By Scott Rosenberg
Thirty years ago, some writers who resented the strictures and biases of "just the facts, ma'am" reporting launched a movement known as the New Journalism. Old journalists said you had to be "objective"; New Journalists said that was impossible, so you might as well include yourself in the story. Inevitably, these insurgents produced both inspiring work and horrors of self-indulgence.
Today, writers and photographers are beginning to adopt digital media to tell their stories -- as Rick Smolan and a cohort of photojournalists have done in an intelligently conceived new CD-ROM called "Passage to Vietnam." As this migration to multimedia progresses, the old debates surrounding the New Journalism are going to be fought all over again.
That's because the new computer-based media allow publishers to provide an insane glut of formless information. You can take your reams of statistics and photos and video clips, toss them onto a CD-ROM and call it a reference work, as many publishers do. Or you can provide the personal context that remains the most powerful tool in today's multimedia kit -- the alchemical ingredient that transforms disconnected facts into meaningful stories.
That's the course Smolan chose for his groundbreaking "From Alice to Ocean," one of the first CD-ROMs to demonstrate the format's potential. "Alice" was an Australian outback guidebook disguised as a wilderness epic. Or maybe it was the other way around. The story gave you a reason to want to learn more about the landscape; the landscape portraits kept sending you back to the story. It wasn't the kind of technological breakthrough to make propeller-heads drool, but it helped create a whole new audience for photojournalism via computer.
Smolan's sequel, the new "Passage to Vietnam" CD-ROM, is close in spirit and technique to the "Day in the Life" book series he helped create. The project, which has also produced a book and a documentary, sent a team of 70 photographers across Vietnam for a single week in 1994. The CD lets you follow them up rivers, down back streets, across old battlefields, and into Buddhist monasteries, all-night vegetable markets, army bases and coal mines.
The "Passage to Vietnam" creators couldn't have picked a more interesting time for their project. It's very much a snapshot of this nation in radical transition from the closed Communist past to the perestroika-like economic opening known in Vietnam as "Doi moi."
The photographers -- drawn from around the world, including Vietnam itself -- have caught this metamorphosis in sometimes stark, sometimes whimsical, always eye-opening images: A businessman talking on a cellular phone shares the street with a pedicab driver; light streams into old Viet Cong tunnels that today have been widened to accommodate the girth of American tourists.
The sheer number of photographs sets the "Passage to Vietnam" CD apart from a coffee-table book. Beyond that, Smolan and his collaborators have set out to personalize the information, to show what it's like to view Vietnam through many different photographers' eyes. "Passage to Vietnam" consistently zooms out from its own pictures to show us not only the subject of the image but the photographer taking it, too.
Many photos are accompanied by video or audio recordings of the photographers talking about how they got the shot. The CD contains portfolios for several photographers that place their Vietnam work in the perspective of lifetime careers. It also includes a couple of "photoediting sessions" -- basically, videos of two editors arguing, Siskel-and-Ebert style, about the merits and drawbacks of specific shots.
Smolan himself materializes on-screen to introduce each of the six chapters devoted to specific subjects, like the aftermath of the war or the rise of Vietnamese industry. A cut-out video figure in a green sweat shirt who teeters over the Mekong River on a bamboo-pole bridge or squats in a mine-shaft, he offers insights into the whys and hows of the project.
Clearly, we're deep into New Journalism terrain here. "Passage to Vietnam" is far less encyclopedic than impressionistic (although introductory essays by Pico Iyer, Stanley Karnow and others are absorbing and informative). The CD is as interested in the process of photojournalism as in the product. Fortunately, this sort of meta-information is just what the multimedia format is great at delivering.
The CD's design is spiffy and innovative. Its navigational controls fit in a little three-dimensional cube that scoots off screen when you don't want to be distracted from a photo. Optional sidebars and detours get pointed out in little invitations that pop into the picture in elegant envelopes, to be accepted or ignored as you wish.
On "Passage to Vietnam's" opening screen, a letter from Smolan pops up, asking the reader along as a photographer on the Vietnam trip. The CD can't realize that promise, of course; it's not a participatory medium. Its point-and-click interactivity is limited to the mouse -- it can't extend to the shutter.
Still, "Passage to Vietnam" draws its attitude of inclusive informality from that invitation. It reels your attention in with anecdotes and then fills your head with visions of life in a society that till very recently was shut off from our own.
In a new medium that remains difficult to master, it's a model work. It also restates, for the digital era, one of the New Journalists' key arguments: that no story is complete until you've also learned something about the storyteller.
"Passage to Vietnam" runs on both Windows and Macintosh computers. It is published by Against All Odds productions and distributed by Broderbund. For more information call 1-800-558-3388, dept. 700.
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