An Interactive Documentary Experiment

This project explores the life story of the Florida Reef at a time of climate change. Co-created with stakeholders, we explore our human relationship with the Florida Reef through the stories of people who connect us to this natural world, and the heart of the Florida Keys community. Accessible web-based user design enables visitors to chart a personal expedition of the reef along a story map and navigate through interconnected research-based chapters. Each chapter is curated from public archives, and complemented by expert interpretation. People telling stories, listening to stories, and responding to stories about the reef changing over time, illuminate reflections on the past, and aspirations for the future.

The Reef Story Project convenes communities to find new ways for people and nature to coexist and in the process, tells the life story of a coral reef.


Deborah James holds a Ph.D. in Communication with a focus on cross-platform and interactive documentary, the intersection between public memory and transnational lived experience, and women’s production practices. To date, she has completed grant-funded field research in Jamaica and the Balkans resulting in a feature-length documentary, academic publications, video installation screenings, and more than fifteen presentations on documentary, social media, gender, and production practice. Production credits include TV, award-winning web documentary, radio, and, director credit for the documentary, Belgrade Live (2018). James’ scholarship is published in Feminist Media Studies, Journal of Communication, and Studies in Documentary Film. James is a 2019 National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) Faculty Fellow.

In 2019, James returns to her experimental interactive documentary work, resulting in The Reef Story Project. In development since 2014, this project extends her existing research agenda exploring the ways we represent our affinity with place by exploring reef-related documentary practice and topics of public interest including media and conservation. Drawing from her scholarly research, professional media credits, and interactive documentary production experience, this study integrates experimental production activities, citizen science media, with a range of do-it-yourself (DIY) or amateur filmmaking practices, thus aligning her research and lived experience more closely with interests in production practices and conservation.

The Reef Story Project will be showcased on OPUS (Open Portal to University Scholarship) as research-in-progress in Fall 2019 in partnership with Governors State University Library. The research is scheduled for presentation at the 2019 Conference on Communication and Environment in Vancouver, Canada. In addition, James will lead a workshop entitled How do we harness the power of crowdsourced citizen media and tell stories to engage a global public? at the International Coral Reef Symposium 2020, to be held in Bremen, Germany.

James’ work as an associate producer and supervisor of student interns for The Climate Reality Project: 24 Hours of Reality, hosted by Al Gore aired in 100 countries reaching 800 million households in 2018, has influenced a turn to this new approach.

Social / Contact:

Email: djames at govst dot james / thereefstoryproject at gmail dot com

Give us a shout on Twitter @DrDeborahJames

Follow me behind the scenes on Instagram: Debbie.James.Fieldnotes