Indian sexual assault survivors break taboos by using Snapchat filters to tell their stories

Snapchat filters are popular for their funny and absurdist nature. Yet, a mobile journalism project in India has demonstrated how the app can be a powerful and unconventional storytelling tool as well.

Hindustan Times mobile editor, Yusuf Omar, chose Snapchat to interview two teenage women participating in India's first Climb Against Sexual Abuse near the southern city of Mysore. The filters enabled sexual assault survivors to narrate their stories without the fear of being recognised.

"I was five years old when it happened," one of the survivors says. "They locked me in a room, they tortured me, and made me do a lot of work."

Instead of a traditional interview format, the two survivors spoke directly to the camera through a selfie stick. They also chose their own filters to disguise their identity as they spoke of their harrowing experiences. Both opted for a fire-breathing dragon filter. Omar says that this helped the women feel more empowered as the masking and video recording unfolded in front of their eyes.

Omar realised that Snapchat filters could be used for interviewees who wished to conceal their identity, after watching a television interview with the alleged gay lover of the Orlando shooter.

"To hide his identity, they dressed him in a big mask, with lots of makeup," Omar told Mashable. "It was an interesting evolution from the usual blurring of the face and dramatic silhouettes. But I thought that with the face mapping technology on Snapchat, there had to be a better way."

Visually, Snapchat filters also stayed true to the survivors' emotions, because the viewers could still see their eyes.

Visually, Snapchat filters also stayed true to the survivors' emotions, because the viewers could still see their eyes. "The eyes are said to be the windows to the soul. This created a stronger bond between viewers and interviewers," Omar adds.

Omar, who had earlier used Snapchat for an undercover story on drugs in the north Indian state of Punjab, argues that the survivor project is a good example of how Snapchat is different from traditional forms of video journalism, both in terms of its honesty and speed.

"It’s almost live and relatively raw and unedited. Its competitive advantages for journalists are speed, being able to put together a linear story as quickly as one can shoot it, and hosting all video on the cloud, so you don’t require much phone memory and no one can delete your footage in hostile scenarios," Omar says. "Also, with the emojis, text and graphics, the entire experience is tailored to digitally native, mobile audiences."

It also requires fewer tools. For the Climb Against Sexual Abuse project, Omar just used his iPhone 6, a selfie stick, lapel mic and a table tripod.

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