Assignment Afghanistan

“I made my first trip to Afghanistan in October of 2009 when General Stanley McChrystal was just beginning to implement his counter-insurgency strategy, and I wanted to see where the rubber was hitting the road with this very new strategy and at this particularly bleak juncture in America’s involvement with Afghanistan” Elliott Woods tells us in the introduction to Assignment Afghanistan (literally, as the introduction is a video of Woods speaking directly to the camera).

Assignment Afghanistan, presented by the Virgina Quarterly Review and winner of the 2011 National Magazine Award for Best Multimedia Package, collects the text articles, videos, and photographs created by Woods during his time in Afghanistan (with more articles to come). Topics vary, including foot patrols in the Jalrez Valley, the country’s mining industry, and self-immolation among young women in western Afghanistan.

How It Works

Like other multimedia projects listed on this blog, Assignment Afghanistan is not a single work. It’s a collection of stories connected by a common topic – in this case a rather wide topic, the war in Afghanistan.

These stories are either videos, photo videos with narration by Woods, text articles, or photo slideshows (or a combination of two of these). All stories are self-contained and are not integrated together.

The connections come through the navigation. In addition to a list of stories, Assignment Afghanistan also includes an interactive timeline, starting in 2001, that lists major events in the war in Afghanistan. The stories are also marked on the timeline according to when they were created. A Google map marks the location of the different stories (a smaller map is also included with each story).

The above-mentioned video introduction introduces Woods, the author, and sets the scene in Afghanistan.

Assignment Afghanistan also includes an attempt at public journalism by allowing readers to upload their own writings and photos about the war and life in Afghanistan. These “public stories” have been written by both American soldiers and Afghans.

There is also a page of links to articles by other writers about the conflict that provide further background, analysis, and on-the-ground reporting.

What Works, What Doesn’t

Assignment Afghanistan isn’t trying to be a cohesive narrative. It’s just trying to bring together different content created by Woods and others in a way that is easy to navigate.

In this respect, it works very well. The different stories and photos are easy to navigate between. The interactive timeline and map provide a small amount of context for each one relative to the others and the overall situation in Afghanistan. The video introduction connects the user to Woods, putting a face to the other content.

Although the content is not integrated together, it is all well-done. Woods certainly makes the most of whatever medium he uses. The longer text articles provide a good mix of context and reporting. Larger topics like the Afghan mining industry or the fight over the Arghandab River Valley are covered in this way. Photo videos with narration are used for smaller topics like soldiers out on patrol. When there is more action – soldiers firing on the enemy for example – video is used.

But more could have been done to integrate the different stories together to create a stronger, cohesive overall narrative (Project Jacmal, for example, does a better job of stringing together individual stories by following particular subjects over time). The map and timeline ultimately give only so much context to a user who isn’t already familiar with the war in Afghanistan.

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