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True/False Festival: Experience Ferguson shooting aftermath in virtual reality

Ferguson Firsthand user at True/False
Courtesy of Dan Archer
Ferguson Firsthand user at True/False

Can you imagine what it would have been like to be at the Canfield Green apartments when Michael Brown was shot? Graphic journalist Dan Archer can. He’s created a virtual representation of that day based on eyewitness accounts, news reports and grand jury testimony.

“People assume that ‘Oh because it’s drawn it’s fictitious and I pulled it out of my head,’ but what I’m really saying with the drawing is ‘This is the best that I can imagine the scene from the evidence and the facts that I have gathered,” said the graphic journalist. “It allows no room for ambiguity.”

Archer’s project continues to evolve with the developing story of Michael Brown’s death and the conversation’s about race, class and police relations inspired by the tragedy. The project was born a series of drawn graphics published online in August. Archer revised the project in September and published an interactive version in September on the site Fusion. The lion’s share of the current Ferguson Firsthand was produced in December, translating that interactive design to a full virtual reality experience. Yet this week’s release of the Department of Justice’s report on the incident demands a new version.

For Archer, this change is part of the continuing conversations inspired by Brown’s death.

“I want to make it as much a jumping off point to dialogue about the events that transpired rather than just a novelty,” said Archer.

The project takes this growing body of evidence and interprets it as audio clips and graphics paired to create an immersive environment based on a map of the Canfield Green Apartments. Archer himself visited Ferguson the week after Brown’s death and took photos of the scene, which he used as the template for his images. Archer is hoping this project and similar work he does through the groupEmpathetic Media will be picked up by newsrooms in the future.

Panel from early version of Ferguson Firsthand introducing one perspective featured in the project
Credit Courtesy of Dan Archer
Panel from early version of Ferguson Firsthand introducing one perspective featured in the project

“My intention with this is to see if people having experienced [Ferguson Firsthand], with all the evidence that’s out there, whether it’s changed their minds or what they would have decided based on the evidence they find,” Archer said.

Archer said the experience often leads viewers to forget where they are. One viewer exclaimed "Wow, wow, wow," while viewing the project. Another cursed with surprise, forgetting their presence in the Columbia theater's entryway.

Archer is hoping his project will also raise questions about how people receive information though news outlets. He sees the project as part documentation and part critique of traditional systems of information.

“Eyewitness testimony is obviously inherently unreliable but such are the foundations that we base our lives on,” he said, “so it’s more about poking holes in inherited knowledge and the information we get from newsrooms or institutions or anything like that and saying ‘what comprised this story?'”

It’s a nontraditional approach to journalism. Instead of trying to set out verifiable evidence that would appear in a printed article, radio piece or photograph, Archer is trying to present people with multiple truths. In Ferguson Firsthand, he presents information from different time periods side by side, intending the juxtapositions to help viewers understand the evolving narrative of the story as well as the facts. It’s an attempt to imbue additional clarity about storytelling into the project.

“In a lot of ways the creative process and the transparency that’s inherent in creating this sort of thing is only going to improve sort of the caliber of journalists we hold ourselves to,” said Archer.

It’s a theory available to testing all weekend long.