Voice in a crowd – Audio Reportage in Egypt

Protestors in Cairo,Jan 28th Photograph: M Soli

The conflict in Egypt is dominating the media at the moment – videos and photographs of riots, torched cars and column inches debating whether President Hosni Mubarak will stand down. At present he is refusing to leave his post until September and the protests show no signs of easing. I wondered how well audio reportage would work when reporting on conflict. I had my doubts about whether audio alone would be powerful enough to draw me in and keep me listening.

This clip from Guardian reporter Jack Shenker, based in Cairo, follows his journey after he has been beaten, arrested and thrown into the back of a truck with protestors.

From the outset there is a lot of background noise which straight away throws you into the confusion of the situation. Shenker can be heard commentating, but the shouts and cries of those around him immediately give a sense of place. Sometimes he is interrupted, which reminds you that this is a real and dangerous emergency situation.

The audio has been edited so that segments fade quietly in and out, these pauses had me wondering what was happening, increased the tension and helped to signify the journey moving onwards.

From a practical point of view audio was the best option as using a recorder is discreet and also given the poor lighting conditions video would have been low quality. Good structure contributes to the storytelling in the piece which is split into  distinct sections for the beginning, middle and end. First we join the group in the truck, then  journey to the State Security Headquarters before reaching a dramatic  climax when a diabetic man goes into a coma. The hostages then force open the back of the truck to escape and the piece ends as it begins, in confusion: “a man is dying” someone yells, before fading out. It left me with a definite sense that despite escaping immediate danger the situation as a whole was not over, not resolved and that there would be more conflict to come.

This piece, for me, illustrates just how powerful audio reportage can be. Shenker’s ability to keep his cool and provide detailed descriptions had me forgetting the danger he was faced with at the time: there are people dying around him, he has no idea where the truck will take him or what will happen to him. He doesn’t know if he will live or die.

When considering audio reportage, I thought a downfall could be that without visuals the listener might not be able to build up a clear picture of the scene and feel connected with the subject matter. The use of audio in the Cairo piece throws the listener into the same darkness which those in the vehicle are experiencing and immediately submerges them in the situation.

The language describing snatched glances where street lamps illuminate people’s bloody faces or shows them curled up praying are striking enough to give the listener a vivid and highly emotive image through audio alone. It is said that when someone is blind it causes their other senses to heighten and it seems that  audio reportage, when done well, has the ability to make your ears draw the visuals for you. I heard every cry through the darkness. I felt every futile bang on the back of the truck as it swerved.  Both distressing and moving, Shenker’s piece has convinced me that audio reportage is a great medium to work in and can work as a valuable and suprisingly powerful tool for journalists.

by Ianthe Butt

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