preserving memories, sound or sight

I blogged (and podcasted) earlier this spring about the discoveries I made during my in-depth spring-cleaning. I explored what I learned about my own photography as I reviewed, edited and purged thousands of old photographs and transparencies. More recently, I have been similarly reviewing, editing and purging other old recordings, documents, files and papers. Some were personally poignant and others were professionally compelling. The entire process is worthy of at least a couple more blog entries.

The most poignant thing was finding an audio-cassette tape of an interview that I recorder with my mother on July 4th of 1993, seven months after my daughter was born and about six weeks before my mother died. The best part of that tape was listening as my mother spoke to my daughter, imagining her as the young woman that she would someday be. My mother spoke of her childhood, her experiences as the first female principal in her school district, etc. It was great stuff, like so many oral history projects (and I am not just saying that because she was my mother.) She reconfirmed stories that I knew, told me some I did not know and filled in lots of the gaps in my knowledge of her life.

The worst part, by far, was listening to her aging and fading voice. My siblings found her voice equally strange and we agreed it was not the voice of the woman we knew. My mother had a solid, even deep voice, so listening to her, as frail as she was, as the cancer ate away at her, was very hard.

My daughter and my niece, who are a year apart in age, were the real audience for the interview. When they later heard it, they both thoroughly enjoyed connecting with the grandmother they barely knew, but had heard a lot about.

The tape is seventeen years old, just like may daughter. Though she is in the prime of her life, the cassette was not, so I was concerned about putting it in a cassette player. Yet, I wanted to hear it and I really wanted to convert it into a digital file so I could preserve it AND pass it on to my siblings/extended family. I played it on a conventional cassette recorder and experimented with different ways of getting the recording from analog to digital. I also tried different software programs to clean up the audio. It is by no means perfect, but it is good enough that I can hear the Independence Day fireworks going off in the background (and the ice cubes in my glass clinking as I drink.) Now, I have her voice, and her wise words, safely digitized and stored in a number of formats (and places.)

Another cassette tape that I found at the same time was even older, dating back to about 1975. It was an audio travelogue, made by me and three friends, during a two-week long road trip up we up the West Coast, into Canada and then back down through the Rockies. The trip took two weeks but the total tape played for two hours, so we must have been pretty cautious in when we recorded entries. On a certain level, there was nothing profound in the jokes and teasing that happened between four young men, eighteen to 21 years old, sharing a car and a road trip. On the other hand, like any good oral history project there is a lot to learn by listening to the tape. My voice has deepened over the years (thankfully.) Like any conversation involving young men, there were many pointless discussions about sports and girls. Though I have never been an enormous sports fan or follower of popular culture, my travel mates were, because references to both pervade the banter that makes up the bulk of the recording.

So what does all this have to do with photography? On an obvious level, nothing, but if we go further, I think it has everything to do with photography.

As I have previously blogged, probably too often, the question that most photographers should be asking themselves is “why are they photographing?“ Every other question a photographer can have, from what to buy, to where to study, to which type of photography to pursue, etc., all of those are best answered only after that first question is resolved.

In my case, I photograph for many reasons, mostly revolving around the idea of storytelling. In no particular order, those reasons include making a living, sharing my experiences, raising awareness of issues that are important to me and holding onto moments (and people) which are important to me. I am completely captivated right now by multimedia, because it allows me to do those same things, but using two senses rather than one. Thus it is an enormous expansion in my story telling capability.

As time goes on, I will am sure I will calm down and multimedia will settle down to be just one more tool in my story telling toolbox. But what will be different is the completely new appreciation that I will have for sound.

Of course, we know great sound when we hear it. But just like in photography, I wanted to understand the how and the why of sound, this other storytelling technology.

This new thinking about sound helped me to better appreciate the cassette tapes I recently found, as well as the potential for sound in my own multimedia work.

It also reminded me why oral history projects are so important. Time marches on. Things change. People die. Their histories can go with them. In my case, I am blessed that I have that small recording of my mother to cherish and pass on.

I know that in the future, I will be thinking more and more about creating audio recordings of the people I cherish. My wife Annu has been thinking much the same thing. She already has used audio in many of her projects. She wrote me today saying she was sitting down with her 80-something year old uncle and interviewing him about his childhood. Who among us couldn’t use an oral history/interview with those people they cherish?

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