News Brief IV: Visual Oral History

Kate Brenner is a current OHMA student. Hailing from the frozen tundra of Wisconsin, she spends a lot of time laughing at New Yorkers who complain about the cold, and generally bemoaning a lack of availability of cheesecurds. When she's not busy perpetuating stereotypes about Midwesterners, she explores the dynamics of group interviews and story circles to better capture the history of a community.

The saying may be “a picture speaks a thousand words,” but when combined with oral history, a photograph can say so much more. I began thinking about the marriage of photographs and oral history when looking at the incredibly popular Humans of New York. I was really hoping I could construe it as a type of oral history, but I watched some videos about how he got the quotes that accompany the photos, and most come from very brief conversations. I decided to try to search out some ways that were more explicitly using oral history with photography.

Fortunately, my classmate Liz has already done some of the work for me. Last semester, after a lecture on two different oral history projects focusing on AIDS, she wrote this post about the use of photography to humanize and break down stereotypes about people who are HIV positive, as well as people with breast cancer.

Though I normally seek out articles about oral history, the following just popped up in my Facebook newsfeed one day. In New York, the juxtaposition between those who have (a lot) and those who don’t can be very stark, as one real estate agent realized. She became frustrated with the disparity between the luxury apartments she was showing and the people living on the streets around them, so she started buying them coffee and listening to their story.

 Winona, 44. www.coffeewiththehomeless.com.

Winona, 44. www.coffeewiththehomeless.com.

The New York Times’ Lens Blog has showcases gorgeous photos and the stories behind them. Margo Cooper’s interest in the blues, and the realization that many musicians were getting older and had stories to be documented, led her to use both photography and oral history. Her website only displays the photos, but this article has brief excerpts from the musicians.

 Shine and Sam Carr. By Margo Cooper

Shine and Sam Carr. By Margo Cooper

Unfortunately, most photography oral history projects I come across online are physical exhibitions, but so interesting that I still want to highlight them. This one is outside of New Orleans, but it addresses concerns about changes in the environment of the Gulf Coast with a combination of paintings and photos of the river and oral histories by those interact with it, with the hope that the images and stories will allow visitors really see how much the environment has changed, and be able to connect to the impact that land loss has on the culture. 

Asher Milgate photographed Wiradjuri elders who had grown up in an Aboriginal mission in Wellington, and interviewed them about their lives. While this is also a physical exhibit, there are a few photos online with short quotes. The exhibit in Dubbo uses audio and video as well as the photographs.

 By Asher Milgate

By Asher Milgate

Most movie theaters are generic boxy buildings with multiple screens, but I grew up also watching movies at the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee, a theater from 1927. Benita VanWinkle started photographing old movie theaters to document them before they all disappeared, but realized that the people who would go there also had stories about the importance they had in their lives that were just as important to preserve as the architecture.

This is what I’ve been able to find so far, but would love to know about more photography-based oral history projects. Several weeks ago, a guest blogger with OHMA told us about her fledgling oral history project as archivist for the organization Professional Women Photographers. If you know of any, leave them in the comments!