The power of audio in interactive media – using sound to explore one of Syria’s most notorious prisons

Last month Amnesty International published an interactive media experience allowing users to explore the notorious Saydnaya military prison in Damascus, Syria.  They produced the multimedia experience with Forensic Architecture a research organization based at Goldsmiths, University of London.  Using satellite imagery, initial field research, interviews with five former Saydnaya detainees, and architectural software, the team created a 3D rendering of the prison’s exterior and interior allowing users to explore the prison.

The published site allows you to explore the prison either by different interior locations or via the personal experiences of the five detainees interviewed for the project.  Each location in the prison contains one or more videos composed of interviews with the former detainees cut with 3D renderings of their experiences in prison.  Because the detainees were allowed only intermittent access to light, were not allowed to speak and were often blindfolded, they developed an acute sense of sound. The production team used this sense of sound to refine their modeling of the prison using a process called “echo profiling”. Exposing the former detainees to different reverberations and sound artifacts mimicking sounds in the prison, they were able to determine the size of cell blocks, stairways and hallways.  

The result is a powerful exploration of the horrors of detention in Syria.  The user is immersed in both an auditory and visual experience narrated by the detainees.  As you explore the different locations you can hear water dripping through the pipes, the faint sound of birds or the footsteps of approaching guards.  Additionally the experience was produced in a way that the narrative helps you understand what daily life was like for each of the detainees.

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Often audio takes a back seat to visuals when it comes to multimedia production.  What we liked about this joint project was that it put audio at the forefront with powerful effect.  It’s a reminder that audio can be a powerful tool to help users connect emotionally with visuals.  At the end of each video segment the user is able to share the site via their social network platforms or sign a petition that Amnesty International will deliver to the U.S. and Russian governments to, “to use their global influence to ensure that independent monitors are allowed in to investigate conditions in Syria’s torture prisons.” 

By Dave Thatcher

Dave is currently a student Metropolitan State University of Denver focusing on convergent journalism and multimedia advocacy studies. He has a strong interest in emerging digital storytelling techniques and new ways to achieve audience engagement and social impact through multimedia. Prior to his multimedia studies, Dave spent several years working in the field of refugee resettlement in the United States. Additionally he worked abroad in Sub-Saharan Africa as protections specialist for human rights defenders. In his spare time, Dave can be found wandering the winding streets of Istanbul in search of the perfect cup of coffee.

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