First Person

Yusuf Omar Wants to Fix the World, One “Snap” at a Time

Dept. of Radical Journalism


Yusuf Omar isn’t just a mobile journalist, he’s a wearable journalist. The co-founder of the mobile journalism network “Hashtag Our Stories,” he is now utilizing Snapchat, and their various technologies, to turn citizen journalists into more effective storytellers. Last October, he launched First Person, a Snap Original that reimagines the documentary format and takes on the incredibly weighty topic of climate change.

The big difference is that these stories allow you to literally see things from a climate activist’s perspective. What’s more, First Person doesn’t just talk about the problems we face, but each episode focusses on highlighting how these individuals are coming up with solutions and creating positive change.

First Person is the first Snap Original to be shot entirely using Spectacles.

We caught up with Yusuf Omar over Zoom for a conversation about his new Snap series, as well as his thoughts on how technology is changing how we tell stories.

Umapagan Ampikaipakan: Talk to me about your journey from “Hashtag Our Stories” to First Person. How did that evolve? Tell me about the genesis of the idea. 

Yusuf Omar: When we launched “Hashtag Our Stories” in 2017, we came from the understanding that we could train communities to tell their own stories on mobile devices, and tap into new voices, and have more perspectives, and more angles. 

The next step from mobile journalism to wearable journalism is a natural evolution that is going to take place over the next decade, not just in terms of creating content from the eyes, but also in terms of consumption. For me, wearable journalism is increasingly going to become about creating content that people will consume through devices like smart glasses and head mounted displays. For us to move from “Hashtag Our Stories” to First Person was a natural evolution from mobile journalism to wearable journalism. I think we’re going to do more of it over the next decade. And it is going to enable new storytelling experiences like we’ve never seen before. 

First Person

UA: Tell me about the POV style of shooting using something like Spectacles. When I’m watching a documentary, I’m always very cognizant of the moment that the subject forgets that the camera is there.

YO: I’ll start by saying that it’s not incognito. These things are never designed to film somebody without them knowing. It’s got a bright flashing light that lets people know that you’re rolling. But it absolutely does get to a place where people forget that we’re filming something and they’re just continuing to live their lives. 

I think there’s something really interesting that happens when you decentralize the storytelling process. Traditionally, the filmmaker has control over the narrative. We point the camera at the subject matter and we document what’s happening. With Spectacles, the subject controls the camera. They click when they want to record, and it’s on their face, and it’s pointing back out at the world. And because it’s wearable, they forget it’s there, and they can carry on doing what they are doing.

Suddenly it’s not just people talking about problems. It’s people doing shit about it. They’re helping to make the world a better place. They’re using their hands. They’re getting dirty.

But it’s also liberating to no longer be looking at our screens, but back out at the world, seeing things with our eyes and not through these glass rectangles. I could look at people in the eyes when I speak to them. I could have interviews where I was actually giving them eye contact. 

UA: And that’s the fundamental difference. If you’re looking through a camera, it feels like people are always talking into a lens, and that intimacy is completely lost. 

YO: Exactly, and for me, the real intimacy is not my perspective, but their perspective. As the old saying goes, walk a day in somebody’s shoes. I want you to do more than that. I want you to feel like you are them for a little while. And I hope that creates a new sense of empathy and understanding. 

The reality of climate change is that the actions you take can affect somebody thousands of kilometers on the other side of the world. Your lights being left on in Malaysia can be contributing to the hottest summer than we’ve ever seen in Australia. 

And I think that it’s hard to relate to people in different parts of the world. It’s hard to empathize with them. And being able to live through their eyes for a little while is a cool way of saying, “oh, wow, okay, I see your world. I see why you see the world the way that you do. And I think we all need a little bit more of that. 

The real intimacy is not my perspective, but their perspective. As the old saying goes, walk a day in somebody’s shoes. I want you to do more than that. I want you to feel like you are them for a little while.

UA: I think limitations often bring out our most creative side. I was wondering if you could talk me through the decision to use Snap as a platform and how you frame your story based on both the perspective of the screen and also the time that you have to tell that story.

YO: So let me start by saying I am obsessed with Snap as a platform. I really am. I think there’s a big misunderstanding around Snapchat, where most people see it primarily just as a social media platform

UA: It’s where tweens get up to really naughty things, right?

YO: Yeah. There’s still that perception. The place where people send nudes that disappear. For me, however, it is the most powerful integrated camera we’ve ever seen. And I’m talking specifically around the idea of augmented reality. Right now, our entire experience with the Internet has a lot of friction. Right now, for me to do something on the Internet, I generally have to type it on my phone, or say it out loud. But it’s awkward. It doesn’t make sense. Snap are building an ecosystem that’s built around the camera first. Where you consume content through the camera, where you engage with the world through the camera, where you scan things to try and understand what they are. 

You’re adding computational layers on top of the world. 

As a platform, that’s why I’m obsessed with Snap. Because I’m obsessed with the idea of trying to integrate that into storytelling. How do we create incredible experiences that immerse people into the world. I’m obsessed with it because technologically it does things that we cannot do anywhere else. We can’t do it on television. We can’t do it on social media platforms. They don’t exist. 

So that’s your first question about why this platform? Your second question was about the format of the show?

UA: Yes. How did you decided to cut the show in the way that you did. How did you manage those time limitations.

YO: So I’ll start by saying that we’re targeting  13 to 14 year olds with First Person. They are an incredibly young audience and an incredibly smart audience. They know what’s up. They’ve been plugged in from the day they were born. They are way smarter than you and I were at that age.

So when creating this format, we realized that we had to keep the story moving forward very quickly. We had to hit a point, and move on, hit a point, and move on. Because they also control how fast they watch the show. Unlike linear television, Snapchat is a clickable format. Every time they click me, they jump forward 10 or 20 seconds into the narrative. So they’re in control of the pace. And we know this. We can see the analytics of how long they watch the shots, and where they’re dropping off, and all that kind of stuff. So when we created the format, we had to ensure that every single Snap was telling you something new that you haven’t heard before. 

So in making First Person, we had to find the edgiest ways into environmental stories. And to be honest, we’re still watching the analytics very carefully, and we still make changes.

The beauty of this compared linear platforms is, when things don’t work out the way we thought they would, or people are not enjoying a part of the show, we can jump in and change that. And that’s really cool, being able to respond to an audience, to learn what they like and what they don’t like. It’s very dynamic. 

UA: How then do you strike that balance between being reactive while also putting forward your own creative point of view? 

YO: I think that’s something that journalism is tussling with as a whole. As media organizations around the world are trying to be sustainable, and trying to monetize, they’re increasingly being reactive to what they think audiences will want, against what they actually need. It’s very risky because it’s like, we know you like fast food, but you need to eat your vegetables too. So we’ve got to give you a bit of both. 

First Person

UA: There is an absolute tsunami coming in the way we consume technology. And to be honest, traditional media organizations aren’t really prepared. The video experience moving from television, to phones and laptops, and the Internet was a revolution, but it was still fundamentally the same kind of consumption experience. And that experience was to lean back and consume something passively. The move towards AR and interactive narratives is going to be a big leap forward. And it’s not like media organizations are going to be able to wake up one morning and just go, “cool, let’s do this.” 

YO: No, they’re going to have to build building blocks. And virtual reality is a little building block, and Spectacles is a building block, and AR is a building block. If you build it these blocks, you’ll be ready for that new world. 

UA: And it’s not just a question of money either. It’s a question of having people that actually understand these new ways of telling stories because the 13 to 24 year olds tell stories very differently. It took me a long time to be able to grasp the meaning of a story that disappears after twenty four hours because I was raised to create something that lasts forever.

YO: The “story” is a perfect example. Right across all social media platforms, it has taken over from the feed and the timeline as the predominant way that people consume content online. And yet, how many publications are taking that seriously? They’re not. And it requires a complete rewrite of the storytelling formula. It’s a totally, totally, totally different canvas. Yet no matter where you are, being a good storyteller remains the same. It doesn’t matter what platform you are on. If you have the ability to create suspense and engagement, that’s what counts. 

Being a good storyteller remains the same. It doesn’t matter what platform you are on. If you have the ability to create suspense and engagement, that’s what counts. 

UA: Yusuf, thank you so much for talking to me today. It’s been an absolute blast. And I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.

YO: Thank you for listening. I mean, if you want to tell stories, we’re here to help. Get in touch with us and we will help you tell that story. We will train you. We’ve done this in over one hundred and forty countries and we’re always looking for people who are focused on solutions. Here’s a problem in society. And here’s somebody making it better. My generation is sick of just hearing about the problems. We want to know about answers to these problems. And we can learn a lot from each other. And I think in that collective learning, we will come to appreciate our diversity, and realize that that we have more in common. We all need to work together to solve this the issues surrounding environmentalism and climate change. This battle is not about one person doing everything right. As a young woman said in First Person, it’s about millions of people coming together to do the right thing. So, yeah, let’s come together and let’s do the right thing.

You can watch First Person on the Snapchat app.

You can find out more about “Hashtag Our Stories” on their Facebook page.

CORRECTION: We had accidentally misspelt Yusuf Omar’s name in an earlier version of this article. We apologise for any confusion caused.

Previous Story

Superman & Lois: An Interview with Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch

Made You Look
Next Story

The Feisty Indian Aunty Watches... Made You Look

Latest from Documentaries