Interviewing while looking at photo albums (Part 1)

Photo album cover and interior page (this happens to be my Dad's Mom's album - Grandma Kitchens, from her sojourns in the west before she met and settled down with my Grandpa) When you get together with family at Thanksgiving, will you spend all your time in the kitchen and dining table? Make some time to hear family stories. One basic way to capture stories is to look at photo albums and ask questions about the people and places, and the events depicted therein.

Photos are a great means of eliciting stories. Photos (and photo albums) also provide a fantastic start on a journey of collecting family history stories.

More than one older relative has replied to the request for an interview with something like—“What? you want to interview me? But my life’s been so normal. So unexciting. What would I possibly have to say?”

That same person who objects to an “Interview” (with a capital I) probably finds it perfectly reasonable to sit down and identify people in photographs. “Why of course I’ll tell you who these people you’ve never met are.” Easy-peasy. Slam-dunk.

Another page from the Grandma Kitchens photo album. Here she is, riding her beloved horse, Chief. Now you’re off and running. Then the person will start remembering, and will tell you about the people and the earlier times.

This two-part series covers some of the mechanics of getting good stories while using photo albums. 

There are more stories than just the photos in the album

During a Christmas holiday trip, I sat across from my boyfriend (Doc M) and his dad (Doc M Sr.) while son and father looked at photo albums and recorded the conversation and stories about what was in them. I operated the audio equipment and kept my mouth shut. Sitting directly across, I watched emotions play across Doc M Sr.‘s face that his son didn’t see. Each shrug, each grimace, each smile revealed that there was an additional story, but those stories didn’t get told.

Let’s all learn from that experience.

The way you sit yourself and your family member down with the photo album may get you fewer or a greater number of stories.

When you sit side-by-side, it’s easy for both of you to look at the photos. That’s excellent for examining detail in the images, and asking questions such as, What is that? or What is he wearing? Where was that photo taken? or What do you remember about him/her (the person in the photo)?

When you sit side-by-side, it's easy for both people to see the photo album.

But if you are interviewing a person whose photos appear in the album, sitting side-by-side may get you fewer stories. It’s hard to turn your head to look at the speaker’s face. You may be so absorbed in the photos themselves that you miss tell-tale expressions on the speaker’s face.

However, sitting side-by-side, it's harder to look at the face of the person who's describing what's in the photo. You might miss the play of emotions on the person's face. You may miss a story.

If possible, arrange yourselves and the photo albums so that you can both look at the photos and you can see the speaker’s face. When you’re sitting at a 90° angle (in this photo, the women are not quite at 90 degrees, but you get the idea), you can both easily see the photo album. The corner of a dining table is perfect for this kind of arrangement.

When you sit at an angle (say, both of you at the corner of a table, with the album between you), it's still easy for both of you to see the photos on the album pages.

That sitting at a corner-angle is perfect for keeping the speaker in your line of sight, too. You can easily look up to see the speaker’s face.

In addition, when you sit at an angle, it's easy to see the speaker's face. (Remember to look up from time to time to see how the speaker is reacting to the photos in the album)

Now that you can see the speaker, look up from time to time to see if there’s a change of expression on his or her face. Once you see a change in expression, you can ask a follow-up question, such as What are you remembering? or You’re grimacing—what are you thinking about? or How did you feel when the photo was taken?

When you are able to see the other's face, you can see emotional reactions to the album. That's a perfect opportunity to ask the person, What are you thinking about? or What are you remembering?

You get the story of the photo—and the story behind the story.

Of course you want to ensure that you get the Who’s who identification of the people in the photographs. Even better is getting stories about what was taking place at the time. Finally, it’s highly gratifying to hear a person’s deeper thoughts, feelings, and reflections about those incidents.

All it takes is a little extra effort on your place to look at both the pictures and the person—and to ask questions when the speaker’s face changes.

Coming in Part 2: another helpful trick to identify the photos in your recording.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on November 19, 2010 in • InterviewingPhotographs
2 CommentsPermalink

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Excellent!  Sharing on my Facebook wall w/my annual nudge to get family stories at the Thanksgiving/Xmas dinner table. smile

Liz  on 11/20  at  12:21 PM

I am so glad that Doc M is digitizing the interview I did with my grandma, though I’m not sure this one is the one I did while she looked at her photo album…

Jane Neff Rollins  on 12/17  at  02:21 PM

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