TIME On Our Radar

This Photographer Takes Selfies With Complete Strangers

Nathan Fitch

Each picture represents a brief encounter with a stranger

For two months now, photographer Nathan Fitch has been taking selfies with complete strangers, uploading them to Instagram in an attempt to discuss people’s fixation with technology, he says in an interview with TIME LightBox.

Josh Raab: What is @strangerselfieproject?

Nathan Fitch: Stranger Selfie is an Instagram-based project that uses the popular phenomenon of the selfie to create images related to the modern fixation with technology, social media, and communication. The project is meant to address themes of cultural narcissism, voyeurism, isolation and surveillance, while drawing parallels to shared humanity. Each picture represents a brief encounter with a stranger, mostly in the fast moving throngs of a giant city, often with their eyes glued to the screen of their phone.

Selfie with Strangers on the G-train. #brooklyn #selfie #strangerselfieproject #mobliephoneonly #Brooklyn

A photo posted by @strangerselfieproject on

Josh Raab: What inspired you to begin this project?

Nathan Fitch: Years ago, I spent a summer in New York City. At the time, I had a summer job picking wild flowers in New Jersey, which required that I wake up very early in the morning. On my commute to work, I would often see amazing light on the train, which ran above ground. Feeling apprehensive of openly photographing my fellow subway passengers, I rigged a camera inside a Kleenex box with a small hole in the front. Each time I would take a photograph, I would sneeze to cover the sound of the shutter. Today, every phone is a camera, and my Kleenex box is no longer needed.
All the images for the Stranger Selfie project are shot on the Samsung Galaxy 3. It’s an old phone, certainly not the one with the best technical specs, and maybe that is what I like about it. The concept for the project is a humble one, the framework of the “Selfie”.
Another initial inspiration was Image America by photographer Robert Clark, who spent 50 days driving across the country photographing with a Sony Ericsson phone. I loved the intimacy of some of the images in diners and gas stations, which would have been changed if a larger, more professional camera had been used. In general, all the reflections in windows in New York City provides a never ending inspiration for potential selfies with strangers.
The approach I’ve taken to this project uses a phone, the tool used most often to create selfies, although I have not yet sprung for a selfie stick.

Selfie with Strangers #Brooklyn #selfie #strangerselfieproject

A photo posted by @strangerselfieproject on

Josh Raab: Do stranger selfies ever get you into trouble?

Nathan Fitch: I was recently trying to take a selfie with some passing pedestrians though the window of a car in Fort Green Brooklyn, when a guy ran up to me. “Hey, what are you doing to my car?”. He thought I was trying to break into his car. I showed him the pictures I had taken, and we were fine, but I’m glad that he did not tackle me, or call the police.

Selfie with Strangers #Greenpoint #associated #brooklyn #williamsisnotaname #selfie

A photo posted by @strangerselfieproject on

Josh Raab: By starting a hashtag would you like it to catch on with others?

Nathan Fitch: I think the impetus behind creating the hash tag was to have a place where all the images from the project can live. Periodically I’m tagged in other people’s Stranger Selfie instagram pictures (mostly friends), so it’s would be great if all of those images could be locatable on a hashtag.

Josh Raab: What role does this project play in your life and work?

Nathan Fitch: At this point, the Stranger Selfie Project has become a little bit of an obsession of mine. The thing that I love the most about photography is the way the medium can force you to see the world from a fresh perspective. In the process of making the Stranger Selfie images, I’ve remembered why I love photography, after a number of years (a little while ago) while trying earning a living as a photojournalist changed my relationship to image making. Moving forward I want to maintain a spirit of exploration and playfulness, that can become hard to maintain when money is involved.

Selfie with Strangers #nyc #selfie #uppereastside #selfiewithstrangers #williamsisnotaname

A photo posted by @strangerselfieproject on

Nathan Fitch is a Brooklyn based photographer/filmmaker. Follow him on Instagram and @strangerselfieproject.

Josh Raab is a regular contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

TIME portfolio

This War Photographer Was Embedded in the World’s Largest Paintball Game

See images from paintball's front lines shot by a conflict photographer who just returned from Iraq

Earlier this month, I was in Iraq, just back from the frontline, when TIME’s Josh Raab asked me to photograph a paintball reenactment of the D-Day landing in Wyandotte, Okla.

As a documentary photographer, I’ve covered conflict for 10 years, spending as much time looking at how our society exists in wartime as I did in the wars themselves. This assignment seemed like the perfect intersection between those worlds.

The idea behind this assignment was that I photograph this fake war to compare and contrast it to the real thing.

A night battle in Colleville. Flares were popped to illuminate the darkness.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum for TIME

Upon arrival at the D-Day Adventure Park in Wyandotte, the trappings of war were evident. Gear and gun-laden young men wearing camouflage walked and strutted while tanks and armored personnel carriers dotted the landscape. I introduced myself to Dewayne Convirs, the founder and godfather of the event and he introduced me to Beatle, a veteran and Harvard graduate living in New Orleans and working as a business consultant. From the adoring stares and Beatle’s own matter of fact explanations, it became clear that he was a legendary figure. Beatle, who’s real name is Juan Parke, became our guide, introducing us to the many units modeled after their real life counterparts.

Shortly after arriving there was a night battle in the center of a recreated town made of concrete and bulk styrofoam. Flares were popped to illuminate the darkness, and the Allies and Germans battled in the flickering light. Thousands of paintballs streamed through the air and it was impossible not to get shot. Getting hit by a paintball feels like a hard pinch. It is more startling than painful. After getting used to the feeling I realized I wanted to photograph as if I were immune. I didn’t enjoy getting pummeled by paintballs, but there was something liberating about it.


Josh Raab for TIME

I don’t generally care for photographs of combat. I’ve been in quite a few firefights in Iraq and Afghanistan but rarely took pictures that were anything more than a two-dimensional representation of war. Men shooting guns does not carry much emotional value for me. After the first few times in real combat, I tended to find a nice piece of cover where I could photograph the action from relative safety.

Afterwards, Josh asked me if the night battle had felt like combat. For me it was like comparing a drawing of an orange to the fruit itself. When you take away the constant feeling of mortality and the always looming potential for death or injury the essence of it disappears.

When I woke up the next morning I felt a little wary. Was this a celebration of militarism? A nationalistic throwback to a more triumphant, noble-seeming time when the enemy was clear? Perhaps in part, but as we started to spend time with the participants, a different picture emerged.

We pitched our tents with the group representing the 1st Infantry Division, who had landed on Omaha Beach and suffered one of the highest casualty rates. There was a great warmth and sense of community. Food and drink were shared and there was a nightly gathering where individuals were celebrated for their helpfulness and generosity. They received a cream pie in the face, to cheers. Afterwards, one man mentioned that he enjoyed the battles, but the real core of the experience was the camaraderie of the camp site. Another mentioned he had sold his car to afford to come. A third had sold his plasma.

On the last day, after an entire day fighting across a half dozen intricate battlefields, a group gathered at a makeshift bar in one of the campgrounds. Talk of strategy and battlefield successes was largely over. A gruff voiced commander sang “Happy Birthday” in a falsetto. A large man acted out an intricate story about getting beaten up by a little person martial arts expert. I drank whiskey in the dark with a former soldier turned military contractor in Iraq. “A lot of us are angry,” he said. “But we’re not angry with each other.”

Josh Raab for TIME

Peter van Agtmael is a conflict photographer and member of Magnum. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. His book Disco Nights Sept 11 is available now.



Christian Hansen

Josh Raab is a regular contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

TIME portfolio

This Clown Takes You Behind the Scenes at the World’s Best Circuses

Lukas Berger discovers that the best way to photograph the circus is to join it

“Once the curtain opens, the show begins. The audience laughs, is amazed, some are beginning to cry. The emotions are noticeable. They are triggered by the gestures and movements of a man with a red nose, baggy trousers and a unique clumsiness.”

In 2010, while working for the Austrian civil service in Pakistan, Lukas Berger stumbled upon the traveling Lucky Irani Circus. An avid clown and juggler, he was completely enthralled. Lukas felt compelled to document circus life, but felt he lacked the photographic expertise to do it justice. He moved back to Hanover for three years to hone his skills at Hochschule Hannover’s Photojournalism & Documentary Program. Then in 2012 he returned to photograph and occasionally perform with three different circuses on three continents.

Yonas ShibeshiLukas Berger dressed as a clown at the Circus Debere Berhan in Ethiopia.

Pakistan: Lucky Irani Circus

“I slept in a different bed every day, the lions were roaring and one of the midget clowns was after me.”

All Lukas had to reconnect with the Pakistani circus was a single business card given to him by one of the acrobats. They did not have an active phone number or email address, and constantly traveled around the country. After weeks on their tail, including multiple 12-hour bus rides, he was finally able to catch up with them.

Lukas started off by tagging along. He didn’t have a place to sleep, often sleeping next to the monkey’s cage. The circus was a large-scale production, drawing crowds of up to 5,000 spectators and it was difficult for him to find his place. As he built trust with the circus, they allowed him to perform as a clown alongside two midgets, who performed a good cop–bad cop routine. In an initiation of sorts, the bad cop hit him over the head with a cricket stick during a performance hard enough to break it in half. After that incident he was allowed to travel with the circus.

Midget clowns Tareeq & Mohammed
Lukas BergerMidget clowns Tareeq & Mohammed

Germany: Circus Roncalli

“In the circus area there is a café, a caravan for teaching the children, an office caravan, horse stable, a ticket trolley, a workshop and stalls where you can buy popcorn and other goodies.”

Next, Lukas went to north Germany and traveled with the world-renowned Circus Roncalli for six months. This time, he lived in a small caravan of his own. The deal was that he could travel with the circus if he spent two days a week shooting images they could use for advertising and one day a week shooting for his project. The rest of the time, he trained with a few of Roncalli’s children and clowns. He also did odd jobs from selling tickets to working on the circus’s website. These duties, he said, were shared: “In a circus family, you do whatever is needed.”

He was impressed by the level of professionalism and the hierarchical structure of the circus. “Life there varies depending on contracts and level of fame. A minimum of six languages are spoken in this small circus town. Circus Roncalli is a great example of peaceful and friendly coexistence between different nationalities.”

Ethiopia: Circus Debere Berhan

“The troupe loves to perform on the streets of Ethiopian cities. Without great advertising and advance notice, half the city gathers around the performances. Shortly before the show, Yirgalem and Zakarias run on stilts through the streets to pick up as many people as possible. After the last act, young and old Ethiopians gather around the troupe and ask questions about the circus.”

After struggling to find a circus in Africa that would let him in, Lukas landed with Circus Debere Berhan. One of the few remaining circuses in the country, they perform near the capital, Addis Ababa, often walking between locations. Despite poor lighting and no heating or air-conditioning, Berger was impressed by the circus’s extreme discipline. “Despite all of these hardships, the circus manages not only to survive but to grow.” Most spectators don’t have the means to pay for tickets, as a result the circus is supported by NGOs and other European circuses. Lukas grew close to this circus, training its clowns and joining them for group meals. He loved their unique circus tradition of drinking their coffee with a side of popcorn.

Each time, Lukas was given the opportunity to stay on as a clown. Instead, he opted to move on, continuing his project elsewhere. Now he’s planning to approach a circus on another continent — his fourth — most likely in Chile.

Yirgalem Shemelis & Zekarias Kefyalew from Circus Debere Berhan
Lukas BergerYirgalem Shemelis & Zekarias Kefyalew from Circus Debere Berhan

Lukas Berger is a Hanover-based Austrian photographer. Circus was published as a book by Kettler. He is also the co-founder of the gallery–art space BOHAI.

Josh Raab is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

TIME apps

Instagram’s New ‘Layout’ App Makes it Easy to Create Photo Collages

The new app is Instagram's second standalone product

Instagram is taking a page out of Facebook’s playbook by launching a standalone app that makes it easier to create collages from your favorite photos.

Layout, which launches Monday for Apple’s iOS, comes after the Facebook-owned Instagram found that one in five of its monthly active users were sharing images that combined multiple photos using third-party tools. That represents more than 60 million Instagram users turning to other companies’ software to create these collages.

While Instagram’s first stand-alone app, Hyperlapse, was the brainchild of two of the company’s software engineers, work on Layout started with a top-down decision from Instagram CEO and co-founder Kevin Systrom. Systrom felt the process of creating collages was too fragmented: Before Layout, users had to use multiple apps, save various versions of images on iPhones’ camera roll, then open the Instagram app to post the results.

With Layout, Instagram sought to make the process as straightforward as possible. When you first open the app, you’re greeted with your camera roll images and the option to sort your photos by most recent. But since 90% of all collage images shared on Instagram are of people, the company tells TIME, Layout also offers a “Faces” option, which instantly brings together all of the portraits available in your photo library.

Instagram’s “Layout”

Once you start selecting images – you can work with up to nine of your photographs at a time – you’re offered a choice of layout options from the traditional horizontal and vertical diptychs all the way to a seamless square grid of nine.

What distinguishes Layout from other collage apps is the complete absence of border options, which Instagram says was a conscious choice, especially since it’s encouraging users to experiment with symmetry effects to create out-of-this-world images. And that’s where the mirror and flip options come in, which, combined with the ability to zoom in and out of each element of your collage, can result in more creative images.

Once you’ve finally tweaked your collage, you’re offered the choice to share it directly on Instagram and Facebook, or to open it in another app.

Without a doubt, Layout’s simplicity – both in its ease of use and the small number of available editing options – will make this app popular among selfie aficionados, a fact from which Instagram doesn’t shy away. Layout even includes a predominant “Photo Booth” mode that will take up to four photos using your iPhone’s front-facing camera and automatically place them into one of 10 available layouts. The feature, says Instagram, is particularly popular in Asia, where the company is looking to grow in the coming months.

In the end, Instagram’s Layout app doesn’t reinvent the wheel, offering little by way of novelty other than a more streamlined collage experience for Instagram’s power users. But that’s all it needs to do: keep Instagram users happy and within the app’s own ecosystem.

TIME technology

You Won’t Believe These Incredible Photos Were All Taken With iPhones

These exclusive photos show how Apple is putting the focus on its customers photos, not products, in a new ad campaign

Apple is turning the spotlight on its users in a new international ad campaign that will see photos taken “by real people” displayed on billboards across the world.

The switch in tactic—a first for a brand that traditionally favors product shots—will highlight the iPhone’s increasingly prevalent role in photography, both among amateurs and professionals, and is inspired by the popular use of the #iphoneonly hashtag on Instagram.

"Shot on iPhone6" billboard in Herald Square, New York City on March 3, 2015.
Josh Raab For TIME“Shot on iPhone6” billboard in Herald Square, New York City on March 3, 2015.

In recent years, Apple’s popular phone has become one of the most used cameras in the world, with various models topping Flickr’s Camera charts since early 2011.

The new ads, which will be displayed on billboards, bus stops and train stations, will remain minimalistic, featuring a photograph, with the words: Shot on iPhone. To coincide with the worldwide outdoor and print campaign, Apple has also unveiled a new online gallery of images shot by 77 photographers in 70 cities across 24 countries.

Some of the photographers featured are among Instagram’s most popular users from Pei Ketron to Austin Mann and Cole Rise. “[The campaign] was a slightly mysterious process,” says Rise. “An ‘un-named’ company had reached out to my photography rep looking for exceptional examples of photos taken on an iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus. I spent a few days rummaging through the archives of photos taken on a variety of recent trips across the Northwest, selecting the 15 or so that told the best story. Learning that this company was in fact Apple was both a pleasant surprise and incredible honor, having carried every iPhone model since launch.”

Apple has now extended its campaign to include videos also shot on the iPhone6. The video below was shot by Jin C. in Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

Josh Raab is a contributor to TIME Lightbox. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter

TIME medicine

7 Dizzying GIFs of Spinning Cannabis Strains

This new approach to cannabis photography was created by the San Diego based company Nugshots. Applying traditional still-life photography techniques, the company began by photographing buds of marijuana for local dispensaries. The images are created using a computer-controlled motor, rotating the marijuana buds only a few degrees at a time. The resulting 50 photographs were then color-corrected and uploaded onto a custom-built player that allows the viewer to rotate the images by dragging their cursor.

Each crop of plants produces unique buds, which requires the dispensaries to commission new photography for each shipment that comes in.

Nugshots has turned its attention toward more stable forms of marijuana-related income. They recently released T-shirts with their macro images printed on them. Soon they will be releasing a book of marijuana photography entitled Green: A Field Guide to Marijuana, featuring hi-resolution macro photography of over 170 different strains.

TIME On Our Radar

It Takes Two to Tango: Instagram Account Brings Photographers Together

Ben Lowy and David Scott Holloway—Echosight

On the Echosight Instagram account, photographers are invited to collaborate to create double-exposure works of art

Photography is rarely a team sport. However, Daniella Zalcman and Danny Ghitis have managed to turn it into one.

Two years ago they were living over three thousand miles apart and wanted to find a way to collaborate. The pair formed the Instagram account Echosight and began combining their photos into double exposures by superimposing the images onto each other. For Zalcman, this process allowed them to achieve something they could not have done on their own: There’s much more depth to the collaborative aspect. And I think there’s much more dialogue visually in what we produced.”

After six months they realized they did not have the bandwidth to continue posting daily and decided to do something that is rare in photography. They handed off their concept and platform, asking other photographers to pair up and take over the feed.

Each week-long collaboration yielded astoundingly different results, starting with Ed Kashi and Laura El Tantway.

We spoke with some of the photographers about working in pairs, and we also asked them to name the artists they would like to see collaborate on Echosight in the future.

Barbara Davidson & Chip Litherland

Years ago Davidson and Litherland worked together at the Dallas Morning News. For them, Echosight was a perfect excuse to work in a pair again. Litherland posted from Florida while Davidson, a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times, was visiting family at home in Ireland. For her, Echosight was a welcomed change of pace. “I think it’s a freeing experience in many ways because there are so many guidelines that I have to follow when I am photographing as a photojournalist,” she says. “Whereas when we’re creating for the sake of creating and it’s much more of a conceptual artful image, we’re free to produce it anyway we see fit. That’s very liberating, very freeing and the images can be more poetic.” The two had a difficult time managing the nine-hour time difference though, and in the end Chip had to stitch together the images rather than engaging in a back and forth.

Davidson’s Dream Collaboration: Paolo Pellegrin & his wife Kathryn Cook

Matt Borowick & Nancy Borowick

The brother and sister team are close in age and live only a few miles apart, but their visual approaches to the world around them are surprisingly different. Their process began with Matt sending his favorite 35mm images to Nancy, including the image of the Empire State Building above. Nancy then shot images she felt would pair well with them. “I wanted the Echosight images to make sense and tell a little bit of a story,” says Nancy. “I wanted them to be very purposeful so the end result would be a more cohesive group of images.” She felt their images got stronger as the project progressed and she developed a better understanding of how Matt shoots. Nancy had always known her brother’s work but as a sibling, and after collaborating with him, she felt she understood it from a professional perspective as well.

Nancy’s Dream Collaboration: Ben Lowy & Marvi Lacar

Richard Koci Hernandez & Dan Cristea

Hernandez and Cristea teamed up after a chance encounter on Instagram. A mutual appreciation for one another’s work led to Skype conversations and eventually in-person meetings. For Echosight they took a purist approach, using an app that picked images at random from each photographer and combined them. For Hernandez, that element of chance was “frightening, freeing, and invigorating all at the same time,” he says. “Something new is born, something you can’t predict.” They felt Echosight should be more an act of happenstance than intentional creation.

Hernandez’s Dream Collaboration: Travis Jensen & Daniel Arnold

Ramsay de Give & Dylan Isbell

De Give and Isbell became friends at the Brooks Institute’s School of Photography when they discovered their shared a similar interest for botany. For their collaboration, they photographed plants together, and combined them with de Give’s portraits, creating a series of solid and consistent multiple exposures. Minimizing the element of chance that is standard for Echosight, they “wanted it to be structured and a full thought rather than just hoping it would work,” Isbell tells TIME. Despite having a set direction, they welcomed the elements of chance inherent in combining the images. “Collaboration is two people working together, two minds working towards the same idea,” says de Give. “But at the same time, both have to let go to let the vision speak for itself. It’s hard to do that but it really pays off in the end.”

Isbell’s Dream Collaboration: Michael Goldberg & Daniel Arnold

Ben Lowy & David Scott Holloway

This best friend duo have been working side by side for years. Rather than combining their best images, they went out searching for images that would combine well together. “Sometimes people fall too in love with their images,” says Lowy. “We created the images knowing that we were going to mold them together. We had ideas in our minds about how we were going to approach it, like who was doing background that day and who was doing foreground. Who was working more with negative space.” The foreground images had to have plenty of negative space to allow for the busier background images to show through. Lowy and Holloway became one of the most successful Echosight teams by cross-posting the images on their own Instagram accounts, which have a combined 170,000 followers.

Lowy’s Dream Collaboration: Sally Mann & Terry Richardson

Given the feed’s recent success, Ghitis and Zalcman plan to keep Echosight as a takeover account for the foreseeable future. In addition to the commonly artful mashups, Zalcman would like to see it take a newsier approach. She is “trying to move more in that direction because 95% of the photographers who have taken over Echosight are pure photojournalists and not fine art photographers, so that really is their wheel house. and I would love to see that happen more. But I do also like that it’s a space for news photographers to do something that is completely different and completely creative.”

Echosight is run by photographers Daniella Zalcman and Danny Ghitis. They can be contacted on Echosight’s Facebook page.

Josh Raab is a contributor to TIME Lightbox. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

TIME Toolbox

Here's What It's Like Inside the First Virtual Reality Documentary

Is virtual reality the future of documentary work? Danfung Dennis seems to think so as he unveils his first immersive film designed for Oculus Rift

Correction appended, Oct. 28.

Putting on a virtual reality headset feels a little like wearing the gaudiest pair of sunglasses ever: they’re awkward, unflattering — but they somehow manage to be kind of fun. Earlier this month, I was given the opportunity to try an Oculus Rift in one of TIME’s meeting rooms, sampling some imagery from Zero Point, the first movie ever shot in 3D, 360 degree video specifically for virtual reality.

I was transported to a whole new world.

I found myself in different settings — a virtual prairie surrounded by buffalos, a beach with a beautiful woman, and finally a military training session. The experience was a little overwhelming at first, but it didn’t take long for me to get used to it. It seemed that my brain was able to accept the virtual world almost as easily as it does the real one. When I finally returned to the conference room, though, it all seemed a little underwhelming.

Condition One
Condition One

The film Zero Point follows the pioneers, researchers, and developers of virtual reality, and is spearheaded by Danfung Dennis’s tech startup Condition One. The film uses footage from between three and 30 cameras, each shooting simultaneously at a slightly different angle, before being stitched together to create a seamless user experience. To view this film, you must own an Oculus Rift headset, which is currently only available to developers.

Nintendo Virtual Boy 1994; Oculus Rift 2014
Reuters; AP

Facebook’s recent $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR, creators of the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift, has spurred a massive resurgence of interest in virtual reality technology. For decades, the gaming industry has unsuccessfully attempted to introduce immersive headsets, but only now is the technology reaching a point where it can be used as a new documentary tool.

“The traditional rules of filmmaking and storytelling do not apply,” Dennis tells TIME. “There is no frame and it’s actually the audience or the user who’s deciding the frame and what’s of interest to them.”

“Anything that helps storytellers create more understanding and empathy for the people and issues that we are covering is worth exploring,” adds Brian Storm, founder and executive producer of the multimedia production studio MediaStorm. “It may take some time, but it’s clear that important storytelling can be elevated in the virtual reality space.” Indeed, the immersive experience may make room for a deeper connection between the viewer and the content – even an emotional one.

Condition One
Condition One

Similar technologies are already being used by the military to create flight simulators, and by doctors to practice surgeries. Ford uses it to assist designers in developing car prototypes, and NASA has been experimenting with controlling robots remotely and even simulating walks on Mars.

Dennis and his team have equally grand ambitions for virtual reality. They see it as a way to connect people to current events by using it in breaking news situations; ones that the general public lacks personal connection to. Of course, these aspirations will have to contend with the exorbitant price tag currently associated with the production of these visual experiences.

Beyond breaking news, Dennis also imagines the technology could be introduce to schools to expand on the classic curriculum: “They’re not reading a textbook about ancient Rome,” Dennis says, “They’re in ancient Rome.”

Dennis would also like to direct nature documentaries on pressing ecological concerns, with the goal of putting viewers in remote areas of high biodiversity. Places that “are threatened by deforestation or coral reefs that are acidifying and disappearing, or species that are on the brink of extinction,” he says. “Distill really complex, abstract problems that humanity is facing into experiences that we understand.”

Zero Point as seen through the Oculus Rift headset
Zero Point

For Dennis, even that is just a starting point. Eventually we will want more than to simply look around, he says. “We’re going to want our bodies in there, our hands in there. We’re going to be able to stand up, start walking around a scene, moving around it. That’s going to be mind-blowing.”

Dennis agrees that a fully immersive virtual experience might seem scary, even dangerous, to some, but he believes that temporarily imitating reality to the fullest extent is a natural urge, at least for him.

And yet, there is a great deal of software innovation necessary to bring even his simplest technological ideas to fruition, but for the first time it seems a matter of when and not if.

Correction: The original version of this story misattributed a quotation. It was Brian Storm, founder and executive producer of the multimedia production studio Media Storm, who said, “Anything that helps storytellers create more understanding and empathy for the people and issues that we are covering is worth exploring. It may take some time, but it’s clear that important storytelling can be elevated in the virtual reality space.”

Zero Point is an immersive film created by Condition One for the Oculus Rift. It is now available for PC on Steam.

Danfung Dennis is a documentary photographer and videographer. He directed the award-winning documentary Hell And Back Again and produced the 360 degree film Condition One.

Josh Raab is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow him on Instagram @instagraabit.

TIME fashion

How the Apple Watch Might Look if Reimagined by Fashion’s Top Designers

Imagine these on the catwalk

When the Apple Watch is released in early 2015, there will be many different colors, designs, and interfaces to choose from. Some buyers, however, will always want more.

Online fashion site High Snobiety commissioned designer Finz Lo to create concept art of how the watches might look if they were designed by renowned fashion houses.

The collection is inspired by the work of fashion heavyweights such as Alexander Wang, Chanel, Louie Vitton, Givenchy, and Maison Martin Margiela.

TIME portfolio

A War Photographer Embeds Himself Inside a Video Game

The Last of Us Remastered is a post-apocalyptic video game released earlier this year on PlayStation 4 with an in-game Photo Mode, which freezes the game and lets players shoot, edit and share photographs of their achievements.

TIME assigned conflict photographer Ashley Gilbertson to use the Photo Mode to document the game’s protagonists as they fight to survive in a zombie-infested world. Gilbertson writes about his experience.

I’ve spent a few days inside the body of an angry Hugh Jackman-lookalike.

TIME asked me to work as a photographer within the video game called The Last of Us Remastered, a hyper violent game in which a player must kill people that are infected with some type of brain and flesh condition. The game, which is very carefully rendered to look as real as possible, gives the player access to a wide variety of weapons, but it also provides players with a camera to shoot their own action. I loved the concept – it brought to mind the ideas of photojournalism produced without a physical camera, best embodied in Mishka Henner’s brilliant series, No Man’s Land, a project that uses Google Street View to document Europe’s prostitution issues.

My approach with The Last of Us Remastered was to enter each situation, or level, and work the scene until I was confident I’d gotten the best photograph I could before moving on. It’s the same way I work in real life. Yet, I found it was more difficult to do in a virtual reality because I was expected to fight my way through these levels to get to the next situations. That involved chopping off people’s heads, shooting them point blank in the face or throwing bombs near them. If I failed, I’d have my neck bitten, with blood exploding from my jugular in some pseudo-sexual zombie move, forcing me to restart the level.

I initially played the game at home. But after a short time playing it, I noticed I was having very strong reactions in regards to my role as the protagonist: I hated it. When I covered real war, I did so with a camera, not a gun. At home, I’d play for 30 minutes before noticing I had knots in my stomach, that my vision blurred, and then eventually, that I had simply crashed out. I felt like this could well be my last assignment for TIME.

Call me soft, but I’m pretty sure it was my brain being overwhelmed and shutting my body down. It sounds extreme perhaps, but I’m wired that way.

So, I moved to the TIME offices where Josh Raab, a contributing photo editor at Time.com and a former gamer, could take the controls and fight his way through the different stages for me. Josh developed a particular style of clearing levels – sneaking up on infected people, strangling them for a while and then stabbing them in the neck. I’d then retake the controls, letting me act more like a photographer. That’s when I started to make better images – the whole experience resembled an actual embed, with someone doing the fighting and me taking photographs.

In a day of combat in Iraq, I’d generally file between eight and 10 photographs per day. I figured I could do the same thing with this assignment. I was wrong. In combat, I need to be in position, prepared for a shot, and I’ve only got hundredths of a second to make it before the situation changes and I have to move on. There’s one moment, one frame. Within the game, I could freeze time. I had unlimited time to experiment and find my shot using different angles, depths of field, exposure, grain, vignettes and lenses. The zen approach to how I work in the field is lost within a gaming console. There, I had the opportunity to second-guess myself every time I hit pause.

An additional challenge was that I could make photographs that seemed almost “perfect”. It wasn’t hard to make images that recalled posters for a war film, or that might be used in an advertising campaign for the game itself. It was too clean. The last thing I wanted to do was to advertise the game, so I tried to mess with the photos a little. Put unimportant information in the foreground. Tilt the camera. Pull back too wide. I needed to make the shots imperfect because, I believe, imperfections make photography human. In advertising things look perfect. In journalism, there’s always something off. What some people see as visual weaknesses in our work, I see as part of our tableau.

Ashley Gilbertson for TIME“I found another [image] that reminded me of Michelangelo’s Pietàˆ.”

I seek particular scenes when I work, and playing the game, I found myself doing the same thing. I’d gravitate towards darker situations, or spots with slivers of light, both environments I love to shoot on the field. I found one scene that reminded me of Paolo Pelegrin’s Lebanon image when I switched it to black-and-white. I found another (above) that reminded me of Michelangelo’s Pietà. I shot through a dirty window at one point (below) trying to emulate the refugee-in-bus-window-at-border-crossing image, but the subject, my virtual daughter, didn’t have the required expression of distress.

"I shot through a dirty window at one point trying to emulate the refugee-in-bus-window-at-border-crossing image, but the subject, my virtual daughter, didnÕt have the required expression of distress."
Ashley Gilbertson for TIME“I shot through a dirty window at one point trying to emulate the refugee-in-bus-window-at-border-crossing image, but the subject, my virtual daughter, didn’t have the required expression of distress.”

None of the game’s characters show distress, and that to me was bizarre – it’s a post apocalyptic scenario, with a few remaining humans fighting for the survival of their race! To be successful, a player must be the perpetrator of extreme, and highly graphic, violence. I’m interested in a more emotionally engaged type of photography, where the human reaction to a scene is what brings a story to life. That was tough inside this game. Occasionally the characters show anger, though generally they’re nonchalant about the situation they’ve found themselves in. In the end, their emotions mimicked that of the zombies they were killing.

By the time I finished this assignment, watching the carnage had became easier.

Yet, I left the experience with a sense that by familiarizing and desensitizing ourselves to violence like this can turn us into zombies. Our lack of empathy and unwillingness to engage with those involved in tragedy stems from our comfort with the trauma those people are experiencing.

It’s the single largest issue I face as a photographer. How do we reach a readership that is accustomed to seeing people dying en masse in war zones as a result of games like this one? I’ve been trying to find alternative approaches to the topic for the past seven years, with limited success – the work I’m most proud of, Bedrooms of The Fallen, was just published as a book. It examines the intact bedrooms of soldiers killed overseas.

I came away from the experience having learnt a couple of things: that the work I usually do is an antidote to the type of entertainment this game represents and that I suck at video games.

Josh RaabAshley Gilbertson in the TIME Studio playing The Last of Us

Ashley Gilbertson is a conflict photographer represented by VII Photo and based in New York. His latest book Bedrooms of The Fallen was featured on LightBox in May. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @ashgilbertson.

Josh Raab is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter

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