Over the past week BBC Wiltshire have been talking about photography through their lunch time programmes. I was fortunate to be one of the guest speakers about turning those old photographs into family history documentaries.
In our family, we undertook the huge task of telling a detailed whole-life story of our mother. Although much of our storytelling are short stories, it didn’t fit the task of telling whole-life stories. So we developed a unique way of telling such huge stories that can be as complex as one’s life. And because the interviews were detailed, we were then able use the interviews as a scaffolding for the written version of her heritage and life story.
The first minute of our mother’s 8.5 hour story was broadcast on BBC Wiltshire, along with a live interview by DJ Graham Seaman for 10 minutes. Now I know 8.5 hours may seem life a long time… but that is until you realise that a decade of life translates to just an hour of narrative. Not very long at all… I guess we think we do a lot more in a decade than we actually do.
The program is available on the iPlayer until 1st March 2018. You can hear the interview between 28 minutes to 38 minutes. If you’ve missed the opportunity to hear the interview, we have a transcript of it below…
Family History Documentaries Transcript
[Graham Seaman] So today here is an idea for you? Instead of taking a few snaps to put on your living room wall, why not create something you can pass down to your children? Lets start by having a listen to this…
–>> audio track plays from video <<--
[Graham Seaman] well… that was the work of Gwyn Cole, who’s a filmmaker and turns your family photos and old films into personal memory documenting your family history for future generations. And what’s more, Gwyn is with us now… Hello Gwyn, how you’re doing…
[Gwyn Cole] I’m very well thank you.
[Graham Seaman] I mean just listen to that, that’s just the sound track from the video. I mean it really does provoke a lot of emotion just listening to it. And I think we can all relate to that kind of thing.
[Gwyn Cole] Indeed, you know this is the thing, when you do go back over the old photographs in someone’s life, when you understand more about what’s in those photos, it does provoke that emotion.
[Graham Seaman] So this idea of yours, how did it come about, there have been many companies and businesses out there trying to recreate people’s pasts if you like, or bring them and put them in one place, what makes yours so unique and different?
[Gwyn Cole] So as a storyteller I could do short stories about certain segments of my mother’s life and our family’s life. But I was always curious about how we ended up in Africa from the UK and I wanted to be able to capture this in a whole-life story. So I came up with a new strategy about how to tell whole-life stories. And it all starts out with photographs because photographs capture that moment in time and when you start dating them and you start learning more about them, then all of a sudden you see someone’s life literally come alive!
[Graham Seaman] If I was to hand you a selection of my old photographs and films that I found in the loft (for example), How do you start? How do you turn that into a family documentary?
[Gwyn Cole] The first step is to get your photographs and start trying to date them… the thing also with memory, cause some of those people also might still be living and when you ask them about those old family photographs, they’ll say that happened, lets say, 7 years ago. But your memories don’t always correlate to what actually happened and when it happened. So what you end up doing is that you’re doing a timeline and then you do timeline of all the people around that person. And then what you end up with is a truth. And then from that truth, you’ve got a full history of what’s in that person’s life. And that’s the starting point for telling a whole-life story.
[Graham Seaman] We can all look through books and we can all run around with a video camera and do our own thing. But its that story isn’t it? Its getting that feeling, that real sense… I mean I found it fascinating listening to that because even though you don’t know the person, you find what they have to say so fascinating — really draws you in.
[Gwyn Cole] Indeed, a lot of the stuff we see with family history is all about writing it down and I totally agree with that! And in fact we’ve gone through that exercise ourselves. In fact, we wrote based on the interviews I did with my mother. But you see video gives your the emotion… whenever you have film, it allows the opportunity to convey emotion, where written work allows you the opportunity to convey detail.
[Graham Seaman] So how much demand, I mean are you finding a lot of people now are more tuned into this, because I think there’s much more interest now, like programs on television Who Do You Think You Are? that have got more people interested in documenting their live’s in this particular manner?
[Gwyn Cole] I think it is becoming more popular and anybody that has seen what I’ve done with our family have all said “Oh I really wished we had done that”, but often is the case that it’s sadly too late.
[Graham Seaman] I’ve seen a bit of the the footage as well which goes with that, which clearly we can’t show you, but what’s interesting is that some old photographs get pretty battered and messed around with, so I presume you have ways of enhancing the quality of those pictures?
[Gwyn Cole] Yes, so what I tend to do is to print those pictures out and once you have them printed, and you film somebody interacting with those pictures, then those pictures feel more active, they feel like they are alive.
[Graham Seaman] I’ve often been told that although seeing the moving image is a really important powerful thing, that sometimes just a photograph itself can convey the same kind of feeling, the same kind of emotion, if you set it up right and do it properly. So I guess you’re using all sorts of filmmaking techniques here to make that work effectively?
[Gwyn Cole] Yes, but… also it is true that the fundamental aspect of that is the context, the story behind that photograph. I can give you an example… we had a collection of photographs of a collapsed bridge that my grandfather took. He fought in the Boer War so these pictures were from the Boer War. They didn’t mean anything to us, all it was a bridge that had collapsed. We set about finding out and then recently we found out more about these pictures. And the the bridge was actually Norvalspont Bridge. Which was apparently the first bridge to be built across the Orange River in South Africa in 1889. And the bridge was destroyed by the Boers during the Boer War. And it was the Railway Pioneer Regiment which did the major repair work by No 1, 2, 3 & 5 Companies. And that repair took place between March to April 1900. And the first train to cross it was a mail train over the repaired bridge on the 18 May 1900. Now knowing that detail has made those pictures come alive.
[Graham Seaman] Yeah, of course… I know you work a lot in Wiltshire as well and you’ve worked with families in Wiltshire. I mean, of course the great thing is that not only are you talking about their own history, but through that you are also revealing quite a bit about the local history of places as well. And again to an observer who is not necessarily connected through friends and family. You learn a lot from it as well about the social history and everything else which goes with it.
[Gwyn Cole] Absolutely! And that’s one thing that was also revealed, especially going through my mom’s written work. When you come to write, you want to expand on some of these details and then all of a sudden you realise you’ve got the photographs of it, you’ve got your family members from the days gone by at those locations. And you can go back to those locations now even.
[Graham Seaman] How do people feel about being filmed or being recorded because you know sometimes you put a camera in front of somebody or a microphone and people become very self conscious. How are you able to make people feel relaxed enough to be able to talk in a very casual way and open way?
[Gwyn Cole] I think people are a little bit nervous when they come to be filmed on camera. Its not really a question and answer session, its a conversation just like you and I are having right now. And all of those nerves go away and after about 2 minutes, maybe 3 minutes, they forget the camera is even there.
[Graham Seaman] How long… how long is a piece of string I suppose, but how long do you tend to make these documents of people’s lives in film?
[Gwyn Cole] It really depends on how much of one’s life one wants to cover… in my mother’s case we went into extraordinary detail and we ended up filming for 3 months. But that was because I really wanted to get everything down. For most people…. it depends you know, there’s no one real answer. It really depends on how much of the story that someone wants to capture.
[Graham Seaman] Yeah of course… and the great thing about it is that how many times do you hear somebody say “I would give anything to be able to see and hear my mom or my dad talking because I forgotten what they sound like. And when that happens, you’re creating a magical moment in history that will be kept for generations to come. How does that make you feel? How do you feel being that part of people’s lives?
[Gwyn Cole] Its a privilege! Just as a storyteller in general, just getting a window into people’s lives, you know, the one thing I’ve learnt is that everybody is amazing and everybody has a story to tell.
[Graham Seaman] Well, that’s a fascinating way of using photography and film in order to tell people’s life stories and to be able to do it in that way. And have your own family documentary with one or two members, its a growing thing but to do in this way is very special. Gwyn Cole, a filmmaker from Family History Films… its been lovely talking to you, thank you very much.