TIME's "Heln's First Year"

Hypermediation and Ethical Design

A year after the “Finding Home” began, TIME released the project’s final piece: a digital story called “Heln’s First Year.”[1] “Heln’s First Year” builds off of the project’s initial premise, which focuses on covering the lives of Syrian women who gave birth to children in the refugee camps. While the content remains the same, “Heln’s First Year” makes some significant changes to its narrative and digital form that allow the reader to be more cognizant of the intermediating designs and perspectives embedded within the project. 

The digital story is captured on a single, long-form web page with little interactivity on the user’s side except for the capacity to scroll down and read the story in a linear fashion. The web page utilizes a design effect called parallax scrolling, in which layers of depth are created by having foreground images and text move at a different speed than the web site’s background as the user scrolls through the site. While parallax scrolling is a common design strategy used to add illusions of dynamic movement and depth to an otherwise static and two-dimensional site, parallax scrolling works to embed a hypermediated awareness of distance to the structure of “Heln’s First Year.” The different speeds and occurrences of movement between the layers signals their presence, order, and arrangement. For example, as the user scrolls through the project, text and images fade-in to the screen, indicating their nature as elements added to the the text rather than inherent to it. The dissonance of space between the user, interface structures, and the narratives makes the designed layers visible, creating a self-reflexive awareness of the hierarchies within the text.

A GIF of baby Heln in the background of the site begins the story as the user is invited to “meet” her and the rest of the family. As the user scrolls down, the background switches to black and reveals the project’s unique framework. Though “Heln’s First Year” utilizes same professional photography and videography as “Finding Home’s” Instagram page, they are recontextualized within a different narrative structure, which is a series of text messages between Taimaa, Heln’s mother, and Francesca, the TIME journalist writing the piece.

The site uses the elements of digital storytelling to place Taimaa and Francesca in dialogue with one another, establishing a hypermediated, visual recognition of the voices and perspectives involved in the narrative. As the user scrolls past the beginning GIF of baby Heln, they are greeted with a clear delineation between the two women through the use of profile images, similar to those used to identify users on social media sites. The profile images, which also feature a quick biography of the womens’ ages and identities, are an interesting feature particular to the digital, visual nature of the storytelling project. If the story had been told through traditional printed text, the envisioning of the characters within the story would have been left to the imagination of the audience, which may have resulted in false and misleading representations of Taimaa and Francesca. The digital form also moves beyond traditional uses of image by attaching the image to the audience’s understanding of social media design. Social media profile images are a form of hypermediation used to create a consistent awareness of another user’s presence. “Heln’s First Year” makes use of the same function by using profile images to alert the audience to the person speaking in the narrative. Using these profile images in “Heln’s First Year” retains Taimaa’s visual identity, but it also foregrounds the moments when Francesca interjects into the narrative, making her interventions visible to the audience. This, in turn, creates a form for allowing Taimaa to tell her own story without it being subsumed or manipulated by the mediations of an invisible journalist.

The use of profile images to establish the identities of the speakers works seamlessly with the text message framework of the narrative, which continues to establish the story’s formal self-reflexivity through hypermediation. “Heln’s First Year” follows Heln’s birth and life as the user scrolls through text conversations between Taimaa and Francesca. The project establishes early on that the story’s text messages are based on the real texts, conversations, and interviews between the two women. As a result, the project is able to feature Taimaa’s own words and expressions. The project includes many of Francesca’s professional photographs, but as background context for Taimaa’s commentary. Taimaa’s narration is still positioned at the forefront of the story through the use of parallax scrolling. Once the user reaches a full-page photograph, the user watches as Taimaa’s texts are impressed upon the backdrop of the photograph. The design allows the user to distinguish the difference between Taimaa’s and Francesca’s textual presences while also ensuring that Taimaa’s narrative is fronted in the hierarchy of the design.  

Throughout the project, the user can switch the story’s language to Arabic at any time through a permanent, noticeable toggle button in the corner of the screen. The constant presence of the toggle button visually signifies the presence of the dual languages in text while reflecting the translational mediations that went into the design and narrative. The use of the toggle also reflects the multilinguistic nature of the narrative itself.  Rather than use a hyperlink to direct the user to a separate variation of the project in Arabic, the user switches the toggle to Arabic and remains on the same web-page. The back-and-forth translational design of “Heln’s First Year” not only mimics the multilingual back-and-forth exchanges between Taimaa and Francesca, it also allows the user to see Taimaa’s messages and words in her own language, making the project a more authentic representation of her narrative. The choice to have the translations coexist in the same project mitigates linguistic hierarchies in the design by featuring language and conversation as fluidly interconnected and bidirectional.

Text messages are able to feature another digital form of translation through the use of emojis. For Taimaa, emojis become a visual expression of her personality, emotions, and thoughts through a recognizable medium.[2] When Heln is born, Taimaa’s text features emojis that characterize her expressions as heartfelt and affectionate. Later, when her family faces possible deportation, her fears are accentuated by emojis expressing her distress. Here, the texts and emojis overlay an image of the refugee camps, creating a context for the user to gain insight into the circumstances that Taimaa describes while still prioritizing her narration of the events. The visual hierarchy grants Taimaa narrative control while creating a distanced moment of encounter. At the same time, emojis are able to reflect Taimaa’s emotions and establish a point of connection through visual communication.

“Heln’s First Year” exemplifies how understanding the relationship between hypermediation and hierarchies can be used to ethically represent the post-colonial Other on the internet. Digital hypermediation provides the capacity to convey stories that are not the author’s own by indicating to the audience their presence as a mediator and prioritizing the refugee’s importance as a primary witness. “Heln’s First Year” establishes itself as a digital storytelling structure that can represent the experiences of refugees, including their stories of trauma, while reducing appropriation.

[1] Aryn Baker, Lynsey Addario, and Francesca Trianni, “Heln’s First Year,” TIME, accessed March 18, 2019, http://time.com/finding-home/.

[2] Marcel Danesi argues that the informal, visual language of emojis “certainly has the implications for what a universal form of language might look like” since the it does not require skilled training to decode or use, hybridizes words and images to make reading easy and accessible, and is a form of digital communication that is globally used. He notes that cultural differences influence emoji development, usage, and interpretation, but suggests that “the core lexicon of the emoji code,” emojis that “[contain] signs that are consistent with core vocabularies in general,” are recognizable across the world because “they are interpretable in a straightforward fashion.” Marcel Danesi, The Semiotics of Emoji: The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), 157–58, 40–46.