Journalism 360 No. 13: Q&A With Robert Hernandez On “The Deported”

By on October 19, 2018

Spotlight: Q&A with Robert Hernandez

This issue features an interview between Journalism 360 and USC Annenberg professor Robert Hernandez. Robert participated in the Immersive Storytelling Festival during ONA18 to help present his students’ project The Deported, a five-part series about life after being deported from the U.S. to Mexico.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Enjoy and tell us what you think.

Tell us about the origin story of The Deported project.

The Deported is the latest project from my hackathon-style class. We’ve been producing for seven semesters as JoVRnalism — this year, our theme was “newcomer.” We had a bunch of ideas and ultimately chose this story since we’d seen a bunch of stories from the U.S. side of the border about people being deported, but never from other side, not in 360. We wanted to show that perspective. What do you when you’re deported? Where do you go?

After deciding we would focus on this story, I heard an interview with Al Otro Lado on NPR and sent a Hail Mary cold direct message via Twitter.

Al Otro Lado is a small nonprofit based in Los Angeles. They work with the folks that no lawyer wants to work with, such as MS-13 gang members and other people who are “down and out.” These people are often ignored, criminalized and tossed out of the system.

We connected on a lot of things. They were looking to apply for another grant and needed a sponsor; we were looking for a group to connect us to people on the other side of the Mexican border and a partner on this project.

This project is also connected to another project we worked on with KCRW that aimed to democratize stories (Ed. Note: Funded by a grant through the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education). The grant covered our travel to Mexico. Students and two reporters from KCRW went on the trip together, and students led the reporting and 360 project.

Casa del Migrante houses deportees, migrants and refugees arriving in Tijuana, Mexico. Learn more in the first chapter of The Deported: Life Beyond the Border.

Describe the different roles on the team that worked on the project.

There were lots of entry points. We did a lot of pre-production work, including working with a lawyer who’s handling a lot of trauma with immigrants.

We had two cameras, so we created two groups. In each group, one person “owned” the camera and everyone else backed them up — making sure the camera was on, settings were correct, etc. We had learned from past projects that if you don’t have the correct settings, you can lose a lot of work, so I am paranoid about making sure everything is turned on and set up right.

On each team, we had one person monitoring sound and doing interviews. Another person was logging takes, locations and Google Maps locators, since we knew it would be important to have locators later for building out the story.

Others played a supporting role. We were shooting in Tijuana, and it’s unpredictable. We were meeting people on the fly and making room for it. So a lot of what the team did was focus on catching the flow of this active community and trying to tap into it while lugging around this 360 camera. For example, one of the characters — Maria Galleta — we met her 15 minutes after arriving. Later, some U.S. veterans showed up to meet with her, and we knew we wanted to speak to them as well.

What’s a key lesson the students learned about the production process? About storytelling?

One key lesson they learned was about producing the art for the piece. We were trying to figure out how to illustrate a frame, but it didn’t feel authentic or like it fit with the documentary approach. The students said, “What if we take a freeze frame of this shot, then illustrate it?” 

They traced the photo, added color and created a watercolor-style effect. It’s brand new, never been done — an innovative style that’s so gorgeous. We’re hoping to weave the technique into other projects. We wrote a post for the Journalism 360 Medium to share how we made it: Drawing the Border.

In The Deported, animated illustrations fade into immersive footage from Tijuana.

On storytelling, the lesson is more about the responsibility of storytelling. Even when they got together for a celebratory dinner, people were talking about how lucky they were to be born on the “right side of the wall.” We emphasized connecting on a human level, and using that human connection to ignore the technology and the awkwardness of these cameras to tell these human stories.

As a professor taking students to Tijuana, I was nervous about what might happen while we were traveling. On the first night, we went to this church to meet a pastor. He preaches at a canal to people that other people don’t want to preach to because they’re seen as sketchy — MS-13 guys, people who found Christ over many addictions, many traumas from their hard pasts.

One student in the group has accessibility issues. In Tijuana, there aren’t curb cuts, and it was a challenge to get around the streets. When we left the church meeting at the canal, the former MS-13 people surrounded my student’s mobility device — his scooter — and helped him through the streets. That moment is when I knew everything would be OK — we were there covering these stories, and the human connection also came through.

A scene from the Immersive Storytelling Festival at ONA18 in Austin, Texas. Photo by Anya Semenoff for the Online News Association.

What was it like to share the piece at ONA18?

For the first time, I was able to bring students who worked on it to demo the project. It wasn’t me doing the demonstration; it was students. Watching them get feedback from professional storytellers — it was a “professor proud papa” moment. Talking to people was really great, and a lot of people had questions after.

One person said, “Out of all the 360 experiences I’ve seen, almost all of them have the 360 in your face. In yours, the 360 was there, but it was in the background. I learned a lot. It wasn’t gimmicky.” That comment was great validation.

It’s also really important to me to show the industry what is possible. It’s not just the New York Times, not just The Washington Post that can do it. If my students can do it, then your newsroom, with little or no money, with little or no support, can do it too.

What are other interesting immersive projects you’ve come across lately by students from universities other than USC?

I would say Texas State, Nebraska, CUNY, UNC and Syracuse are all doing interesting work. Texas State has a class where they do journalism in state parks — [they] go camping and bring 360 cameras.

Your turn: What’s the best immersive story you’ve experienced lately? We always welcome your comments, links and other inputs to future issues. Send tips to

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