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2020 Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling, Small Newsroom finalist

Living in the Unknown

About the Project

Living in the Unknown highlights the anxieties and hopes of Uighur Muslims who escaped from China but have lost all contact with their loved ones back home. They reveal their struggle to preserve their identity and culture amidst the fear of being erased. The stories of these men and women living in Istanbul, Turkey are told through two distinct digital mediums that have been optimized for desktop and mobile platforms – a virtual reality (VR) documentary and a longform interactive. Visual and informative, the project combines original linear footage with 360º video, in-depth interviews, archives, infographics and data visualization.

Human rights groups claim that around one million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are held in ‘concentration camps’ while the Chinese government insists it is fighting separatism and religious extremism in the region, and that the facilities are vocational training centers. Uighurs living abroad say their relatives are not allowed to communicate with them and can be detained just for staying in touch. Since we didn’t have access to Uighurs living in Xinjiang, we decided to spend time with those who fled their homes for Istanbul.

Created for VR headsets and optimized for desktop and mobile, the 9-minute VR documentary follows Habibullah, Hatice and Munnawar who invite us into their homes in Istanbul. We use 360º video to immerse viewers in the everyday lives of these individuals so that viewers can virtually experience what it means to be a Uighur living in exile. We use the 360º space to provide contextual information and to present China’s responses to the allegations of persecution. We do this through a messaging interface design because most living in China, including Uighurs, depend on WeChat to communicate with their friends and families. The messaging interface is a critical aspect of our immersive storytelling design, which we created to demonstrate the Uighurs’ dependence on social media to transmit information and, ironically, to highlight its utility to state authorities as a means of surveillance.

Optimized for the desktop and mobile, the longform interactive offers a wider historical and political context to the unrest in Xinjiang and the conflict between the Chinese government and the Uighurs. The interactive explores the stories of four young women fighting to preserve their Uighur language, family and religion – the three pillars of their identity most under attack. We wanted to tell this story through the lens of the younger Uighur generation – those most severely impacted by the current escalation of this crisis. The interactive design is intuitive and easy to navigate, featuring original photos, videos, data visualization, archival footage and images sourced by Uighur activists.

Uighurs, Rahima Mahmut and Tøhīr composed the original musical score for the project; and artist Azimet Ahmet created powerful illustrations based on his own experiences. Pushing the boundaries of innovative visual storytelling for digital and mobile platforms, and through personal stories told in collaboration with young, talented Uighurs, Living in the Unknown​ highlights one of the most pressing human rights violations of our times.