Shooting VR in a conflict zone — how the NY Times did it in Iraq

Ben Solomon working with his VR rig in Iraq

Virtual reality has become the forefront of video exploration. Ben Solomon of The New York Times is one of the key people trying to find new ways of storytelling in this emerging medium. In what might be one of the most daring experiments in VR storytelling, Ben documented military efforts by Iraqi forces to retake the besieged city of Fallujah from Islamic State militants.

He recently published a ten-minute film “The Fight for Fallujah”. Vignette Interactive interviewed Ben on his experience shooting VR in the middle of a conflict zone.

What was the difference between this VR project and how you approached it from the others you’ve done?

I accepted early on that I was going to be in it. I think so much of the early VR is people trying to figure out how to hide film in VR. And this was going to have a reporter feeling, less cinematic and more honest about what it felt like to be there. I decided early on that I was going to be a character in it and I was going to be shooting myself. It felt weird for me. I don’t usually play a part. But that was the main challenge — striking a balance between being a correspondent and trying to have a smaller role.


How did you approach the story line?

The story line is the best part of it. In the battle, there was a very clear beginning, middle and end that we were going to be able to see —  the beginning of the fighting, the middle, how it progressed and the end when they retook it. There was never any question that they were going to retake it eventually. It was just a matter of how much time it took and how long we were going to be there.


Was your equipment different this time? And how much shooting time did you get before your batteries died?

I spent a month doing research and development to find the right cameras to work with and to make sure that it was a good system. I was using GoPros Hero3s instead of GoPro Hero4s. The older models were much better, much sturdier and didn’t break down as much. But the video quality was not as high.

I didn’t expect the cameras to work so well. I thought that the cameras were going to screw up all day every day. In the end they were really reliable in even that 120F heat. Oh my god, my A7 [camera] was melting. The rubber melted off the side of it. And the GoPros I couldn’t touch them cause they were so hot but they were running without any problems at all for hours.

Ben Solomon working with his VR rig in Iraq.
Ben Solomon working with his VR rig in Iraq.

When you were shooting what did the Iraqi soldiers think about it? Was it hard to get them to understand what you were doing?

To the benefit of the piece, most people didn’t know what it was. They just thought it was a weird looking camera and it was because it was so small that it was easier to ignore. It always surprises me how little people care about it, how it’s much more ignorable than a film camera. But there were a couple of times that people would walk up and be like, “What’s that?” And I would be like, “Oh, it’s a camera. It shoots in 360 degrees.” And I would have to say in my terrible arabic, “Soura, kol (photograph, everything)”. One guy leaned in and looked at it and was like, “CIA?” And I was like, “La, la, la! (no, no, no!)”


While you were shooting, did you require more time, or have different needs than the typical media did?

The actual fighting was hard. I knew I couldn’t have the camera moving around too much. There were a lot of foot patrols I was on that were really interesting, but because they were moving around so much, I couldn’t shoot because the viewers would get sick. The war told me what I could and couldn’t shoot as it does for everybody. But with VR, it’s more limiting.


You look at the pictures that [New York Times photographer] Bryan Denton shot. Every picture he took, I was standing next to him in Fallujah. A lot of those pictures were really dramatic and powerful. He could make decisions, whereas with VR being in the middle, this crazy thing is happening in front of you and sometimes the guy next to you is eating a banana and the guy behind you is on his phone. So, suddenly, this thing that is in unbelievably dramatic and terrifying in VR is kinda “whatever”.


What would you do differently next time? Any serious lessons?

I would’ve liked more time working with a character, maybe having that be a second part of it. The reality was that we had such little access. It’s so hard to work in Baghdad as a whole. If I could do it again, I would push a lot harder to find a character to be with and follow.


When you put camera inside the cage used to hold ISIS fighters, and closed it, I thought that was really powerful. It was chilling. Did you have to think differently shooting that in VR?

In terms of documentary, the kind of the situation tells you what you should be doing. I saw the cage and I was like, I’m totally putting [the cameras] in there. In situations like that, it makes it easy to get to the point. In VR, the idea now — and what people are striving for — is to try and make them look like films because we are filmmakers doing it. It’s just a different mind set. It needs to be its own kind of art form and it needs to have its own set of rules and goals.


People watch another NY Times VR film at the World Press Photo event in Amsterdam.

People watch another NY Times VR film at the World Press Photo awards in Amsterdam.
People watch another NY Times VR film at the World Press Photo awards.


Have you worked with VR? Share your experience in the comment section!


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

By Tara Todras-Whitehill

Tara worked as a staff photographer for the Associated Press for four years in the Middle East, covering the uprisings, revolutions and numerous elections in the Arab world. Her photography has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic and Washington Post, among many others. She also works on personal projects focused on women's issues. Her passion is trying to portray strong women changing their lives and the world around them.

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