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Analyzing Gains and Losses

After OHRO assessed the transcripts from the Carnegie Corporation Oral History Project—analyzing what is gained or lost in scholarly terms—we were encouraged by the idea that we can advance our methodology by integrating visual oral history into the scholarly practice of oral history. Video is exciting for everyone involved, and we believe that offering speakers the option of being videotaped is another way of honoring their life histories. Still, we have decided to continue conducting interviews using audio as a first step so we do not jeopardize the depth and scope of the content we can obtain.

We also want the people we interview to participate in the choice to use video. The traditional practice is to begin the interview on audio, conducting several sessions prior to the video interview. Then a letter is written to the interviewee inviting them to appear before the camera. If the interviewee agrees, then we pull from the transcribed testimony of the audiotaped interviews to develop an outline for the video interview, a framework for telling their life history in a much more condensed format. This challenge produces a very dynamic result. Negotiating the decision about the format of the interview is part of the ongoing process of gaining consent from our interviewees, and allows them to be full participants throughout the process. (Some interviewees prefer only to be interviewed on video, for example.) The interviewer and the narrator collaborate on determining the subjects of discussion as well as the time and location of the interview. Our staff is also developing the skills necessary to work with filmmakers who are sensitive to our ways of structuring authority in an interview, which is quite different in oral history than in traditional documentary video.

The OHRO is still exploring how different media formats affect the audience. What are the differences in the experiences of reading the transcript of Archbishop Emeritus Tutu, just listening to the audio of his voice, and then seeing him, on video, in his full religious dress with his eternal and familiar smile? Take a tour through the audio transcript, read some of his writings, and examine the content you discover there. Then listen to Tutu's voice, allow it to guide you through his living memory, perhaps while viewing Omar Badsha's photographs, and meditate on the meaning of his life and experience. Afterwards, watch Tutu on video, see the paradox of his facial expression as he smiles while talking about the horrific history he has witnessed. Why does the smile linger? What does it mean? What does it mask? Perhaps you can only find these answers by listening to the emotions in his voice.