Responses by Nathan Walker, interactive developer, Gladeye.
Background: On April 2, 1992, in the Bosnian town of Bijeljina, US photographer Ron Haviv took a now-famous photograph of a member of the infamous Serbian paramilitary unit Arkan’s Tigers swinging his boot at the body of a civilian lying on the pavement. She’d been shot dead only moments earlier. Thirty years on, Rolling Stone combined traditional investigative journalism with blockchain forensics to identify the soldier and push for accountability and justice. We built a site to tell the story of that day in 1992, the investigation into those involved, and the nascent cryptographic technology that we hope can help prevent similar massacres in the future, in Ukraine and beyond.
Design core: Drawing on the aesthetic of film photographers’ contact sheets, the art direction makes extensive use of pencil annotations that point out important details in the hand of the investigator and act as a connecting “red thread” throughout the piece. To bridge the gap between the analog world of film photography and the modern-day blockchain technology underlying the investigation, we used a dot-matrix monospace typeface that closely mirrors the one found on Haviv’s film slides. Meanwhile, Bosnian posters created during the war provided the inspiration for both the condensed display typeface and the striking colors used at important moments.
Favorite details: The story contains previously unpublished images from the day of the massacre, each one a different angle of the soldier in the famous photo, including several in which his face is visible. We printed the images out and stuck them up on our studio wall, carefully overlapping them in such a way as to compare different parts of his body, equipment and uniform. This layout made it all the way from the wall into the final scroll-based reveal on the site. Poring over historical images of Bijeljina, we also managed to geolocate several places in the images and place them on a modern-day map of the town, demonstrating their proximity to the site of the shootings and creating a clearer picture of the events that occurred that day.
Special navigational features: Rolling Stone’s investigation turned up a vast collection of Haviv’s photos, Serbian payroll documents and Facebook pages connected to members of Arkan’s Tigers. We placed all of these assets into one central archive, which can be organized into three separate “stacks” and lifted into individual story pages using transitions. We used this layering concept throughout the site, as if the reader themselves is the investigator, shuffling pieces of evidence around and picking them up for closer inspection.
Challenges: There are several parallel stories in this piece, and the challenge was to tell them all at once. The original text that ran in print needed to be the primary focus, but in digital, we had an opportunity to take the reader behind the scenes of—for example—the journalists’ discovery of unpublished Serbian payroll documents in a United Nations database. Our solution was to separate the additional stories out into three additional pages with their own layout and aesthetic and then interweave them into the site in different ways. They form a linear three-part story the reader can experience from start to finish, but they’re also linked at relevant points throughout the original story, as well as in context in the asset archive.
Special technical features: Ron Haviv’s famous image—and countless others like it currently coming out of war zones like Ukraine—are vital pieces of evidence in warcrime trials, but their provenance can be difficult to verify, and such graphic scenes are often ripe for use in misinformation campaigns. Images on this site have been run through a mathematical formula to generate a hash or digital fingerprint, which is then registered on three tamper-proof blockchains and stores on tens of thousands of servers for safekeeping. This means that if even a single pixel within an image were tampered with, the hash would no longer match. Our hope is that this technology, developed by Starling Lab at Stanford and the University of Southern California, will be a powerful tool for prosecutors in the future. Site visitors can see a visualization of the authentication data behind an asset using the eye icon in the corner of each image.