"It's about experimenting with every platform and not taking them at face value. If you take Snapchat at face value, it's for teenagers sharing nudies. You've got to look beyond that, you've got to look at how you can apply that technology for journalistic storytelling."
These are the words of 27-year-old journalist Yusuf Omar. On 14 July, his work went viral after he used Snapchat to interview survivors of sexual abuse through a powerful and unique technique – Snapchat filters. The filters allowed the women to shield their identities and tell their stories for the first time without fear of being subject to the societal stigma surrounding rape.
But the power of Snapchat as a storytelling tool goes far beyond this. Speaking exclusively to IBTimes UK, Omar told us about the rise of "selfie journalism" and explained how he and his team at the Hindustan Times are using it to report on sensitive stories and conduct undercover investigations, as well as spread inspiring tales from across India.
"Mobile journalism has given us access to places that we would never have had before and has allowed us to tell stories in a far more discrete and intimate manner," Omar said. "Nobody who has experienced that kind of horror wants to have a big boom mix and huge lights and a camera waving in their face. It has to be far more subtle."
Snapchat to empower sexual abuse victims
Omar's Snapchat coverage of the sexual abuse survivors' stories was covered by media outlets across the world. Many marvelled in amazement at how seemingly juvenile filters had been used in such a meaningful and impactful way, forever changing the way they view Snapchat.
"Broadcasters have been blurring out faces, using silhouettes, and I just feel like you lose so much information. Facial expressions are critical when trying to understand. For the first time, we got to see somebody whose identity was hidden, but eyes were visible. You could see the drop of the jaw, the expressions on her forehead. It's so much more intimate for a viewer trying to relate to the story."
Omar hopes that in the future him and his interviewees will be able to create their own filters and not have to be restricted to a few pre-composed ones from Snapchat. He said: "If Snapchat open up their APIs and allow people to experiment with those algorithms, there's no knowing where we could take this technology."
Despite not being able to create their own filters, the women were definitely empowered during the interview. Omar explained that the women automatically gained trust in him because they could see with their own eyes how their identities would be concealed and they didn't have to rely on it being done in a studio away from them. They also had the choice to choose which filter they used, deciding how much of their face they wanted to conceal and in which way. Then, they were left to themselves to narrate their own story, rather than be interviewed.
"They flicked until they found a filter that they thought best covered their faces," said Omar. "That made them feel empowered – it made them feel part of narrative. They were telling their own story. Even more so in the way they directed their attention at that camera. This was a selfie; they were holding the phone. I didn't even press the record button, I walked away. This was them looking at themselves in the eye and telling the most horrific story they could possibly recount."
Going undercover with Snapchat to search for drugs
In June, a Bollywood movie called Udta Punjab came under controversy. It focused on drug abuse among Punjab's youth, prompting anger from some who thought this was damaging the north Indian's state's reputation. Others denied that there were drugs in the state. So Omar took to Snapchat to take his viewers on an undercover search for drugs in Punjab.
Tracing his journey from his hotel room to where he managed to find the drugs, viewers were part of the story as Omar went undercover.
"I saw Snapchat as a powerful platform for a story where, even I as the content creator, didn't know where it was going to go. It was suspense-driven. It was taking people in real time on a journey to find those drugs. That's what live streaming and Snapchat is actually about."
The future of selfie journalism in India
"There's a huge misunderstanding about Snapchat," Omar said.
He explained that his team is using Snapchat as a content-creation tool by deploying it as a camera app, from which the videos are then repackaged for Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and other platforms. Unlike other media brands, Omar isn't worried about getting the Hindustan Times onto Snapchat's "Discovery" feature for news.
"Everyone is obsessing over to make Snapchat more professional. We're not worried about that at all. We're using it as a crowdsourcing tool for our reporters to pull footage in in one of the fastest ways you can."
Omar is currently training 750 print journalists to tell stories with their mobile phones. Although it sounds like a challenging task, he said that it has been a lot easier than he thought it would be, crediting "the hunger of Indian journalists" who are looking to empower themselves with new skills.
However, one of the challenges that comes along with mobile and Snapchat journalism is the introduction of the vertical video. Describing it as a "gamble", he acknowledged that no one has ever made that commitment, although he does believe that short videos are usually watched in a vertical format by most people digesting it on trains and buses.
He also noted the ethical debate surrounding mobile journalism about people knowing when you are and aren't filming them, but said that mobile tools had given journalists a way to report on stories that would have otherwise been inaccessible to them. This is evident through his work with the sexual abuse survivors, as well as his undercover feature on drug abuse in Punjab, neither of which would have been possible without the subtle – but powerful – use of Snapchat.
"It's the idea that the filmmaker is no longer holding the camera. The subjects are telling their own story. It's about coming up with clever ways to create communities who will produce exclusive content for you. And that's what we've done with Snapchat."
Follow Omar's work on Snapchat at 'yusufomarsa' and follow him on Twitter.