In my last two posts I have been exploring childhood stories. So far, this exploration has centred on text – creative text, maybe, but still the written word. The potential of the electronic environment not being realised by using only text, as it allows us to also overlay other sensory experiences onto our childhood memory stories. I offer here three more stories: one based on a still image, one on sound, and one that combines moving images with sound.
One of my favourite sites (blog and Facebook) is Humans of New York, and I am not the only one – there are over 10 million followers. Brandon walks the streets of New York and photographs ordinary people and asks them about their extraordinary lives. Many people he interviews recall their childhood, and we get a partial snapshot into the story that has contributed to the person they are today:
“I think one of the neighbours had beef with my mother. Because one day when my mom went to the store, and left us alone for just a few minutes, child services came and took us away. My sister and I got split up. I got sent to a group home. It was like a prison – everybody there was looking out for themselves. I’d call my mother and cry on the phone but she’d just say she was sorry, and there was nothing she could do, and she was trying. After a few months, my sister and I got moved into a foster home. Our foster mother was this old lady named Ms. Elizabeth. She let our mother come visit us even though she wasn’t supposed to. And she took us to church and prayed with us, and every Sunday she’d cook us a huge dinner and completely deck out the table like it was Thanksgiving. It was like some movie shit. We’d never had anything like that before. Even when we moved back with our mother, we would visit Ms. Elizabeth up until the time she passed away.”
The discussion that he engaged in with the photographer also gives us a glimpse – not just in what he said, but also in what story he chose to tell. The photo adds to this understanding. In a glance we are given obvious information about who he is, and we infer others things based on our knowledge of the world and (American) society.
Another layer would be apparent if we could hear him talk. This is where radio can convey a richness of emotion that is difficult to express in the written word. This was emphasised to me at the Professional Historians conference in Palmerston North earlier this year, when Jack Perkins from Radio NZ gave an excellent presentation drawing on his years of documentary work. He played us excerpts from many programmes, including a fascinating elderly woman remembering her childhood. His main theme was how the sound of the human voice can recreate memories in a way that text cannot, particularly by being able to convey emotion. Here is Jack talking with Nancy Sutherland in 1983 in Children of the Pass (30’ 9”):
This is not an idealised view of childhood as remembered in old age. Nancy is a feisty woman and she recalls with vigour the emotion of her childhood. Her voice evokes and conveys that emotion.
To put together the words and pictures might leave little to the imagination, however, if the aim is to get a complex message across to an audience, especially in a brief time frame, then video fits the bill. One step is to simply video a person talking, and this has value. To fully exploit the medium, however, requires combining soundscape beyond the talking, images beyond the person doing the talking, and editing into a story that is not necessarily one continuous monologue. This short excerpt from Māori Television combines these elements as artists who are designing new golden syrup tins describe how they drew their inspiration from their memories of childhood (1’ 49”):
Two things, then, that I am trying to explore in this post:
• Childhood is not, as Marek says in his blog, “just a time of cuteness and innocence and pink clothes.” Childhood memories show far more complexity than that.
• To effectively use a particular medium to get our message across, we should consider what possibilities that medium allows for, and be prepared to broaden our thinking and our use of that medium.