Tim Hetherington Visionary Award gives £20,000 grant to experimental conservation documentary

Dutch-American filmmaking team Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill have been named as the first winners of the new Tim Hetherington Visionary Award.

The duo saw off 64 other nominated artists to win the £20,000 prize, which was set up by the Tim Hetherington Trust in 2014, in memory of the celebrated British photojournalist who was killed covering the civil war in Libya in 2011.

“We’re still processing the news,” says O’Neill on Skype from California where the couple lives. “It’s something we regard as much a responsibility as an honour. We have such an immense amount of respect for anything done in Tim’s name, [which] carries a resonance, and has to be respected… this is a certificate of validation for us.”

Speaking exclusively to BJP before the announcement, Stephen Mayes, executive director of the Trust said: “The true essence of Tim was about moving forwards, innovation, and trying to solve the ‘media puzzle’ – how do we use the media in a way that is really effective? By setting up the award in Tim’s name, we hope people will recognise that same spirit of adventure, of experimentation, which is at the core of the Trust.”

A jury of industry professionals awarded Jongsma and O’Neill the prize for their as-yet unrealised project, The Ark, a virtual reality documentary that will tell the stories of the African and American rangers and scientists who are fighting to conserve the world’s last five remaining northern white rhinoceros.

The documentary will explore the different technologies harnessed in conservation tactics, and aims to bring together the cultural perspectives of two seemingly unrelated cultures engaged in a shared mission.

The project will be created for mobile reality platforms, Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, and, although details are still being worked out, the couple says they intend to explore the narrative and immersive capabilities of this medium to the full.

“We want to give people an experience they’ve never had,” says O’Neill. “The idea is to make a science-fiction documentary, a kind of post-nature film that’s much more about the humans who are the protectors and potentially the revivalists of this species.

“We want to use this animal as a lens through which to refract these two very different communities on different sides of the world and to make these environments exist simultaneously [through virtual reality].”

Photographer Daniel Meadows, one of the five judges, said: “This is very strong work at the cutting edge of technology. Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill will be terrific ambassadors for what the Trust is trying to achieve with the Visionary Award.”

In light of the duo’s win, Mayes commented: “Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill won [over] the jury with their ambition to tell a complex story exploring technology, wealth and culture as revealed in Africa and California, as people use every available tool to save the northern white rhinoceros from extinction. It’s appropriate for an award in Tim’s name that the project is layered and uses cutting edge VR technology to help unravel the complexities.”

As part of their prize, the duo has been assigned a mentor, Nonny de la Peña, a pioneer in the use of immersive virtual reality technologies, who will work with the team over the next 18 months to help develop their project.

Jongsma and O’Neill will now embark on an intensive research and development phase to work out the technical side of the project and workflow.

“We want to pursue a way of thinking about storytelling that follows in the lineage of film and immersive theatre, but isn’t exactly either of those things,” says O’Neill. “The boundaries haven’t yet been defined – it’s something that’s being figured out – and that’s one of the things that appeals to us.”

The project will have “certain echoes of what we’ve done in the past”, says O’Neill, and the couple hopes to draw from their previous installations and interactive work. Ultimately, they have the freedom to work on the project how they choose. “That is the terrifying reality – we can produce what we want. But we’re trying to figure out the restrictions we’ll place on ourselves.

“When you work with technology as closely as we do, it’s constantly sending you back to square one and makes you question your basic assumptions about how to tell a story,” he adds. “There are inherent limitations within technology but we believe these can lead to results. There is no way for us to predict what storytelling will be in ten or twelve years and that’s terrifying but also exciting.”

See more of their work here.