On Digital Storytelling

It’s hard to write a blog post on digital storytelling without paying respect to Lisa Nelson-Haynes, my supervisor at my “day job” with the Painted Bride Art Center.  Lisa does work for the Center for Digital Storytelling and hosts workshops with intentionally-injured youth who create digital stories about their traumas to help heal their spiritual wounds.  Haynes also is part of the All Together Now project, which collects inter-generational stories of civic activism.  She calls this portion of her professional life her heartwork, and when reviewing a larger view of digital storytelling work, this term– heartwork– makes sense.  Projects involving audio/visual work to share individual tales or to clump these individual tales together often stem from intense happenings or events– the 911 Digital Archive is a good example of this intensity.

I’ve spent some time exploring digital storytelling work in the place where I am focused currently– Kensington, Philadelphia.  One project I discovered was Kensington Blues, a blog of audio and photos completely focused on sex workers and drug users along Kensington Ave.  It’s an interesting consideration for me, this blog, because it humanizes many people who are often very stigmatized, but at the same time, it sheds a certain voyeuristic light on the challenges that these subjects face on a daily basis.  This project, more than any other I have found, challenges me to think critically about what we share in public or not.

I have not come to a conclusion about what is best to do with sensitive digital storytelling, but I think a lot of what makes for best practice in terms of what is shared depends on what the subjects deem permissible.  In other words, if a person understands that the content is public, and if this person has signed a waiver, and if the site has a disclaimer somewhere that warns or requires a certain age for experience, nothing is really off limits. (However, editing seems sensible in terms of online repositories if sensitive material is not relevant to the project topic.)

When it comes to first person narratives with media, perhaps it is best to make all content public and consumable. While some of the content may be sensitive or explicit, the subject is an agent of itself, speaking for his or herself, and constructing a story for online archiving that cannot be overwritten by another voice.  Is this not the point of what we are doing with digital storytelling, letting go of our authority as historians so that others can place themselves in their own context?

As for History Truck, at this point, my intention is to share stories as mostly audio clips from longer interviews.  My reasoning is twofold– it makes for an easier online audience experience in that the sound clips are short enough to consume in entirety (an example of project that offers shortened online versions of full stories is StoryCorps, which has its challenges with overpopulation and organization) and it makes sensitive material something to be saved for the archives where researchers who need to explore more… can.  The other plus to shortened edited stories which respect private details has to do with digital storytelling and oral history work itself– it deals with memory based from a person living now.  Releasing  complete oral history done today could be detrimental to someone’s life, relationships and work.


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