 10 panes – one for each character.

Reem and Dima explained that ‘the innovation lies in the juxtaposition of different devices to achieve a unique narrative for each visitor to the project’. This unique narrative is enhanced by the second UGC layer of the content panes which features a custom evolving visual piece by Syrian artist Tammam Azzam.

‘The artwork is based on the memories of each of the 10 characters. The 10 pieces of art have 10 different states that evolve or decay according to the number of days since the refugee left Syria. The more time passes, the more their memories, represented in Tammam’s collage, deteriorate and erode.

Many little glowing stars float atop the portrait’s memories. Hovering over a star lets you discover a short message left by one of the visitors of the site. User’s inputs become an intrinsic part of the oeuvre, making the UGC a participative piece evolving in time.’

All these elements have been carefully considered by the producers: ‘One of the guiding design principles we followed was that technology is to be used as a means not as an end in itself.  With this project our priority was the narrative and the user experience, so accordingly we deployed the right technologies to achieve this. Technology here is twisted into a storytelling device, used merely as a tool to build the synergy between content and container, between meaning and emotion.

Both sides – the documentary layer and the UGC layer – complement and complete each other to form this interactive web-documentary’

“The format is exciting because there are no set rules.”

Whenever projects like this are released, there’s always a nod towards ‘the future of journalism’. Although personally I don’t think it’s possible to nail down a single, all encompassing future – I was keen to find out where the producers thought projects like this fitted in:

‘The webdoc format is exciting because there are no set rules. Done well it can be an immersive experience that affords the user a window into the lives of the people who are living the story. In Life on Hold we feature ten characters, characters that come from various socioeconomic backgrounds, various education levels and age groups. This allowed us to paint a bigger picture of what the refugees experience is like. Traditional documentaries don’t have the same scope or scale.

However, format is also evolving. Long gone are the times of superficial bells and whistles. in an over-crowded world. Tending to the content means above all pruning the superfluous. Until only the essence of what needs to be conveyed remains. This is how our subject is mostly respected.  The kind of impressionistic perspective we achieve can only be told in an interactive form.’

“Too often producing a “web-documentary” becomes only an excuse to stuff an interface with too many widgets”

‘To this effect, Life On Hold belongs to what has tirelessly been labelled as “web documentary” – today an empty buzzword that describes any form of documentary storytelling that is enabled by modern screens and interfaces to tell the story in a way a traditional documentary form cannot.

By all means, a web documentary is an editorial piece not a technological showcase.

The approaches are plentiful, and many experimental paths have been taken in the last few years.

Too often producing a “web-documentary” becomes only an excuse to stuff an interface with too many widgets and more – but less curated – content. This is the opposite of storytelling and usually only dilutes it. We were careful not to fall into that trap, and to remember the power of suggestion in the good documentary tradition. Work it from the bottom up, create a detailed and crafted container to not only hold the content, but much more importantly, to crown it. If technology is completely transparent and invisible, it means we succeeded.

Today, we have reached a more mature and refined stage of interactive documentary. This is what Life On Hold is.’


Image from the #iRefugee social media campaign

“It’s less about being informed and more about feeling something and being moved by it”

The aim of the project is to allow the user an intimate look into the daily lives of people whose reality was altered drastically by war and displacement. However getting audience to engage fully with a project like this, to take the time to immerse themselves is difficult – especially online. Analytics for average user time on interactive documentaries are usually minutes, not hours.

So what’s the plan with Life on Hold? Reem and Dima explained the documentary is ‘less about being informed and more about feeling something and being moved by it. The experience is created in the margins all around the content. It’s the navigation and interactivity that deliver a user experience that is richer and more meaningful. You achieve more intimacy with the participants. That intimacy makes you care.’

In terms of impact, the team are hoping to achieve two things, firstly ‘that viewers will see beyond the refugee label and get to know these incredible people that we interviewed for who they are a mother, a father a bored innocent child and young man who just wants to talk to his sweetheart and listen to music’

They will also be taking into account their analytics, not just the number of clicks, but also by the number of people who will venture onto the UGC page and leave a message. The hope is that participants will be moved enough by the content to add their thoughts and views.

“Highlighting the human story behind the often dehumanising numbers”

In the run up to the release, AJ have been working on a social media campaign to stir up engagement with the project. Reem and Dima explained ‘the #iRefugee hash tag campaign was created to open up the floor to personal refugee stories from around the world and encourage discussion re the refugee crisis worldwide.

The social media campaign has two main aims: to ensure that these ten stories are heard, highlighting the human story behind the often dehumanising numbers, and to give our audience a globally inclusive opportunity to join the conversation.’

Anyone can participate with the project across social media – Twitter/Facebook/Instagram in particular – by doing the following:

Use the #iRefugee hash tag when posting online about the subject of refugees. Ideas include:

  • Where you are from
  • Where you are seeking refuge or asylum
  • What you miss about home
  • A message to other refugees
  • A comment on the current refugee situation

Make it personal:
Shoot and image/video of yourself holding up the #iRefugee hash tag on a placard


Twitter: @ajlifeonhold 

Instagram: @AJ_LifeonHold