Forced from home

How MSF is using VR to help raise awareness of the refugee crisis

One of the biggest challenges facing charities working with the international refugee crisis is finding ways to help the public relate to what is happening. The numbers are huge and unwieldy – more than 60 million people worldwide are currently displaced, which is approximately 1 in every 122 people on the planet – and it can be hard to see the human stories that lie within the figures.

Newspapers often report on refugees in terms reserved for the ‘other’, which further distances people from the plight of individuals, despite the distressing images that often accompany articles. To try and counteract this, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders is planning a travelling exhibit to help try and bring the refugee experience to life for viewers, and in turn increase empathy for their situation.

This is not the first time that MSF has used an exhibition to raise awareness: back in 2006-08, it toured ‘Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City’ to cities around the world, which offered a simulation of a typical camp. What sets this new show apart however is its use of technology. MSF has commissioned a number of virtual reality documentaries from London-based VR production company Visualise for the show, which have been shot at camps in Lebanon, Iraq, Mexico, Tanzania, and South Sudan, and at the exhibit’s centre will be a 360-degree video which will be displayed on a large video dome.

BELOW: From the 360 degree video created by Visualise for Medicines Sans Frontiers’ travelling exhibition, Forced From Home. The film places the viewer in a refugee camp. 

“We decided to utilise some of the latest technology in video production to really create as immersive an experience as possible for visitors,” explains MSF communications director Michael Goldfarb. “The films will feature MSF field workers talking to the viewers and providing broader context of the settings. The idea is really to try and place the visitor into the scenes – it’s obviously a simulation, but it’s a lot more immersive and experiential than simply watching a standard video on a screen.”

The videos will feature interviews with refugees who will share their stories and also explain how life in the camps works. “Real displaced people will convey what their needs are and how they are coping – everything from how they prepare a meal to getting ready to go to school, to trying to access food and medicine, really just coping with the day-to-day challenges that arise with displacement and being forced from home,” continues Goldfarb.

While we might associate a lot of VR with high-action experiences such as riding on a virtual surfboard or rollercoaster, Visualise is taking a deliberately simple approach to the filming here, in order not to bombard the viewer with too much visual information but instead allow them to slowly take in the scenes and the stories. This isn’t the first time VR 2 3 has been used for this kind of purpose – Chris Milk filmed a VR documentary about Syrian refugees for the UN in 2014–15 – but it is still unusual.

“For us this is an opportunity to really experiment a lot more with storytelling in VR and try and make a documentary VR experience,” says director Will McMaster. “Everybody in the VR industry talks a lot about telling a story, but I haven’t seen many successful implementations of storytelling techniques or ideas in VR yet.

“A lot of the content that I see is trying to do too many things,” he continues. “They’re trying to pack too much information into a shot, to use the entire space but not focus on any one particular thing. It just ends up making the users feel disconnected from what they’re seeing. Our approach to VR is to simplify as much as possible, have way fewer edits, much easier-to-follow composition shots – so whatever is happening, is happening in front of you…. If you slow it down and focus on creating an atmosphere with the shots, people will be able to lose themselves a lot more easily in what they’re seeing. That requires abandoning a lot of the things you might have learned making films.”

Recording music at a refugee camp in Tanzania for the MSF exhibition, Forced From Home. “The overriding imperative is to humanise this experience,” say s MSF’s Michael Goldfarb of the project
Recording music at a refugee camp in Tanzania for the MSF exhibition, Forced From Home. “The overriding imperative is to humanise this experience,” say s MSF’s Michael Goldfarb of the project

The documentaries are currently still being shot but McMaster’s point bears out in the footage I’ve viewed so far, where it is compelling enough simply to look around the camp and listen to the people speaking – bells and whistles are not required to get absorbed in the stories.

Inevitably, these are tragic. In the Tanzania camp they focused on a 19 year-old girl and her friends. “She saw her family murdered in front of her and escaped from Burundi, got malaria and then recovered from that,” says McMaster. “She’s living with these two other girls and so they’re all looking out for each other because they all lost their parents.”

MSF_Tanzania_recording
Recording music at a refugee camp in Tanzania for the MSF exhibition, Forced From Home.

Virtual reality leaves no room for sugar-coating the circumstances of the camps either. “I’m just trying to give people a sense of what it feels like to be there,” says McMaster, “which is something that VR can do that you can’t do in the same way with other mediums. When you’re there in these places, the sensation is very hopeless. It’s very dirty, the people are really struggling with life and you really feel that when you’re there. I think that is hopefully what comes across in the footage.”

Alongside the VR films, the MSF exhibit will also feature physical artefacts from refugees to help bring their stories and experiences to life. These will include some of the boats used to cross to Europe from Syria, which visitors will be encouraged to sit in to get some sense of the cramped conditions.

There will also be more poignant items, such as clothes and toys. According to Goldfarb, these are included “to impart the choices that people make of what to carry with them from their homes, sometimes impossible choices, and as a way to humanise this crisis.

“We’re so used to hearing about it in terms of numbers and figures, but not so much in terms of individuals who, in many cases, were leading lives very much like our own until they were cruelly disrupted by war, persecution and violence,” he continues. “The overriding imperative for us through this exhibit, and through the technology we’re utilising, is to humanise this experience, and to really try and draw a connection between visitor and refugee.”

The Forced From Home exhibit will begin in New York City in September 2016. More information on MSF’s work is at msf.org.uk

This article was published in The Health Issue of Creative Review, April 2016.

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