Participatory Storytelling

In a recent post about photojournalist Aaron Huey, I described how he uses Cowbird.com to chronicle his project on the Pine RidgeIndian Reservation. Cowbird.com is a web-based product for “a community of storytellers” that, by offering users storytelling tools for free, will “automatically find connections between your life and the lives of others forming a vast, interconnected ecosystem.”

To be honest, I’m struggling with the concept behind Cowbird. It seems to extract individual perspective from a story, leaving information (such as images, sounds and text) for the viewer/listener to interpret and make sense of. In a sense, the narrator has vanished — or maybe proliferated — and what remains are story elements that we (as viewers/listeners) need to assemble & compose into story.

But I’m running into similar themes elsewhere. 

In a September 2012 post on PBS.org, author Sue Shardt in “Public Media Reinvents Itself With ‘Full-Spectrum’ Storytelling” describes a reinvention of storytelling within public media involving citizens as participants — not merely recipients — of documentary stories:

We are working in accordance with the fact that citizens are not only consuming radio and television over the air, they are downloading, creating, remixing, and sharing all kinds of media on small and large screens, and increasingly, in the street via mobile devices… Text, image, audio, video and dynamic user-generated submissions are all converging, spawning dynamic new media life forms.

Sue Shardt, as executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio (“AIR”), explains how AIR’s Localore is one of the “boundary-pushers”. Localore is a platform for independent producers to distribute documentaries about events affecting their lives.  Similar in nature to the qualities inherent in Cowbird, Localore provides a mechanism for collaboration and participation in the documentation that is underway. Shardt explains:

There are more than 120 station-based, community, technology, and field producers operating out of our station hubs. The work underway recognizes the full spectrum. From a storytelling standpoint, there are multiple access points for citizens to not only experience, but to contribute as documentarians of their own lives. One operating principle for our work is that these access points should be identified, at least for a time, “outside” the current public broadcasting structure — both physical public media buildings (onto the “street” plane) — and also outside the broadcast space.

Aaron Huey and Cowbird.com

Aaron Huey is a photojournalist that I’ve followed for several years. He originally caught my attention with images he took of a journey through the Republic of Georgia (formerly part of Russia). His images were staggering; his ability to immerse himself into different cultures was impressive. Huey’s images from Georgia aren’t easy to find on his website, but I’m including a link below (unfortunately, this takes forever to load; but it’s worth the wait):

Recently, Huey has collaborated with Jonathan Harris, the creator of Cowbird.com, to build a community multimedia storytelling program that would give Huey and people from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota a platform to aggregate text, images and audio as a communal story in a single place.

The project, much of which is posted on the National Geographic website, is funded by a grant from the John and James L. Knight Foundation.  Huey, from what I can tell, is currently a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.  I’m interested in this project for 3 reasons:

  1. Why would Huey, who has access to the entire world (he’s currently back in the Georgian Republic doing something) devote so much time to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation? What attracts Huey to this subject? (He’s been photographing at Pine Ridge for 7 years.)
  2. Why would Huey, the photojournalist, cede “control” over his story to his subjects? The essence of Cowbird seems to be collaborative storytelling – or what I would call story sharing. How does Huey as a photojournalist see collaborative story sharing developing?
  3. What interest does Stanford, National Geographic, and the John and James L. Knight Foundation have in this type of collaborative storytelling / story sharing?

Cowbird.com claims to a free platform for people to share stories using online tools. Cowbird’s purported mission is to “build a public library of human experience, so the knowledge and wisdom we accumulate as individuals may live on as a part of the commons.”  I contacted Cowbird to ask more about their product and the community of storytellers that they’re building.  They’ve responded with some info – I’ve got some research to do and I’ll fill you in on Cowbird.com with a subsequent post.

I’ve also emailed Aaron Huey to get his perspective, but as I mentioned he’s on the road (and for him that probably means completely off the grid) in the Georgian Republic.  I’ll keep you posted on what I learn.

The Art of Storytelling (audio course)

I’m listening in to an audio course entitled The Art of Storytelling, offered through the online company The Great Courses (www.thegreatcourses.com).

The Art of Storytelling consists of 24 lectures, each 30 minutes, which I listen to during my commute. The instructor is Hannah B. Harvey, a professional storyteller and performance artist. Dr. Harvey holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies/Communication Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and she is now an adjunct professor at East Tennessee State University.

As a performance ethnographer, Professor Harvey develops oral histories into theatrical and solo storytelling works. Her stories highlight the experiences of contemporary Appalachian people. More important to me, Dr. Harvey is an engaging, fun speaker to listen to. While The Art of Storytelling course is primarily directed at oral storytelling, I’m finding applications to multimedia storytelling.

Yesterday’s lecture, for example, walked through the ways to use time in storytelling to focus the audience on specific elements of the teller’s story. In addition to using just “scene time” (where time in storytelling approximates actual time), Dr. Harvey described techniques to slow time & accelerate time for dramatic effect. Dr. Harvey also illustrated ways to mix past tense, present tense and future tense in storytelling for creative purposes. I’m finding the lectures interesting: they bring up topics that I don’t normally think about.

Today’s lecture focused on the narrator’s role and tools available to the narrator such as switching between “closed focus” (the story’s details in the “then and there”) and “open focus” (the narrator’s connection with the audience in the “here and now”). Again, this discussion was interesting because I wasn’t conscious of how “closed focus”/”open focus” could be used creatively – but as soon as Dr. Harvey mentioned it I thought of Woody Allen’s opening sequence in Annie Hall. In Annie Hall, Woody first speaks directly to the audience (“open focus”) about the characters, setting and background of his film, and then Woody flips himself into a character (“closed focus”) for most of the film. Occasionally we hear Woody as narrator addressing the audience directly. It’s a nice illustration of Dr. Harvey’s “closed focus”/”open focus” narration technique.

I recommend this course, particularly if you have long hours to kill (like during a commute). You can get a sample of the product on the course website page. I also recommend that you wait for the course on sale. I paid $35 for the audio download during one of their periodic sales, but I see that right now that same audio download version costs $130. Finally, I got the audio download but there are a few spots in the lectures where video would be beneficial.

Kate Holt: Effective Audio Slideshows

In an earlier post I wrote about Soundslides, a software package that helps photographers move into multimedia by automating slideshow transitions and incorporating sound. Soundslides also has a blog, and I found this recent post entitled “Kate Holt’s Digital Storytelling Insights – Part 1“.

This is the first of several Soundslide blog posts, each covering Holt’s storytelling process. Holt prefers audio slideshows because of their simplicity. But she describes her not-so-simple preparation and workflow in putting an audio slideshow together.

Kate Holt is a freelance journalist based in the Nairobe. After spending time with the BBC, Holt undertook a project to document refugees fleeing from Bosnia into Albania in 1999. Following that endeavor, Holt spent several years documenting human sex-trafficing in Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine, followed by a similar expose in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003. Holt has been nominated 3 times for the Amnesty Award for Humanitarian reporting; she’s also been nominated for the Prix Pictet Photographic Award.

Click image below to view an example of one of Holt’s audio slideshows:


http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-19060390

Simple Storytelling Tool: Soundslides

Here’s an example of a simple, but very effective, storytelling tool called Soundslides. Soundslides allows photographers to present their visual work in a sequence (i.e., a slideshow) accompanied by an audio track. Soundslides automates the sequencing of images (users just adjust the duration of each image as it flashes across the screen. Soundslides also makes adding an audio file very simple. In fact, that’s the whole premise of Soundslides: ridiculously simple storytelling. And that’s a great concept.

Brian Vander Brug of the Los Angeles Times strings together short profiles of Las Vegas residents, each telling their stories, in his Soundslides multimedia piece entitled “Chasing the Dream“.

Soundslides can be purchased online for $39.95 (basic version) or $69.95 (Pro version). I’d get the Pro version.

“Easy Release” iPhone App

“Easy Release – Model Release App” for the iPhone or iPad ($9.99 on iTunes) is a nifty little application that helps you overcome this tedious element of the modern world. The software replaces paper-based model release forms, allowing the user to collect all information and model signatures on your iPhone or iPad, then email a version of the final release to the model (as well as store the release on your mobile device for you own records). The software comes with an industry-standard release verbage (acceptable as-is by Getty Images, Alamy and other photo agencies, or modifiable if you want). Features include:

  • Ability to take an iPhone photo of model and attach that image to the release
  • Email copy of release to model
  • Date stamp applied to the release
  • Photographer and model signatures captured
  • Space for Witness info

I like this App. It works well. It’s always with you (well, always with me since I always carry my iPhone). The only shortcoming is that you have to take a couple of minutes to set up the basic info (ie., shoot info like date, location, model name & contact info, etc) by typing it in, and I type into my iPhone fairly slowly. It’s faster to haul out a paper model release and ask the model to fill all that stuff in. But this App is slick if you get over that hump. And like everything, if you take the time to organize the info digitally, your releases will be accessible and in a form to distribute quickly later on.

It Came From Above

Check out this article written by Shane Hurlbut, a seasoned cinematographer now working with DSLR video cameras. Hurlbut chronicles his work with a Erica Tremblay, a friend who was filming a documentary about a tornado that killed 160 people and destroyed much of Joplin, MO.

Hurlbut’s article features discussion of the tools used, the production schedule, and a trailer called “It Came From Above“.

Final Cut Software Tutorial

Israel Hyman of Izzy Video provides a great tutorial on Final Cut Express – for free. If you are new to Final Cut, I highly recommend Izzy’s walk through. He provides well-made, step-by-step video tutorials that will get you up and running quickly. Izzy doesn’t claim to provide an exhaustive treatment of the software, but if my experience is any indication, within a few hours you can create short videos incorporating audio, video and still images. His style is to-the-point, and he has a very engaging personality that keeps the technical patter interesting.