Immersive journalism is a development of the late Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘gonzo’ style, which revolutionised mainstream reporting and continues to do so.
In Immersive journalism, the writer makes no attempt to distance himself from the action; instead he attempts to get as close to the events going on around him and to the people he is writing about as he can. He is inside the aquarium swimming with the angel fish, not outside it looking in. But this remains journalism; he is always a reporter. It’s just that he himself is at the centre.
Thompson was not the first; he developed, rather, an approach that others had laid the groundwork of. Here are Daniel Defoe, T.E Lawrence, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Lawrence Durrell, Chester Wilmot, Ernie Pyle, George Orwell, Chester Wilmot, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, to name but a few, and those only in English. They evolved a writing style which, rather than reporting the facts to the reader, brought that reader into the action itself.
Thompson’s magic ingredient came from the fact that he began his career as a sport reporter and so understood the need for passion; there was simply no detachment in his writing, no distant overview. A reporter had to be involved, have an opinion, make a commitment, take a side, feel the thrill of winning and the despair of losing.
Immersive journalism is masculine
Immersive journalism is profoundly masculine; it is never passive, always active. It is a style that could not have existed before broadcast media and the crackling voice through the ether, that brought passion, pain, joy and horror into the homes of everyone listening. It takes the immediacy integral to Defoe and brings it right up to date, bitch-slap style.
Who could forget, having heard it, Herbert Morrison’s anguish as he watched the Hindenburg disaster, or Walter Cronkite’s voice faltering as he announced the death of JFK?
Writers realised that there was a new tool they could add to their wordsmith’s kit and that being reporters meant more than noting down events and cataloguing experiences. It meant being a part of them, responding to them. With the arrival of the Internet and social media, this imperative has only increased.
Immersive journalism seeks the essence of life.
How could you know what makes a man love ladyboys, unless you had loved them yourself? How would you understand what it feels like to slide inside a bakla and complete her, to perform with her the Rite of Inanna and make her Woman, had you not done it? ‘
I have often quoted Don Kulick’s definitive work on the travestis of Brazil, but there is a structural flaw in it, despite its insight and honesty: Kulick is a Western gay. He can neither approach the life of a travesti by being her lover, nor can he be one himself. His conditioning would prevent it; he could never really identify with the idea of transitioning and as Kulick says himself, a relationship between someone like him and a travesti would be lesbian.
Similar issues have compromised works on the ladyboys of southeast Asia. At the same time, academic research carried out into their lives has been dry, remote, statistical; and by dint of being so, ultimately false. Ladyboys are not statistics, they are people, who love, lust, live, laugh, get drunk, argue, feel pain, make mistakes, refuse to be easily classified and most of all, are human.
Another way of seeing
Immersive journalism demands another way of seeing. It needs to feel the warmth of love, share the orgasms, suffer the pain of separation, to understand, at a visceral, intuitive level. It is Dionysian, not Apollonian.
Chester Wilmot’s seminal history of the Allied campaign to liberate Europe, rises above all others, remains fixed in memory, not because it was more statistically accurate or wide-ranging than they were, nor because its political and military assessments, though they were profound, were so much better than anyone else’s, but because Wilmot was there; and where he went, he took us, through his words.
The legendary Ernie Pyle performed the same magic in his reporting of the war in the Pacific theatre. These men and others changed the face of journalism. From then on, you had to be ‘in the shit’. You had to be up close and personal, where the bullets whiz and the horror stalks — and sometimes, the delight.
The frisson of delight
How could you know the frisson of a beautiful ladyboy’s turgid cock brushing gently against your thigh in the shower, unless you had felt it yourself? The catch of breath, the sudden fluttering of the entrails? The thrill at how she turns up her head to kiss, open mouth and her tongue flicking against yours? The delight of sliding between her buttocks and savouring the honeyed heaven she keeps there, as she moans in her pleasure? The beauty of her face revealed in the morning light, while she still sleeps? The soft plumpness of her cock in your hand as you nestle together, half awake? And if you did not know these things, how could you report them?
My elf of love
I remember Audrey, my elf of love, kneeling naked on the bed, her perfect arse cocked up: ‘I don’t care if it hurts! Please, I just want to feel it!’ Or Alley, like a bedicked Fay Wray with clouds of blonde hair, demanding to be carried to the bed where her beast would womanise her; or Jelly dancing her charis in a borrowed pink two-piece, completing her seduction.
What about the chaos of the Tsup-Tsup Club dressing-room in Manila, full of half dressed ladyboys and stinking of sweat, cigarette smoke, dampness and cologne, or Azumii’s insouciant flagstaff stretching the fabric of her jersey dress as she ordered desserts at j.co? These and a thousand others — such moments! But you have to be there.
As Schrödinger’s Cat shows us, the presence of the observer has an effect. The immersive journalist is not distant, but a part of the life he is observing; he is inseparable from it. He too has an effect, a presence.
A reporter’s job is not to watch from afar, it is to get into the heart of the action and mix with it, so that he can make sense of those experiences in terms that his readers can relate to. He always uses the wide-angle lens, not the telephoto; he is never happier than when the clamour and bustle of life is all around him – and this is when he does his best work. He must interpret that clamour and render it comprehensible.
The immersive journalist is part entertainer, part observer, part analyst but most of all, he recreates life and the living: he is a storyteller, who weaves his yarn from the reality he inhabits.