• Benjamin Ball


This essay explores the modern quandary of how to successfully produce long-form narrative journalism for the internet. By ‘successfully’ I mean producing narratives in a way that engages people, igniting their passions and imagination, and fostering deep listening (Clarke 2012; Joseph 2010: 83). The ambiguous meaning of ‘long-form’ provides the substance for what follows. The essay’s rubric begins with journalism, but its ideas and arguments are intended to trespass the borderlines of nomenclature to what may otherwise be termed literary journalism, creative nonfiction, reportage, true storytelling or, in some cases, simply art.

This essay looks at the internet through a media ecology lens in order better to understand the logic of online communication, and argues that still photography provides a potent platform for long-form narrative journalism on the net; however this argument is founded on a deeper, thornier argument, based on the ambiguity of the term ‘long-form’. I argue that in the age of digital media our understanding of ‘long-form’ must extend beyond its descriptive meaning to encompass a broader, moral category of communication. It is the ambiguity of digital long-form, and the possibility of a social definition for this mode of narrative that is the motivation for what follows.


Keywords: Long-form journalism—photography—multimedia—media ecology—internet—digital mediation—morality



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A beginning

I was lucky enough to grow up in the bush with stories—my dad’s tales of petrified castles, dragons, and our friend the Silver Man who left messages for me on the bark of scribbly gums. And I grew up with stories written in books, black print on white pages. I learned to focus on the print, but my attentiveness was aided by the white empty space surrounding the words (Carr 2010: 64; Eisenstein 2003; Postman 1987). In the bush, and in the pages of books, I had space. I could follow my own rhythm: stop, think, reflect. The challenge for digital long-form journalism, I believe, is retaining the empty spaces that allow for such moments of reflection. How many times has each of us finished reading a paragraph, only to realise that we have lost concentration and have no idea what we just read? When reading a book, there’s a good chance we’ll return, and re-read the passage; when reading online, however, lost attention is a signal to go elsewhere, to click, to continue skimming across the surface of things (Levinson 1999: 50; Turkle 2011). We fill our empty spaces with movement.

I see this quandary as both practical and moral: practical, because our communication is migrating aboard digital technologies, and so too many of our jobs; and moral, because science, art, literature, history and politics lose much of their nuance and colour when presented in 140 characters or less. My practice-led PhD research has thus far sought to discuss how photography, and multimedia photo-essays especially, can provide an engaging platform for the communication of nuanced, complex narratives on the internet, and this article is presented in tandem with a photo-essay that helps to illustrate the form, as well as to augment some of the ideas presented here. Despite an average length of less than five minutes, I have described these photo-essays as ‘long-form narrative’, and as ‘digital literary journalism’, leaving me with a feeling of disquiet about the appropriateness of employing descriptive terms for communication that may not fit the description. This essay argues that ‘long-form’ has less to do with length than substance, and it argues that long-form narratives are a subversion of digital logic, and a necessary social transgression. But to reach that stage of fresh painting I must first prepare the canvas, beginning with an overview of media ecology, and a brief discussion on the logic of digital communication.

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Media Ecology and our Digital Grammar

Media ecology is an evolving intellectual tradition that was first named as a field of study in an address by Neil Postman in 1968, though the tradition predates its nomenclature. Postman described the discipline as ‘the study of media as environments’, explaining that media ecologists are concerned with ‘how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling and value; and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances for survival’ (Postman 1970: 161). Whereas most approaches to media studies examine the symbolic content of the media, media ecology is concerned with the ways in which media shape information and meaning in particular ways, allowing for the formation of new social patterns and cultures of perception (Ells 2009: 181).

Media ecology takes as its starting point the idea that culture is a product of all previous and possible communication (Rasmussen 2003: 458). Every new medium brings with it new possibilities and constraints for communication, a ‘logic’, as it were, which structures social discourse in ways that go unnoticed because, like the grammar of a language acquired in infancy, it is seen as natural (Ells 2009: 181). Media ecology’s most famous aphorism, ‘the medium is the message’, was Marshall McLuhan’s method of calling on society to examine the hidden grammar of any given communication medium, and to ask what its logic says about the way we live together and make sense of the world (Wark 2000).

The internet is a convergence of every preceding communications medium, and informs communication in all spheres of social life (Calhoun 1998; Castells 2009: 64; Levinson 1999). To speak of its nature as a communication medium is therefore difficult; however the task is made easier precisely because the net is so pervasive (Castells 2009: 64). The internet’s effects, when looked for, are difficult not to see.

The methodological approach to determining the logic of a communication medium is open-ended and complex, but grounded in the conviction that a medium’s effects manifest themselves materially, and are therefore observable (Ells 2009: 192). McLuhan studied causes through their effects, and drew his evidence from a rich, cross-disciplinary survey encompassing the creative arts, sociology, psychology, linguistics, anthropology, literature, archaeology, classical studies and popular mass media, amongst others (Marshall 2000; Theall 2000; Wark 2000). McLuhan was an academic polyglot because he knew that the grammar of a language, or medium, most readily manifests itself in one of two ways. The first is when a second language is learnt and serves as a point of comparison; the second is when the linguistic boundaries of a grammar are tested, as per the literature of James Joyce or the paintings of Pablo Picasso. McLuhan therefore studied media through comparisons of how different mediums affect perception and the structure of meaning, by looking to artists to see how their work expresses new possibilities and concerns for meaning-making, and by shaping his own scholarship into a metaphor-laden cultural practice, ‘akin to an artist/intellectual’ (Marshall 2000: 31; Strate 2004; Theall 2000; Wark 2000).

A working metaphor for digital communication may be reached by similar means, beginning with a survey of how the logic of online communication is interpreted and embodied in the work of contemporary artists. One example, Bit.Fall, by German artist Julius Popp, scans the internet for the most commonly used words and drops them as falling water, acting as a metaphor for the saturation of ephemeral information, and asking how transient information can be made beautiful (Scott 2011: 19). A second example is Recoil, an installation by the Danish art collective Oncotype, where a movie with statistics about contemporary life is projected onto a screen unless the observer/participant shouts into a microphone in the middle of the room, in which case the rolling statistics are replaced by one person’s story; to hear the story, one must shout, but shouting makes it impossible to hear the story (Qvortrup 2003: 257).

As a technology of convergence, the internet’s logic and effects are not necessarily new, but rather are intensified manifestations of preceding trends and logics (Bolter & Grusin 2000; Levinson 1999). The internet gives society more of what it already had, faster. However, where the internet departs from a mere aggregation and intensification of preceding media logics is the access it provides to multiple bi-directional channels (Levinson 1999: 50). Unlike the book and the television, the internet is not a ‘one-thing-at-a-time’ medium, and in this sense is more akin to radio, the main advantage of which is to allow the listener to remain attentive while cooking a meal or driving a car (Levinson 1999: 50-51). The internet does not merely accentuate the logic of radio, however, because simultaneous use of bidirectional channels creates an online mediascape in which the interruption of one channel by another is natural; it is expected that new information will arrive and displace the ‘old’, creating what researcher Linda Stone defines as ‘continual partial attention’ (in Turkle 2011: 161).

A useful, over-arching metaphor for the nature of online communication may therefore be a skimming stone, which evades the depths of communication by virtue of the speed of its motion, and the chaos and blur of its spin. Such a metaphorical understanding of the internet, and its mediation of social communication, has clear and serious implications for long-form narrative journalism, and the metaphor is supported by recent empirical research in sociology and cognitive neuroscience.

One important finding is that the ability to concentrate on a narrative, and remember it, has less to do with intensely focusing on the issue at hand than it has with the capacity to block out extraneous stimuli (Zanto & Gazzaley 2009: 3065). That is, what one is doing is less important than what one is not doing. Evidence shows that the multitasking associated with normal Internet use impairs our ability to filter relevant and important information from trivia, significantly impairing concentration, and that this, in turn, adversely effects our capacity for deep thought, memory, analysis, problem solving and creativity (Greenfield 2009: 71; Richtel 2010). A second critical finding is that what is true of our ‘online brain’ is also true of our brain more generally (Kolb et al 2003; Richtel 2010). Hence the inability to absorb long-form journalism on the internet erodes our ability to engage with long-form reportage in other, more traditional forms.

A third, and perhaps most troubling aspect of neurological and sociological studies is that heavy use of communication technologies is associated with a diminished capacity for empathy (Turkle 2011: 293; Immordino-Yang et al 2009: 3-5). One longitudinal study of American college students from 1979 to 2009 found that the current generation is up to 40 per cent less likely to relate to the situation of others (Konrath, O’Brien & Hsing 2011). The social emotions such as compassion, empathy and admiration require the most response time for neural activation, and the internet, like the telegraph before it, renders time irrelevant (Immordino-Yang et al 2009: 3-5). Without time, meaningful communication is debilitated, because it is the activation of these emotions that makes communication meaningful in a social sense (Immordino-Yang et al 2009: 3-5).

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Photography: ‘Writing with Light’

The challenge for long-form narratives is to move against the grain of online logic. Thoughtful communication requires engagement, reflection, empathy and imagination, all of which require time.

Evidence suggests that multimedia photo-essays are capable of consistently engaging people with narrative journalism. One example is Kingsley’s Crossing on the website Media Storm, which follows one man’s clandestine journey from a fishing village in Cameroon to France. The story is 21 minutes long, and according to its executive producer, Brian Storm, over 65 per cent of people who start the story, finish it (Storm 2009). Given that time spent online is often spoken about like dog years—seven times faster than real time—this is significant, and it’s worth exploring why photography is becoming such an effective vehicle for digital narrative.

Documentary photography grew in the twentieth century out of the novelty of being able to hold time still, and observe moments of life in places hitherto unseen (Newton 2009: 233). Today there is little of the world or of human nature that has not been photographed, but what was once novel about photography may now serve another social function.

Photographs give evidence of the world and enable questions to be answered (it was photography that proved that a horse gallops with all four hoofs in the air, for example), but photography is also capable of asking questions, of provoking reflection and imagination based on what is not shown (Ritchin 2009). As an art of evocation, photography is akin to poetry, its message both literal and metaphorical. Like poetry, a good photograph relies on what lies outside the frame, drawing on the viewer’s imagination to create an image larger than what is visually stated. Hemingway, when challenged to write a story in six words or less, is famously said to have written: ‘For Sale: baby shoes, never worn’ (Wood 2009: 2)

His story is more than literal, and says more through brevity than it could through elaboration. It involves our imagination, and our empathy. The same is true of iconic images such as Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of nine-year old Kim Phúc, running naked along a Vietnamese road after a napalm attack. Ut’s photograph caused more outrage when published in western newspapers than had hours of relatively context-rich video footage (Sontag 2008: 18).

In a digital mediascape, photography’s poetic quality imbues it with a subversive logic of efficiency. A photograph is worth a thousand words, but its ability to evoke as well as show lends itself to communication that defies the logic of truncation. Of course, the digital landscape is saturated with images, and not every photograph will evoke a response. Most will not. If photography has always had a poetic quality, therefore, what makes it subversive in a digital context is its newfound capacity for narrative.

‘Only that which narrates can make us understand’, wrote Sontag (2008: 23), and photography, she said, is too static and too idiosyncratic a medium to coherently communicate the complexity and fluidity of places, peoples and events. The inability of any single image to provide context or narrative remains unchanged; however, the marriage of documentary photography with audio storytelling provides a potent form for long-form narrative journalism, and begins to address Sontag’s concern.

The human voice embodies what Walter J Ong describes as interiority: ‘For Ong, interiority represents what persons reveal to each other, an individual’s self-consciousness, that which makes a claim on another’, writes Soukup (2005: 4). The voice implies and creates a listener; it claims our attention and creates a relationship based not on abstract knowledge of somebody, but on an empathic belief in that person.

In the same way that a photograph can never fully capture the reality of any given moment, Ong describes the voice as an abstract that cannot be fully contained within a media form (a voice may be recorded and broadcast, but its tone and timbre extend beyond the words that are expressed; beyond concrete knowledge to supposition; beyond what is to what might be). It is this abstract quality of evocation that casts ambiguity on what may be understood as long-form, especially in the digital mediascape. Multimedia photo-essays are consistently shorter than short-form documentary film, for example, and take less time to watch than is required to read a literary essay or nonfiction novel, so where is the ‘long’? What is measured?

Multimedia photo-essays are necessarily incomplete narratives; there is rarely closure. And so I ask, could Hemingway’s very short story ever by considered long-form? I suspect we could only answer ‘yes’ if we allow for a narrative to inhabit the immense white space surrounding those six words. And, if we allow for such extreme ambiguity, where narrative is not only long-form, but infinite, is this morally satisfactory? The questions are not intended to delineate the taxonomy of genres but, instead, should serve to interrogate the social quality of digital communication.

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‘Long-form’—A moral category?

Surprisingly little has been written to provide a working definition of ‘long-form’, perhaps because the meaning of such a descriptive category appears self-evident. In his work on book-length journalism, however, Ricketson (2012: 219-21) provides a list of six constitutive elements for long-form journalism: the genre deals with actual people and events and is concerned with contemporary issues; it is extensively researched; it is produced with a narrative approach, as opposed to the expository approach typical of hard news; it contains a range of authorial voices; it explores the underlying meaning of events and issues; and it impacts significantly on its audience or readership.

Ricketson’s criteria are useful, and I do not wish to stray from them. Rather, I want to locate them within the contemporary mediascape to illustrate that the substance of what Ricketson describes as long-form journalism, and what others have described as literary journalism (Sims 1984), creative nonfiction (Gutkind 2005), or reportage (Hartsock 2000: 169), is arguably shifting in both form and significance.

To reduce my argument to its most basic, digital long-form is not about reaching a word count, but about reaching an audience; and not only reaching an audience technically, but also, and more importantly, engaging the audience intellectually and emotionally. Long describes the depth of the communicative process, rather than its duration or material size. Digital long-form is communication that causes the metaphorical skimming stones to sink, however briefly, and this, I argue, is a difficult but necessary social transgression within our digitally mediated environment. It is this transgression that shifts digital long-form’s definition from a merely descriptive term to a moral category of communication.

Digital long-form journalism, in the moral sense, is communication that penetrates our increasingly individualised mediascapes to provide an informed platform for mediated Others, and an illuminated pathway to the great questions of human existence (Deuze 2011: 137; Livingstone 2007: 16; Ricketson 2012: 229). Working within this social definition, Hemingway’s very short story cannot be considered long-form; it neither informs nor enlightens. But it does satisfy the other condition of long-form, inviting questions stemming from the recognition of an-Other within our mediated world, and from our innate curiosity and vulnerability towards her based on what we don’t know (Silverstone 2003: 472).

In her acceptance speech for her Nobel Prize for Literature, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska said she greatly values the phrase ‘I don’t know’: ‘It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended (Szymborska 1996). Szymborska’s veneration of curiosity and mystery extends a philosophical tradition that Emmanuel Levinas distils in the concept of vulnerability, the knowledge that something precedes us. In his work exploring Levinas’ philosophy of vulnerability and the possibility of a moral sensibility towards mediated Others, Roger Silverstone writes:

There is something out there that in no way can be held or contained or even understood fully. It is this recognition that makes us human, because through it we see our limits and we gain a measure of our strengths and weaknesses. In such acknowledgement we can come to terms with the reality of our doubts and desires, and in recognizing this reality, we can claim our humanity; the painful acceptance of our vulnerability. (Silverstone 2003: 472)

For Silverstone, as well as for the arguments presented here, the concepts of vulnerability and infinity are closely tied, and he argues that an awareness of the open-ended, unknowable aspects of all narratives is essential for moral sensibility. A social definition of long-form journalism might therefore begin with the extent to which a narrative opens to the reader the infinite white space surrounding the text. This is not to devalue the scientific pursuit of knowledge, or journalism’s obligation to publicly share and enhance that pursuit, but simply to acknowledge the limitations of such a value within a digital mediascape that, as a result of increasing speeds of production and consumption, is increasingly reduced to the binaries of true and false, good and evil, near and far (Ricketson 2012: 218); and also to re-emphasise the dynamic nature of communication, in which the listener’s role is active (Clarke 2012; Husband 2009: 441).

Social researcher Hugh Mackay writes eloquently on the significance of listening:

Deep listening requires courage. In fact listening is one of the most psychologically courageous things we ever do in our normal personal relationships simply because listening—real listening—involves seriously entertaining the ideas of the other person … Listening is an act of great courage, because when we listen, we make ourselves vulnerable. (cited Clarke 2012: 71)

The facilitation of deep listening is at the centre of digital long-form’s social meaning. However it is the fraught nature of contemporary listening, as portrayed in the above-mentioned Danish art installation Recoil, and commented upon further, below, by novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen, that also imbues digital long-form with its moral character. Franzen writes: ‘The novelist has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: Where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?’ (2007: 65). And he continues:

Here, indeed, we are up against what truly seems like the obsolescence of serious art in general. Imagine that human existence is defined by an Ache: the Ache of our not being, each of us, the center of the universe; of our desires forever outnumbering our means of satisfying them. If we see religion and art as the historically preferred methods of coming to terms with this Ache, then what happens to art when our technological and economic systems and even our commercialised religions become sufficiently sophisticated to make each of us the center of our own universe of choices and gratifications? (2007: 70)

For sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, the possibility of love and emotional connection depends upon the commitment to an enduring bond, and his work on the mediating nature of technology begins to provide a sociological response to Franzen’s questions (Bauman 2000). Bauman argues that the conflation of networking with sociability, together with the fetish for what is new as the ultimate freedom (of choice), replaces meaningful social bonds with technical connection. Social bonds become elusive because everything, including relationships, is evaluated in terms of the ability to offer beauty and pleasure, and everything (and everybody) is therefore rendered exchangeable. Bonds only last as long as the technical connection that enables them, and the result is constant connectivity to networked devices, and a parallel crisis of loneliness (Bauman 2000; Franklin 2009: 344-46).

It is worth re-stating that society, seen through a media ecology lens, is made up of all previous and possible communication, and that the logic of an epoch’s dominant medium manifests itself materially (Rasmussen 2003: 458). Indeed, Rasmussen contests that the internet’s explosive success suggests an innate compatibility with society at large, and he argues that sociological understandings of contemporary culture should begin with an analysis of digital discourse and its effects (2003: 443-44). Behind and within Franzen’s ego-centred universe of choice-based gratification, and Bauman’s paradoxical loneliness in a hyper-connected world, is the Internet, our medium of skimming stones.

Digital long-form journalism can be deemed moral to the extent that it transgresses social expectations for the common good, but how does it transgress? Economically, the case is relatively straightforward:

The consumer economy loves a product that sells at a premium, wears out quickly or is susceptible to regular improvement, and offers with each improvement some marginal gain in usefulness. To an economy likes this, news that stays news is not merely an inferior product; it’s an antithetical product. A classic work of literature is inexpensive, infinitely reusable, and worst of all, unimprovable (Franzen 2007: 63-64)

However, digital long-form journalism is not merely economically subversive (or economically tenuous); it transgresses the expectations of hyper-connectivity by delving into the fathoms of human experience, suspending social fragmentation and creating the conditions for deep listening. In the tradition of Marshall McLuhan, the content of the voice should be considered less important than the act of listening that it provokes (Couldry 2009: 579). But as a journalist I also argue that communication that fosters deep listening based not only on how the world might be, but also on the reality of how the world is, established through journalistic method, is a necessary ingredient for civic participation in public life (Parisier 2011: 58). In a world of skimming stones, a moment of quiet depth to reflect on the state of things is a social transgression, and in a world in which hyper-connectivity to networked devices corrodes social connection, transgression becomes the fundamental moral injunction of society (Zizek 2009: 44). That is, digital long-form journalism does not transgress established social laws, but rather acts to alert society of the need to reclaim and conserve that which is common—social, civic and public spaces (both physical and mediated)—and it must, by definition, achieve this through the medium whose logic is responsible for the fragmentation and privatisation of all that must be reclaimed.

Indeed, extending Mark Deuze’s assertion that life is no longer lived with media, but in media (Deuze 2011: 138), one can trace the intertwining of digital and material spaces, and study where and how journalism is socially consumed and produced. According to internal research at Forbes Magazine (DVorkin 2012), news media is increasingly consumed (connoting a product, rather than active engagement with news as a process) via mobile devices in our interstitial moments between work and home, or between filling the shopping trolley and waiting for the next available cash register, and this, says DVorkin, is especially true of long-form journalism. It is in this context that multimedia also shape shifts, from simply meaning the combination of media forms, such as photography with radio-style narrative, to encompass the passage between shopping centres, streets, trains, bus stops, and other ostensibly public spaces (or mediums, in the media ecology sense) that inform our private media life (Deuze 2011; Sternberg 2002: 3).

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Because it is both public and unsolicited, busking transgresses social expectations in a similar way, and thus reflects digital long-form journalism’s moral character within contemporary urban spaces. Alexander Sovronsky, the violinist who appears in the photograph directly above, and who is featured in the photo essay that accompanies this article, makes the case succinctly. In the photo-essay, Alexander says:

I think playing on the street busking is actually really important. Because, when I'm in the theatre—being also a musician, an actor and a performer—when I do pieces of theatre there’s an awareness that comes with knowing that everyone in that theatre is there because they want to be there; they all bought a ticket, they all knew what they were coming to see. They come prepared in some way. And, when I’m busking, I’m catching people at a moment of complete unpreparedness. That music will touch them as much as they let it touch them. When it does enter into them and creates a positive response, those are the moments that I really love because it’s something that was unexpected, from them. (Ball 2011)  

Here Alexander recognises that his music is not a thing to be consumed, but a process with which to engage. He provides the primary ingredient, but it is the listener who gives meaning to the performance. When someone does stop to listen, perhaps removing her earphones or replacing her phone in her pocket, a connection is made between two people who would otherwise have remained alien to each other, each of them veiled behind the urban freedom to not be seen. Anonymity is a defining characteristic of both urban and digital spaces (Adams 2011: 25; Franklin 2009; Turkle 2011). Busking’s cultural importance is its ability to spontaneously break open our self-containing bubbles, evoking a response that may be based on a memory, an emotion, an idea or simply on inspiration, none of which is held within the music itself, and none of which is anticipated. And just as the communication that Alexander facilitates is wrapped in the aesthetics of his music, so too digital long-form journalism must reach the white space of evocation through the poetics of its form. Ricketson writes, ‘It is well understood that poets, from Shakespeare to Haiku writers, can be profound in very few words but journalists, with few exceptions, are not poets—they hear not a muse but an editor’s bark—and journalism is not poetry’ (2012: 218). In the context of our fragmented digital environment, this needs to change, and photography provides a poetic vehicle for long-form journalism’s aesthetic turn. Engagement with digital long-form journalism need not be arduous or time-consuming (and it need not be photographic in form), but without poetics what digital journalism is left with is hard news, a form invented and refined in an epoch of information scarcity, and a genre that is dreadful at conveying emotion (Ricketson 2012: 218).

To feel, one must listen, and the difference between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’, writes Hugh Mackay, is as vast as either standing at the ocean’s edge, or diving right in (cited Clarke 2012: 71). Most of our communicative life is (necessarily) spent at the ocean’s edge. However the social role of long-form journalism is to ensure that society is not confined to the margins of experience, that our mediated experience of the world, or media life, retains space within it for the stories of Others, and, perhaps most importantly, that mediated connection fosters a cultural inclination towards direct interaction (Parisier 2011: 60). After all, the linguistic root of ‘media’ comes from the Latin for ‘middle layer’; that which sits between us and the world (Parisier 2011: 60).

Despite its artistic merit, most people do not stop to listen to Alexander’s music. But some do. He creates a space for deep listening in a city full of noise, and that, too, is a task for digital long-form journalism. Just as the human habitat has never been more crowded, so too our information world has never been more overloaded or fragmented (Radovan 2001; Silverstone 2007). If a photo-essay, feature article or poem prompts an intellectual or emotional response to the true stories of Others, if it prompts a moment of reflective repose, its length is inconsequential. It is the response that opens the possibility for digital journalism to be long-form, and each response is a transgression that furthers the likelihood—culturally, morally and neurologically—of further transgressions. It is the questions that emerge that make journalism long-form; it is the reality that lies outside the frame, in the rich white space that each of us brings to the story, if only we slow down and listen.


Note: all images that are part of this article are by the author.




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