Zahra Rasool: A force to reckon with in the innovative and immersive storytelling space

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Technology. This word rules our life as much as the term ‘fake news’ does these days. But many people around the world are still trying to wrap their heads around the idea of the former taking over their lives in almost every aspect. From once making calls to now communicating via AR, the use of smartphones and other technology products have left humankind in awe of its power.

These groundbreaking developments have also made their presence felt in journalism. The idea of making their audience experience the feeling of ‘being there’, using innovative and immersive storytelling techniques in modern journalism, is what journalists today are getting pro at. The use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) is no more just a thought. Young and driven journalists are challenging themselves each day to bring something new to the table. Zahra Rasool is one of them.

She comes across as a millennial who is winning her game. Her passion for journalism reflects through her innovative take on storytelling. As the head of AJ Contrast — Al Jazeera’s award-winning immersive storytelling and media innovation studio — it makes sense how Zahra’s contemporary style of work has been winning praise around the world. It is remarkable that someone as young as Zahra is at the helm of all the brilliant stories produced at AJ Contrast.

“It is actually pretty tough to be honest. The job seems very interesting, cool and exciting — and it is in all those fronts, but it is also very hard to do anything innovation related within the journalism industry,” Zahra said when asked about leading AJ Contrast and the responsibility that comes with it.

“As most journalists are aware, budgets for journalism work continue to shrink every year. Therefore, to prioritize anything innovation related or niche is very difficult,” she added.

Before Zahra turned into a juggernaut, she was already a media entrepreneur who built her own start-up named Gistory in 2015. It was part of her master’s program, which she pursued after quitting her job as an investigative journalist for Al Jazeera’s broadcast show. Zahra worked on her start-up for an entire semester, presented it at a journalism conference and received immense attention. Her journalism school funded the start-up, which she pursued full-time for the next three years. She deemed it as a “phenomenal experience”.

Raising money for her start-up as a Muslim and immigrant woman of color became increasingly challenging for Zahra, so she put a pause to it and began working as a managing editor at the Los Angeles based RYOT — the first company to use AR and immersive texts in their stories, which was later acquired by Huffington Post.

In January 2017, Zahra joined Al Jazeera and created AJ Contrast to cater to the network’s digital audience. Three months later, it was launched and the platform has since focused on innovative ways to produce quality journalism and storytelling using immersive technologies.

“When doing a story, AJ Contrast’s mandate is to find a more creative, captivating and immersive way to tell it. A good example of that would be our recent interactive web experience — a story about the Uighurs, living in exile in Turkey. We created this interactive web documentary and also added a VR component to it. But we just wanted to be able to tell this story that is incredibly urgent in a way that hasn’t been told before,” Zahra said, emphasizing on the way her team focuses on crucial stories using technology.

One wonders how many people actually end up becoming an audience to these technologically advanced stories, as accessibility remains a crucial hurdle in many places around the world.

“It has been the toughest part of working in the innovation space because when we are doing innovation work, we are only thinking of the privileged. But working at a place like Al Jazeera is interesting because so much of its audience is the developing world and we are forced to confront those questions. One of the philosophies of AJ Contrast is trying to train and invest in storytellers in those parts of the world because they are going to the best advocates for making sure that those stories and those ways of storytelling can reach their audiences,” Zahra said.

She added that while she can give a talk or lecture on VR, AR and accessibility, it would be very hard for her to parachute into a location. But since she is not living in those locations, she cannot commit and work on those barriers of accessibility.

“It is the people living in those countries who would actually be able to do that. We work with a lot of storytellers from around the world. Almost every story that we have done, whether it is from Yemen, Congo or any other country shown in our stories, we work with local talents. This helps us widen the pool of the people who know how to use this technology. A lot of times the people that we are working with do not know anything about VR or 360 video, most recently AR,” she informed.

Zahra shared that her team works at the backend to equip them, send them the technology and mail cameras when needed. They train them online using Skype, WhatsApp, Messenger and similar means. They also offer instruction manuals translated in several different languages.

“We put in a lot of time and effort into that, even though the output is a lot less. But I do not need to have a certain number of videos and stories out because the work that we are doing at the backend is more important than us seeing a story coming out of it,” she explained when sharing how the platform is working to lessen the accessibility gap.

Zahra added that another way to do that is via screenings in different places.

“We have arranged VR screenings in different countries where we have done the videos. For instance, we held a screening for people at the Zaatari refugee camp, who worked with us on the videos about the camp. We did it for them to understand and see the video in VR. We did the same in Lagos and Nigeria too. It is limited, but based on our capacity and the small team, this is what we are able to manage,” she shared.

With Zahra leading the platform and the hard work of her dedicated fellow team mates, along with locally hired storytellers, have produced some of the most urgent, impactful stories of conflict and underrepresented communities using immersive technologies.

, an immersive multimedia installation tells the tale of a Black woman based in Harlem who experiences incarceration for 15 years and comes back home to witness gentrification of her community in the neighborhood and meets her teenage son after spending years away from him. This story was showcased at the Sundance Film Festival in February this year. While , the story of Uighur Muslims who escaped from China, won in the Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling (small newsroom) category.

As someone hailing from a Muslim immigrant family from the Indian cosmopolitan Mumbai, it was Zahra’s goal to focus on similar stories to share them with the rest of the world and the reason why she pursued journalism.

“I grew up at a time when the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was all they were showing on television (TV). The images that one saw on CNN, BBC or any international media were of Muslim people who looked like me, felt like me and shared a very similar culture. But the narratives being shown were so distant from my experience. I grew up seeing them speak about and show Muslims in a negative light. It felt like a disconnect between what I saw on TV vs. my lived experience,” she recalled about the state of Muslim representation in international media from her younger days.

Zahra shared that when she started working in this field using immersive technologies, she felt that the skill set to use these technologies were in the hands of very few people, who were often white men. She added that the stories were being told from their lens and for their interests. This felt exploitative and voyeuristic to Zahra and she felt jaded.

“Interestingly, there are a lot of women in the immersive field. But in terms of diversity, it is hard to put a number. During my Sundance experience, the majority showcasing their projects in the immersive space were white. The space is still, of course, heavily white and male. This is also because the skills and software required for development, technical development of the AR and VR experience, and post-production is expensive,” she said.

Zahra stated that one ends up being skewed more towards not just white but mostly privileged people who are creating these experiences, which is why she made AJ Contrast’s mission to work with mostly people of color.

Zahra is a Muslim woman of color and covers her head with a scarf. When talking about dealing with tokenization and discrimination in the industry she explained that her identity as a woman cannot be separated with her identity being a Muslim.

“This definitely impacts most of my interactions. I constantly feel like I have to work so much harder than my peers and those around me. I am also frustrated when I do something successful and then for my next project, it is required for me to prove that it is good enough to get the funding and support. People don’t judge me based on my past work,” she said.

Zahra added that it is challenging for her to get the funding, as people are always interested in the ideas but it never translates into handing money.

“Most people who are giving the money hire and support those who look like them and support their ideas, who they think will be able to carry their project and make something successful. I don’t fit their idea of somebody who could lead a big project or program,” Zahra complained.

During the conversation on tokenization, she shared about being in situations and jobs where organizations in the past took her onboard as their diversity hire and because it makes them look good.

“It really affected my confidence and hurt me, because I was only there as a diversity person. They did not necessarily think that I was equally skilled or qualified, even though I am. But as I grew in the profession and gained confidence, I realized that this is just how the world works. If this is the opportunity given to me, I have to ensure speaking my truth, serving to the best of my abilities and capitalize the opportunity. I am less affected by it now then I was back then,” she said, adding that it is still frustrating and hard to deal with.

Expanding on our discussion on diversity in the immersive field, Zahra mentioned how the offer from Al Jazeera was an opportunity for her to bring some change in the industry and counter the typical narrative. She requested control over editorial in order to serve people from underrepresented communities and those hit hardest due to inequality by bringing them into the process of creating those stories, as well as collaborating with them.

Following Zahra’s work and the topics she brings to the fore through her journalism, it is evident that being transparent as a journalist is more crucial to her than merely focusing on objectivity.

“As human beings, we come with our own preconceived notions, biases, culture and experiences. Whenever we are reporting or telling a story, all of those experiences shape that particular story. Therefore, I don’t think we can be objective, but we can strive to be. We should strive for more transparency in everything we do to make sure that our audience knows where we are coming from,” she opined.

When working on stories in different places around the world, the platform collaborates with people on the ground, which is why Zahra shared that they cannot simply expect these individuals to be objective. It is important to consider the sensitivities and experiences of people who live amidst those ground realities.

“If we are collaborating with someone who has lived through the war in Yemen, we can’t possibly expect them to be objective. We are going to talk about the story from the experiences of utter devastation and suffering they have experienced. This is completely fair, as we are going to let our audiences know that the person reporting on the story has experienced the situation and give them the background,” she said, while also adding that a lot of young journalists think that way. That they are now moving away from the conversation of objectivity and focusing more on transparency.

Before Covid-19 affected the workflow of most organizations around the world, Zahra and her team planned to travel around the country for their now halted series on the US presidential elections called , which was focused on minority communities around the US. But they instead worked on an election talk show that consisted of eight episodes.

“The election show is essentially your traditional show but created for digital. We talk to public figures who comment on topics that are central to the upcoming elections like healthcare, women’s rights, black lives matter and immigration, among other issues,” she shared.

Before wrapping up the conversation, Zahra shared what it has been like for her to cover the US elections. She said that it is tough for young people to be energized in this country because of polarization and party politics.

“Even though I am also exhausted by the news cycle, the election cycle and Trump vs. Biden updates that you constantly see. But as a journalist, this is my job and I have to do it,” she said.

Zahra added that the American media has become so polarized that the pieces that they are working on and the people that they are talking to are like an echo chamber.

“It is the same people that are listening and watching, who maybe agree to those viewpoints. The people who should actually be watching it are not really watching and you see this happening around the world. I do not know the answer to how we solve that but it is just something that I am thinking about, especially now that we are doing these shows,” she said signing off.

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