Face to Face

by Jamie Jenson

August 24, 2018

Graduate student Michelle Gabel receives international acclaim for her virtual reality installation about one woman’s recovery from a terrible accident.

Michelle Fox's prosthesis held by a hand in black limbo.
A photo Gabel took of one of Fox's prostheses Michelle Gabel

In 2009, Michelle Fox, a mother of two from Camillus, New York, was accidentally shot in the face by her then-husband when he was changing out parts on his old shotgun. Fox’s eyes, nose and upper palette were blown away by the blast. She now wears a prosthesis to cover the missing part of her face, and has lost her sense of sight and smell.

Michelle Gabel, a graduate student in Newhouse’s photography program, worked on Fox’s story in 2014 when she was a photographer for The Syracuse Post-Standard. But even after finishing the assignment, she returned for more visits with Fox.

“I just wanted to go deeper,” Gabel says. “Her story was something I was passionate about and there were parts of it that I just felt I hadn’t explored.”

Michelle Fox plays on the back porch with her daughter.
Michelle Fox and daughter, Malana. Michelle Gabel

Gabel spent more time with Fox, taking pictures of her and her family and recording audio of Fox telling her story. Since Fox would never be able to see the photos, Gabel wanted to document the story in a way her subject could experience.

“I really wanted to have her tell her story in her own words,” Gabel says. “In words that she could hear later on—no matter what we did.”

When it came time to plan her master’s capstone project, Gabel knew she wanted Fox to be her subject, but she didn’t know exactly how she wanted to present the material. Over the years she had known Fox, Gabel had accumulated various forms of documentary material: police reports, family photos from before and after the accident and Fox’s audio interviews.

Gabel asked Lynn Johnson, her mentor and head of the committee that helps her plan for her capstone project, for guidance on how she could showcase her work.

“[Johnson] just said, ‘I’m working with this incredible woman who is into virtual reality. You guys should talk because maybe you could collaborate on something for [Fox’s] story,’” Gabel recalls.

That woman was Michaela Holland, an immersive storyteller whose specialties include virtual and augmented reality.

Gabel told Holland that she wanted to create an exhibit that allowed viewers to experience it from Fox’s perspective. Holland suggested they create an immersive installation that could combine all of the material Gabel had collected over the years.

Gabel and Holland planned an installation that replicated a home with a living room, dining room and bathroom. Each room had a different multimedia component to it, from interactive 360-degree videos using an omnidirectional camera to still photographs Gabel had taken of Fox over the years. The viewers walked from room to room and experience the different multimedia components.

For the bathroom installation, Holland designed eight different virtual reality headsets resembling the facial prosthesis Fox wears, varying in skin and eye color. The participants wore the headsets while viewing one of the 360-degree videos Gabel. Gabel and Holland placed a two-way mirror as a decoration in the bathroom. On the other side, a person working at the installation would take the viewer’s pictures so that they would have a memento from the exhibit.

Gabel and Holland knew their plan would require not only hard work but a fairly large sum of money to complete, so Holland decided to apply for the Sheffield Doc/Fest award.

The Doc/Fest is an international festival that celebrates nonfiction storytelling and documentaries, held annually in Sheffield, England. The world-renowned festival takes place over six days and boasts over 25,000 visitors each year.

In April, Gabel learned the project had won the prestigious Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Alternate Realities Virtual Reality award. Eight weeks later, Gabel and Holland were in England, overseeing the building of the installation, “Face to Face,” which ran from June 7-12.

The award included £12,000, about $16,000, that they used to create the installation. What made the event even more special for Gabel was the fact that Fox and her daughter flew to Sheffield to experience the installation for themselves.

Michelle Gabel
Michelle Gabel

Gabel says she loves being around Fox and her family and feels lucky to be a part of their lives.

“In a nutshell, I see this as a story of the love of a family, and the courage and resilience of a mother of two living in the wake of unimaginable tragedy,” Gabel says.

Professor Mike Davis, who also advised Gabel on her master’s project, says winning a Doc/Fest award is an amazing accomplishment in the visual world, and he is proud of Gabel’s success.

“Our goal as professors of visual storytelling at Newhouse is to help students produce work that propels them uniquely into settings at the highest levels of an increasingly varied and dynamic profession,” he says. “That’s what [Gabel] achieved.”

Jamie Jenson is a graduate student in the magazine, newspaper and online journalism program at the Newhouse School.