Holiday visits: Witness to an Interview

Photo albums are a thing of beauty. I got to witness an oral history interview about a photo album on my Christmas holiday travels. I was the silent third party, operating the equipment, and asking the occasional question to pull out a few more details. Son brings Father a photo album, put together by Son’s Mother. The album was discovered after Mother’s death. It covers the time in Mother’s and Father’s early life together, before the kids were born, and before the Mother and Father’s divorce. Father is the only one alive who can describe what’s going on in the photos. Here are a few observations I made about interviewing with photo albums.

Photos are a fabulous memory trigger. When sparking a conversation about someone’s recollections, how do you get to the well of memories inside a person’s mind? Questions may trigger… they are words to tap that well, but that recollection-well still resides inside the person’s mind. Pictures are external triggers. They bring back the memories for the interviewee. Plus, being external, the interviewer can make his or her own observations about what’s in the picture, and use them to elicit more information. “Tell me about the car” or “Look at the uniform you wore! When did you get that uniform?” or “Whose house is that?”

Interviewing over photo albums For The Record.  It’s wholly natural to speak in gestures. “Well, the whatchamacallit was about like so [gesture indicating size]” or “That’s her [pointing to one of several pictures on a page].” Both interviewer and interviewee understand the meaning, but that meaning needs to be translated into the recording. That’s the interviewer’s job.  It’s a small interruption in the conversation:

Interviewer: “So, about a foot and a half long?”
Interviewee: “Foot and a half, foot and three quarters. So anyway, we took the rods out back, and…”

(In a conversation about, say, interviewee’s aunt)
Interviewee: “That’s her [pointing].”
Interviewer: “The woman wearing the polka-dotted dress in the two photos at the bottom of the page. The page is on the left side of the spread of a bunch of photos of people standing on the steps outside the house. The top left photo on that page is in color; the rest are in black and white.” 
In other words, interviewer, provide some context so that you know you can find that picture again in the album based on what’s in the recording.

How the seating arrangement might make you lose opportunities for even more stories. The natural seating arrangement is side-by-side during this style of interview. Interviewer, don’t forget to look at the face of the interviewee, though. You might miss expressions on the person’s face—expressions that tell you that there’s more to the story. Father and Son sat side by side facing the album on the table. The microphone pointed toward them both.  I sat across from them, and there were times when I saw an expression on the Father’s face that the Son missed because he was looking at the album. The grimace or that certain kind of shrug or thoughtful expression told me there was more to the story.

The other people present might inhibit certain parts of the story. Father and Son sat at the table in the house that belongs to the Father’s current partner. She puttered around the house and left us alone for the most part, but occasionally she’d come by and look over the Father’s shoulders at the album. When she saw the pictures of Father’s youthful self, she exclaimed, “Oh look! You were such a handsome young man!” I can’t be 100% sure, but I suspect that the presence of The Current Partner caused the Father to hold back on some of the story of his early relationship with his former wife. The least talked about pictures in the album were the Father and Mother’s honeymoon pictures. (Too, he may have been inhibited by the fact that his primary audience was his son.)

It’s all good. I certainly learned by watching the Son interview the Father. I point out the “missed opportunities” details not to critique the Son, but so that we all may learn from this experience. If you find yourself in this situation, you might benefit, and take a peek at the face of your interviewee and see that telltale expression that says there’s a story here. Don’t fret if you missed out on some story. Go easy on yourself. In the long run, though, this or that missed story is no big deal. The big deal is that the time spent together looking over the album was very, very good.

Do not turn off the recorder yet. The best stuff comes out at the end. I’ve heard this before from oral historians (keep the recording going even after you’ve said, “Thank you!”) I’ve experienced it before, and yet this time I turned off the recorder too soon, when the Son closed the album. Within a minute, the Father launched into a wonderful story (and oh what a story!) Happily, my recording device didn’t go into full shut down mode (the device shuts off after 2 minutes of inactivity), so I could resume recording with the push of one button. That second, shorter recording has gems of recollections as the Father told a great story and then reflected on his life in college and learning his profession. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that this is the fruit of talking through photo albums. They trigger memories, and after talking about specific photos, the interviewee may want to talk in general about his or her thoughts of that era that s/he’s just spent some time recalling. Make a mental note to go into the interview prepared to feel a bit uncomfortable keeping the recorder going at the end. You may well get “the best stuff” then.

Your turn to talk… What about you? Have you interviewed a family member over a photo album? (whether you recorded the discussion or not) Anything that happened that you want to share? Things you learned? Tips? Surprises? Please comment!

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on January 02, 2008 in • InterviewingMemorabiliaPhotographs
3 CommentsPermalink

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My aunt gave me a lot of her old photos several years ago, but at the time she couldn’t see. She recently had cataract surgery on both of her eyes, and now she has 20/20 vision. I’m planning to sit down with her this spring (God willing), and hopefully she’ll now be able to tell me about the photos and any memories she has of the people, places and events pictured in them.

In the meantime, I’m soaking up all the advice you have to offer!

Lee  on 01/03  at  07:21 PM

I haven’t interviewed over a photo album yet, but I’ll try this in the future with older relations (if I have any!)  I must mention my recent after-Christmas interviews with my two grandchildren.  My 12 yr old grandson surprised me that he agreed to be interviewed.  I didn’t exactly tell him too much about it - I waited until everyone else was gone then I had him sit with me at the table and said we had business, and that I wanted to record his answers.  I think he enjoyed the attention, and despite “attention deficite” problems, he gave me his full attention for almost an hour.  I downloaded family history interview questions from a google search on the internet, and asked him the ones appropriate for a child.  In fact, he did even better than his 13 yr old sister, with the same questions, in that he was a little more thoughtful of the questions and came up with some cute memories. Even more surprising was that he had NO recollection of so much of his early childhood. A couple times I had to ask him to speak more clearly.
  So with a great deal of satisfaction, I’ve now obtained their oral histories, and an interesting perspective on their growing up.  I’m sure they’ll have fun listening to it in a few years.
  I used a Belkin “TuneTalk” Stereo for “iPod with video” although it also works with “2nd Generation Nanos”.  I just plug the little battery microphone into the bottom of my Video iPod and press “Record Now” when it pops up on the iPod screen.  The sound is very clear and I’ve even had good success recording in a living room as relations talk and tell stories.  I can download it with iTunes and they move a copy to my other software programs to save, or burn it to CD.
  Just thought I’d write, and I’m always happy to read your postings.  Thanks,  Donna

Donna Hague Wendt  on 01/04  at  12:45 PM

Lee—Your aunt’s situation is amazing. In addition to what she might say about the photos, I’m curious to know what it’s like for her to not see and then to see again.

Thanks for the comment re: advice… and if you have any questions or areas for further exploration, please ask.

Donna—What a great thing to do with your grandchildren. I hope that they return the favor and interview you before too much time passes. Thanks for describing your experience with the iPod and TuneTalk… that form of recording is pretty dang easy. (and I bet that the iPod passes the “one more thing!” recording test—the one where you should’ve, well, kept the recorder going.)

Susan A. Kitchens  on 01/04  at  03:49 PM

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