Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Recalling Memories through Pictures (using multimedia tools)

The processes of contact, feelings, perception and memory are closely interlinked. They are mediated through our senses and for most people the sense that usually predominates is sight. So in trying to put together the early life of my mother, the late Fuengsin Trafford, it's been helpful to carry out interviews based on sets of photographs. I haven't done much planning really, but rather have made things up as I've gone along, working intuitively; it's only now I can see more of the methodology that I've actually followed! I'll report here on that methodology and also on some of the technical tools that I've used to assist me.

My mother left hundreds of photos, which I've tried to arrange in sets according to distinct periods: early childhood, University days, her first years of teaching and so on. I created an index for each set and have pencilled in an incrementing number on the back of each photo, so that they are uniquely identified and there's some order to them, though (as I later would frequently find out) it's not chronological! I then scanned in the photos at a fairly high resolution (on an HP Scanjet 5370C, quite old now) and saved the files using the index as part of the file name. Having done this for a fair proportion of the collection, I've put copies in many places - on laptop hard drives, an external backup disk and memory sticks.

However, merely creating an archive without any descriptions is not much use! For some while I had intended to ask relatives and friends of my mother to enlighten me as to the context and details concerning the photos. I was finally able to set off for my mini fieldwork earlier this month (December), with a copy of the photos on my netbook, an Eee PC. When I met the 'interviewees' in Thailand I recorded the conversations using a digital voice recorder, saving copies of the recordings as files on the netbook.

It was the first time I had properly used such a recording device and my experience of conducting interviews was minimal (though I once did an interview with a Big Issue seller as part of a one day digital video course). So earlier this year I explored the world of digital audio recorders (a process that's familiar for me as I've purchased quite a lot of electronic devices :-) I settled on an Olympus WS-110, which is a compact device, somewhat smaller and lighter than e.g. a Nokia 8210 mobile phone. I chose it based on reviews of its audio quality - good microphone and high quality sampling (see e.g. reviews on Amazon); file format wasn't a concern for me. These devices are evolving rapidly and already Olympus lists this as an archived product, which means you should be able to find it new at a very good price on ebay (which is where I purchased it). Operating the device was very simple.

Then the netbook would serve as a digital lightbox and a basic means of navigation - for a given photo set all the photos would be the same folder and I'd run a slideshow using the wonderful Irfanview! The major handicap with the netbook is the relatively small screen - in many cases I needed to zoom in (my audio recording has a lot of tapping sounds!) When I was in conversation, I'd start with a preamble about what I was intending to do and asked for permission (it's worth confirming this afterwards as well). Although sometimes you know that everyone is happy, it's a good habit to get into in case I go on to do academic fieldwork, which is something I am deliberating. My main role felt like being a catalyst, with some general encouragement and a few questions sprinkled here and there, to elicit a few more details. There's no doubt a large swathe of literature on conducting such interviews, but I didn't read any.

On my return to the UK it was time to transcribe what had been said. To facilitate this, I wanted to associate the audio with the respective pictures (a tradeoff of using a separate recording device rather than doing the recording directly on the netbook). The intended result would be a video consisting of the photos that I had shown with each photo accompanied by the respective audio commentary, i.e. the comments from friends and relatives.

The solution I adopted was to use a video editing tool, Windows Movie Maker (WMM for short), which comes part of the Windows operating system. I guess it is similar in functionality, if not in elegance, with Apple's iMovie. My familiarity with WMM is very limited, so it's probably best if I summarise. The basic idea is to create one WMM file for each interview (WMM only provides a single audio track) so that in any given interview when playing back you know what was said about a particular picture. Here's a screenshot:

Windows Movie Maker screenshot showing a composition of photos synchronised with an audio track

There are basically three areas: top left is the collection of files that I used to create the composition - this is where you import the photos and the audio and in this case I could import audio straightaway without conversion as it was in WMA format. Top right is the playback for the composition as a whole. However, the work is carried out below in the storyboard/timeline, which consists of parallel tracks. All I used was the Video and Audio tracks, dragging and dropping photos from the collection area, moving them about until there was approximate synchronisation.

However, in writing a biography I need words as well as pictures! The next step in the process is thus transcription. The method I'm using here is to create a large table with the first column containing the photos, one photo per row. Each of the other columns are to record the transcription from a particular interview. With reference to the WMM files I'm transcribing what was said about a particular photo in the corresponding cell of the table. Again I'm not being particularly sophisticated about the implementation - it's one mammoth table in a MS Word document. As long as it works, it is okay. For a formal research project I expect this would be better implemented in a database.

Handwriting bonus!

There have been some nice extras in undertaking this exercise. My mother has penned in Thai many documents, including a diary over several years. It's one thing to learn how to read the printed word, but a further step to decipher Thai handwriting! With these compositions I have some samples here that have been read out (and with the aid of a dictionary I can slowly spell them out myself). To be systematic, for each letter I can build up a set of samples that I can use later on.

For a few hours of recording, there are many more in organising and interpreting, but I find it fun to do and along the way I learn a little more about Thai history generally. For anyone contemplating learning more about their own family history, I'd recommend this as a stimulating and informative exercise.


I mustn't forget to thank everyone who has kindly provided information in the December interviews, including: Pah Vasana, Khun Jamras, Pah Umpai, P' Laem, P' Darunee & her mother, Khun Chaiwat, P' Yui, P' Ead, Na Tewee, Na Tun, and Pah Jah. If I could contact all those my mother knew well, this list would be very long ...

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