While covering India’s first Climb Against Sexual Abuse, Yusuf Omar, mobile editor, Hindustan Times, used Snapchat's filters to film open and honest interviews with rape survivors under the age of 18, without needing to blur or silhouette their faces.
"I thought there must be a more accessible way to disguise someone’s face using new technology, and Snapchat was just that," said Omar.
The event, which saw 50 young people climb the Chamundi Hills in Mysore, India, in a bid to undo the taboo and stigma existing around sexual violence, was documented by Omar using just an iPhone 6 and a selfie-stick that doubled up as a monopod.
The complex face-mapping software used by Snapchat allows users to transform their appearance with a range of filters, and turn themselves into a dog, a lion, or a fire-breathing dragon, for example – usually seen as features designed to entertain.
But this technology can have "serious applications for journalism," Omar told Journalism.co.uk. He found that Snapchat’s filters enabled him to get raw, emotional interviews with the young survivors taking part in the climb.
In a series of one-on-one interviews during the climb, Omar asked each interviewee to choose a filter to disguise themselves.
“Recording with a mask gave them the sense of legitimacy and security that I wasn’t going to be able to show their face, as opposed to trusting a journalist saying 'yes, we will blur you afterwards’, so they felt empowered and in control of the narrative.”
Omar stepped away from the interviewees and let them tell their stories alone, noting the girls felt more comfortable speaking to the camera without anyone else around.
“Using the inside camera, they felt like they were looking in a mirror,” he said.
“They weren't telling their story to me or a camera, they were just looking at themselves in a phone and recalling their experiences – and there was something so personal and sincere about that.”
Snapchat filters allow viewers to see the eyes of the interviewee along with their expressions, which Omar maintained played a crucial part in helping to tell their stories without giving away their identities.
Recording with a mask gave them the sense of legitimacy and security that I wasn’t going to be able to show their face... they felt empowered and in control of the narrativeYusuf Omar, mobile editor, Hindustan Times
“Eyes are the window to the soul, and this particular dragon filter [that two of the girls chose] actually exaggerated them, and we could still clearly see their expressions,” he said.
“Stigma around sexual violence is such a big issue, especially in India where women are frequently accused of lying, and now you get to see a young woman tell her story for herself, but with all of her emotions.”
Of course, all of the Snapchat videos Omar filmed were immediately published to his Snapchat account, but he was able to save them and re-package them for other social platforms.
Omar is planning to use these techniques to interview more sexual assault survivors while reporting on the upcoming Climb Against Sexual Abuse up Africa’s highest summit, Kilimanjaro, in December.
“Everyone keeps thinking of Snapchat as a discovery tool, desperately trying to figure out how to get more followers.
"But very few people are realising that this is a powerful content creation tool with all the ingredients that digital natives love, whether it is the ability to add filters, put text at the bottom for auto-play videos, or add emojis that convey emotions that we can't sum up in words,” he said.