Digital Storytelling: Reflections

Something I don’t talk about in this rather lengthy reflection piece that might be called “Parting Shots,” is that the way I have chosen to represent this digital storytelling project is in itself a digital story.  Come on people, don’t we know by know that humans are a narrative species. Everything we do can be described as part of a story.

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Digital Storytelling Project: The Argument, part II

As I posted in the previous blog, digital storytelling functions as a way for ordinary people to tell stories, and these stories reveal things about their identity.  I discussed a couple of digital storytelling projects that used place as the theme that tied the stories together.  This post will discuss how companion animals help us tell our stories.

Place is but one of the many factors that goes into defining our stories.  As eluded to in my previous post with Goffman clothes, food, friends, work and housing all play a role in the construction of our stories.  But for those of us with pets, they might do more to contribute to our stories than other things.  We choose our pets, or rather sometimes they choose us.  As James Serpell in his historical account of pet keeping, In the Company of Animals: A Study of Human-Animal Relationship, pet keeping is closely tied to parenting.  Pets “provide their owners with comparable psychological rewards” as children (Serpell 143).  Serpell goes on to argue they “do not just substitute for human relationship.  They complement and augment them” (143).

This history of pet keeping is long.  Some say humans began keeping dogs as pets first because dogs often have an inquisitive nature and early wolves would have been interested in the human camps.  Yet this is a rather western view.  In fact there are more domesticated goats than any other animal – think of the Middle East, Europe, and parts of South America.  Yet by most accounts it was also the inquisitive nature of the goat that allowed for their easy domestication.  Then there is my favorite story, which now I know to be quite old, but it was relayed to me via a fellow volunteer during an ethnographic research stay last year.  As he told me, at the beginning of time humans and animals lived in harmony together.  One day the Earth shook and shook until a huge crack began to form.  The crack formed between where the humans were camping and the other animals.  As the Earth violently shook the crack widened and just before the divide became too great the dog jumped across to join the humans.

I like that story for many reasons, but I think what it depicts rather well is that humans and domesticated animals like dogs have been evolving side by side for many centuries.  As Donna Haraway argues, humans and dogs co-evolved into companion species.  We would not be the species we are were it not for the dog.  Haraway argues dogs’ heightened sense of smell and hearing allowed human evolution to focus on other things.  We became excellent hunters only by the help of the dog and later the horse.  As she writes in The Companion Species Manifesto, “species of all kinds, living and not, are consequent on a subject – and object – shaping dance of encounters” (166).  In any case, companion animals have made us what we are today.  As Anna Tsing writes, “Human nature is an interspecies relationship” (5).  John Berger argues in a similar vein, “What distinguished men from animals was born of their relationship with them” (20).  I could go on citing Paul Shepard, James Serpell, Derrida, and countless others, but I will not because the point should be clear.  The category of human is tied to and defined by the category animal.  So any human story is in some way an animal story.  And for those who choose to have pets in this world today, this could not be any more pungent.

People love telling stories about their pets.  Have you ever sat and talked to someone who owns more than three cats?  Ten to one says most of their stories revolves around a funny thing their cat did the other day.  This is important.  Cats, dogs, horses, pigs, goats, birds, all companion animals are like children to some people.  As one of my volunteers during my ethnographic project with Equine Assisted Therapy told me, “my dogs are like my family, and I love them just as much.”  If family defines someone’s story, so then does their pet.

Not convinced? Check out www.acarrotaday.com.  A Carrot a Day is a small online horse community where people share personal stories about their horses or training techniques.  Often times these stories are accompanied with videos or photos of themselves and/or their horses.  Many of the stories on here show that when people talk about their pets they are telling stories about themselves as well.  Take for instance the entry titled “Grand Finale, a Davenport Arabian, My “Main Man” in Life.”  The story by Anne details the story of her horse Finale who she got when she was nine.  Anne is now married with children and Finale is still in her life. She also uses photos taken through the life of Finale to show how their stories have intersected, which adds a depth beyond that of the textual.  As she puts it:

“I feel so lucky to have a horse that everyone dear to me considers to be part of the family. He means just as much to the rest of the family as he does to me, even though sometimes they don’t want to challenge my own love for him. I don’t know what I would have done without him in my life. Every good memory I have has to do with Finale and we have plenty of time to make even more.”

Other stories pull at the heart strings a bit more, such as the one shared by Cara Wirth.  Cara writes a letter to her passed away horse Clark.  It is perhaps best to put it in her words.

I remember sifting through the ashes where your stall had been, looking for any trace of you, a nameplate, a horseshoe, anything to hold on to. I remember the soot covering my hands and my clothes. And I remember how much I missed you and wanted you back.

After 16 years, I just want you to know that I remember and will never forget.

A Carrot a Day shows how people share stories of their pets online, but while all of them have pictures included the majority of the stories are primarily textual.  There are countless other sites that tell digital stories about people’s pets.  The site www.barnmice.com provides a “video community for horse people everywhere.” It is as their tagline promotes a place to “share your ride.” With a groups section, forum, classifieds, video and photo sections Barn Mice is a place where people can talk about, write about, blog about, and share photos and videos about horses.  It should be assumed that participants on this site love horses.

A look at one of the users of Barn Mice, Mel Hooks, reveals his story.  He often posts instructional videos from his point of view about driving.  Mel has fourteen videos in all and his friendly voice and first person perspective of his videos gives you a sense of who he is.  He has a humorous confident tone at times especially as he is driving by cars.

After looking at sites like barnmice.com, acarrotaday.com, and DEPARTURES I decided it was time to try to make my own digital storytelling community, so I created the Animal Stories page on this website.  I have asked friends and family to upload or share with me videos, photos, or stories about their pets.  It is a brief sampling of the types of digital stories that can be made, but Animal Stories shows that stories about pets are really stories about people.  As Lundby argues, “The self is social, shaped in relationships, and through the stories we tell about who we are (5).”  The relationships my friends, family and myself have with our pets shape us and the way we choose to share those relationships is a performance of our “selves.”  If we change the story, we change our “selves.”

I hope you enjoy perusing through Animal Stories, and I hope your understand that while these are stories about animals narrated by people there are other stories about animals yet to be told.  Stories written by animals for animals.  Some artists are already mapping these stories.

As an appendix I would like readers to think about Paul Perry’s “Predatory Mark” that is described as a literature of scents.  Or look at Louis Bec’s Stimutalogues, this too is an animals story told by animals and translated by an artist.

Also if you get a chance, check out my reflections vlog and my video analysis of Animal Stories where I get a little more personal.

Works Cited

Berger, John. Why Look At Animals?. London: Penguin Books, 2009.

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.

Lundby, Knut. Digital Storytelling, Mediatized Stories. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008.

Shepard, Paul. Thinking Animals: Animals and the Development of Human Intelligence. New York: The Viking Press, 1978.

Serpell, James. In the Company of Animals: A Study of Human-Animal Relationships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Animal Stories – A Digital Storytelling Project: The Argument

In the introduction to Digital Storytelling, Mediatized Stories, professor Knut Lundby argues “Storytelling implies the shaping of the story as well as the sharing of it with others after” (3). For Lundby, as is true for this installment of The Visual Animal, what is true for more traditional modes of storytelling is true for digital storytelling.  The author must represent a compelling and interesting story to the readers, and often times the stories or at least how they are told reveal something about the author who is sharing them.  What separates digital narrative from perhaps more traditional modes are the different choices of modality available to the author.  Digital authors can choose to tell their stories using visuals such as photos, videos, or memes as well as simple texts stories.  The digital author has many more choices than does the traditional author. As Lundby argues via Larry Friedlander, “Digital narratives aspire to the variety and plentitude of a world rather than to the fixed structure of a text” (6).  Yet what remains true no matter the form of the story is that all stories are performances.  As Ervin Goffman is famous for arguing the self is presented in how we act, how we perform in our day to day manners, in what we wear, in what we eat, basically in everything that we do.  If he were alive today, his argument that all the world is a stage and we are actors on that stage would hold a lot of water especially when it comes to digital narratives.

Digital narratives are much more a performance of the self than say a textual short story, a face-to-face interaction, or even a journal entry because in digital narrative the self, the physical self is extracted from the story.  In this sense, digital narrative is all performance.  How do you want to appear on the screen? How do you want to appear to your Facebook or Twitter community.  Status updates, profile pics, and comments must be consciously made because it is not just your friends and family that see things (although that might be scary enough).  No the internet is a vast digital archive of the story you have left behind.  It is like the scent of a doe in season.  Any buck searching for you will find you.  In this way, even a simple Google search yields a pretty interesting digital narrative.

We can think of digital narratives in many forms.  A persons’ Facebook profile page, or Twitter feed or Youtube uploads all tell a story about that person.  And in fact they often tell a story that might be different from one they would relay through face to face interaction or through an oral or textual representation.  Still while they differ from more traditional modes of narration whether digital, oral, textual, or kinesthetic all narratives “may be seen as a basic human faculty of meaning-making” (qtd in Lundby 62).  I would argue, following in the footsteps of novelist Gary Snyder that all animals have their own form of storytelling.  Take deer for example whether it be the scent, left by doe urine, a rubbing on a tree, a scratching underneath a sapling all of these signs tell have meaning for other deer.  Humans are not the only meaning-makers, but more on that in the following post.

As I stated above digital narratives take many forms.  As such there have been many attempts at compiling digital narratives into some sort of database or community form.  These databases become in many ways communities where people communicate, narrate their own online stories, and form bonds with other people.  I reiterate, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are prime examples of these sites, but there are other sites where digital storytelling takes place in the form of a community – take for example KCET’s DEPARTURES project.

The former public television station is in the midst of putting together a website that attempts to draw the wide expansive, sprawling suburbs of what we call Los Angeles together through community based digital narratives.  Or as they say on their website: “Los Angeles is often called the city of sprawl – a series of suburbs that lack a center and erases the concept of place, neighborhood and community.  DEPARTURES is an oral history project, an interactive documentary, a community engagement tool, and a digital literacy project that gives voice to the people, places or things that define the neighborhoods of our city.”

DEPARTURES has ever expanding sections about different communities in LA including Little Tokyo, South Robertson, Highland Park, LA River, Richland Farms, Chinatown, a Venice.  They share voices from the communities in each of these places.  They have maps of the area and videos from journalist as well as everyday people.  DEPARTURES gives voice to those in a community that might not otherwise be heard and it allows people to tell their stories about the places they live and love.  Who are we if not defined by the places we live? We define the places we live and love as much as they define us, so capturing place as DEPARTURES does helps generate a sense of community while allowing community members to tell their own stories in their own voices.

Stayed tuned in my next post for my thoughts on different (more non-traditional) types of digital stories and different themes running through digital stories.

Indigenous Storytelling

In Faye Ginsburg’s”Rethinking the Digital Age” she writes about the positive impacts indigenous storytelling projects can have on indigenous communities.  Her primary argument can be summarized as such:

“The cultural activists creating these new kinds of cultural forms have turned to them as a means of revivifying relationship to their lands, local languages, traditions, and histories, and of articulating community concerns.  They also see media as a means of furthering social and political transformation by inserting their own stories into national narratives as part of ongoing struggles for Aboriginal recognition and self-determination” (616).

nDigiStory is a digital storytelling project designed by indigenous women with the mission of integrating the stories of indigenous communities in innovative forms.  They “draw upon respective strengths and resources,” and share their passion for “the overall well-being of humanity, storytelling art and media.” Their specific focus is on health education, policy and cultural preservation.

One specific video called Hummingbird speaks directly to the nDigiDreams project as well as Ginsburg’s article.  It activates memory through storytelling to show the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another.  It extends the oral tradition to storytelling into the digital world.  It also is an example of self-representation being activated through digital.

it is important, however, as Ginsburg warns to lead with cautious optimism.  It could be argued that giving voice to people is illusionary.  It creates an illusion of a public sphere, an illusion of a place where political action can take place.  As Ginsburg says, “questions of the digital age look different to people struggling to control land and traditions appropriated by now dominant settler societies for as long as five hundred years” (615).  In other words, we must be careful not to champion the voice granted through digital storytelling because it can be used as another form of communicative capitalism – it could be used as a way to steal, oppressed and marginalized groups through the illusion of voice and agency.

Digital Storytelling and Autobiographical Documentary Film

Earlier today I had the opportunity to shorten my usually hectic Thursday and attend a class facilitated by the filmographer, professor, alcoholic, cross-dressing, author, and pretty all around interesting human Broderick Fox.  I was glad to attend class where he screen his very introspective and intellectual films “Things Girls Do…” and “The Skin I’m In.”  The first one, while admittedly a bit heavy handed, was created years ago when he was a graduate student at USC.  “The Skin I’m In” is a film not yet released to the public that highlights Fox’s self-reflexive and autobiographical ten year journey from self-destructive alcoholic to self-accepting multiple identity. I admired his openness.  Fox is bare in this tightly edited film both literally and metaphorically, which serves the raw subject matter he chronicles.

I had the opportunity to talk a bit with him after class about the process of film editing and how he sees his academic life intersecting with his film career. My recent, short, but enjoyable foray into film making has me thinking about making something else, something larger.  Heck I could even expand what I did a couple of weeks ago.  But this brings up the trouble of does your creative work coincide with your theoretical work.  One of my professors, who is both a media studies professor and film maker, tells me that she keeps her “art” separate from her academic work.  I just kept thinking how could that be.  The theories you are drawn to in academia influence who you are and in some ways come to define a part of you.  How can you simply leave that behind when making something.  If anything I would think they both inform each other.  I was very happy to hear that Fox agrees.  He also talked a bit about how the process of writing a paper is very much similar to making a film, which made me smile because…well see my last post.

In my Visual Research Methods course I am being asked to analyze a piece of digital storytelling.  I have now read five chapters of the book edited by Knut Lundby, Digital Storytelling Mediatized Stories. I now have an understanding of what is meant by digital storytelling.  “Any computer-based narrative expression, including hypertext fiction and game narratives as well as YouTube and the like…where in ordinary people participate in hands-on workshops using computer software to create personal” narratives (197).  And while I have looked at a couple examples they analyze in the book including “London Voices,”  I am having a hard time finding a site of my own to analyze.  Fox gave me a great example, one I had unknowingly seen before, KCET – Departures. This site tells stories of different communities in the Los Angeles area through the people’s own voices.  Admittedly, I couldn’t help but suggest the video we did about gold prospectors on the East Fork of the San Gabriel because they were looking for stories people had about the river.

I am still looking for a decent site to use. I really want to focus on how people represent animals (hopefully horses) through digital narratives, but finding that perfect site is a bit overwhelming.  I have been looking for a few weeks now, and the best sites I have found are acarrotaday.com and barnmice.com. I am not sure either suffice.  What do the rest of you think? Can I analyze digital storytelling using these sites?

I do have one critique of this digital storytelling as it is told through Lundby’s edited book.  I am not convinced that all digital stories are wholly about performances of the self.  Yes I get it (I’ve read Said) even when we represent the other we are performing self, but we criticize literature critics who automatically say that authors are writing about themselves, so shouldn’t we be just as critical about digital storytelling.  My point is not that there isn’t some part of the self in nearly every story, but that it may not be the defining characteristic.

River Voices: Modern Day Prospecting Tales – A Documentary

Making a documentary is hard work! Even a six minute little piece was at times fantastically time consuming and tedious. Not only are there hours upon hours of filming. In our case this involved hiking along and often in the East Fork of the San Gabriel River in the San Gabriel National Forest. That part I thoroughly enjoyed. I got to meet some fascinating people. I got to learn loads about gold prospecting. We walked in an active mine – without a flashlight mind you I wish I had anticipated  finding a mine. We saw a small herd of mountain sheep, which always makes me happy. And we got a little exercise and sunshine while we were at it.

But the editing…My god the editing! I spent just as much time editing this short piece as I did a twenty page paper. I tell you though the similarities between editing a paper and editing a video using Adobe Premiere Pro – pretty similar. As a former composition teacher I really appreciate the visuality of the program and what it allows you to do. Learning how to edit a video would be a great way to teach people how to write because you really use the same skills, but with a video its more tactile and visual. I’m still a newbie at it as will be evident from the video, but I learned loads about the program. I like the manual labor involved in creating a transition and making it exactly how you want it. (I probably failed more times than not in this video, but hey I tried) I love the fact that you can adjust just about everything video, audio, text. It really is a neat program. Ok enough plugging my corporate sponsor.

One of the most interesting things about making this video was that we really could have told any number of different stories with the footage we shot. We could have given an instructional video on gold prospecting. We had plenty of good action and instructional type shots. We could have placed ourselves in it a bit more and talked about all the hard work of hiking and finding people and finding the mine. I mean all in all we hiked over thirteen miles to shoot this thing. Granted we could have hike a lot more. There are folks that live 17-30 miles back that trail – not just one but a whole damn community of people. Some of them pan, some of them carve flutes, some of them…well let’s just say some of them are involved in illegal activities. But I tell you what there is a project for somebody there. These people are for the most part really interesting and very nice as long as you are nice to them. And their stories ought to be chronicled.

I did have somewhat of a vision for the final product, so there were some shots in fact the most prominent shot in the video that were premeditated. But there were other planned shots that didn’t make the final cut because in the end they just didn’t help move forward our narrative. Let me give you an example. I took a pretty cool underwater shot of a sluice box with gold in it. I had planned to use that as a connecting clip but it just wasn’t connecting the way I wanted it to, so we went with the river, which in the end served us well I believe.

As hard as this was to edit and make this short video, I really enjoyed it, and I hope I can make more videos in the future. I mean now I know how to run a number of programs on the Adobe Suite I think I could make something even better next time.

Anyways, I hope you enjoy our video. Mark and I put a lot of effort into this. Here’s the link. Who knows maybe it’ll make you want to prospect too. I know it does me.

The Work of John Collier Jr.

“The Dead would come to life, and we would see wholly new relationships in what had been only a frozen moment” (249).

“Stills can tell you precisely what is happening, but film can qualify the happening and present the nuances of human relations” (249.

“The fulfillment of ehtnographic film as education is not just its ability to present the cultural drama, but more importantly to present man’s humanity, modern or ancient” (252).

A Navajo Woman

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Collier Jr. pictures show how a picture can be more than just an artifact. Photographs can capture a moment. They can offer support for the ethnographic research. The photos of the folk musicians and the Navajo women offer examples of this. But caught in still life the people are motionless they are representative of the dead.  It is only through film and motion pictures that living life is put into action as is represented by the films and Muybridge’s work shown here.

Documentary Progress Update

Good afternoon world! It is a beautiful day here in sunny Southern California, so as I sit quietly in the library listening to the whirring sound of the AC in the background, I am reflecting on my experience working on this documentary so far.

In a word, it has been tough! I have been out to the site (East Fork of the San Gabriel River) twice now since agreeing on a topic for filming.  And up to this point much of the footage we have shot is of little to no use.  The problem has been with getting useable audio.  You see much of our filming takes place along the banks or often directly in the river.  This causes a great deal of water noise and distortion in the audio, not to mention the camera we were using has pretty poor audio microphone.  That said we have interviewed a few super enlightening and extremely interesting people who have given us invaluable information.  Unfortunately, much of that information is not going to be useable because of the poor audio.

I have tried valiantly, however, to salvage as much of the audio as possible.  The iMovie program, the only video program I am even remotely familiar with, does not allow for much audio enhancement, and I was not able to find a Mac program that does because Soundbooth apparently is not longer being sold as an app.  Also my computer is too old to operate FCP X, which is a bummer because I am pretty sure I could manipulate the sound in that program. What I have done after a lot of research, however, is to use Adobe Audition and Adobe Premiere. Audition has allowed me to manipulate the audio to the point where I can save partial excerpts from the track. It is pretty cool program.  I am by no means all that adept at using it but I at least can increase the master gain, amplify, reduce the hiss/noise/distortion, and normalize the track.  I know there are ways in the program to single out specific wave spikes and delete them but I don’t have enough knowledge about waveforms to do that and do it well.

Thankfully, however, I bought an external microphone for my camera which should greatly improve the audio.  The mic supposedly reduces wind noise and improves sound quality, so I am keeping my fingers crossed that this will be the ticket to getting good audio out of my interviews.

I have been giving a great deal of thought to how we could structure the film, and I do not want to present the documentary in a way that gives it an air of objectivity.  I would prefer to be open and honest about our process and simply say, “Hey this is how we see and understand the situation based on our specific experience at the site.”  I know that is often not what documentaries do, and I am not sure if my partner agrees, but it is what I would prefer to do.  I don’t want to give away too many spoiler alerts with how we might structure it, but I do think it will be pretty straight forward and consist mainly of interviews with gold prospectors so that they can tell their story.  I don’t want to do a ton of voiceover, but I do want to do a little in the beginning just to set the tone and to tell what we intend to show.  I am open to other ways of setting the tone, however.  In fact, there is an argument to be made for allowing the interviewees to set the tone simply by showing them. And in fact that may be what we end of doing.  I would, however, like to inject a bit of creativity into this film.  I have written some poetic-like prose that I think could set the tone, so we shall see if that works.

I have also been giving a lot of thought to the title of this film because titles tell a lot.  I haven’t thrown any of these my partner’s way but I am going to throw a few into the atmosphere and see what comes back. Thoughts and/or comments as always are encouraged… “Gold Fever,” “Adventures of the Modern Day Gold Prospector,” “River Voices: Stories of the Modern Day Gold Prospector,” “The Treasure of the San Gabriel,” “LA County Gold,” “Finding Bernie” I could come up with these all day long and it is a fun project just to think up titles. The last one there only works if we structure it in a specific creative way.

Any thoughts from my followers?  What do all of you think?  Oh and any advice on editing audio would be deeply appreciated!

Until next time.

Video Exercise

So the other day my visual research methods class we were asked to in a half an hour conduct an interview with a partner in class.  Theresa and I were paired together.  It was a fun little exercise.  With only thirty minutes to put something together, all I could think of was the scene of the Most Photographed Barn in America from Don DeLillo’s White Noise.  I kept thinking about the photos online that showed pictures of people taken pictures. I often take a couple of those types of pictures while on the road.

Anyways we were interested in capturing the gaze of another while doing a sort of impromtu interview.  For me at least it was a bit strange to know I had a camera faced at me while I was shooting.  Anyways, I put the two videos we made together, and this is what we came up with.

The video is not the best quality because the sound on the one is poor quality, but at least you get the picture. Pun intended.