Giving people a voice, both figuratively and literally, is a key motivation behind a lauded, Emmy award-winning project by the New York Times, called One in 8 Million.
Published eight years ago, the creators produced a collection of audio interviews with 54 New Yorkers, capturing experiences and stories in three minute snippets.
It is a form of narrative storytelling that is timeless…listening today it feels no less powerful or relevant than it would have sounded in 2009.
As the project’s photographer Todd Heisler described it:
“Well, it’s not news. It’s not beholden to any event or anything that’s in the news. It’s timeless.”
I dipped in and out of the series over several nights, and felt it brought the city’s landscape and diversity of inhabitant to life, fulfilling that vital prerequisite for any documentary narrative:
Documentaries should seek to provide “a profound fascination with and respect for actuality.” (Rabiger, 1998)
The audio is overlaid with stunning black and white images about each subject. The two run in tandem as a video slideshow. In addition, each story features a short text backgrounder, putting the audio into context.
The end result is a respectful and intriguing narrative detailing a disparate selection of New York’s inhabitants at a specific period of time — bringing together temporal and spatial elements.
The aim of the project is clearly expressed on the homepage. The makers are seeking to reflect the city’s characters…
“ordinary people telling extraordinary stories — of passions and problems, relationships and routines, vocations and obsessions.”
Rookie detective Andrew Baum reflects on how his surveillance experience has given him deep insights into human nature, and some not so deep:
“You discover that people pick their noses at the same time every day, or they will rub their head the same way.”
Mayoral maid Nancy Bunche reflects on her pride at working for four mayors and “being part of history” looking after “the boys”.
Grandfather Joseph Cotton talks about caring for his “grandbabies” and the values and experiences he enjoys with them — “any time we go out to do an activity, they must walk.” He tells us how being here with them is a joy and, unexpectedly, reflects on his own troubled childhood: “I did not expect to live past 16.”
Throughout there is no direct sign of the interviewer — he or she does not audibly appear in the stories. These are all first person narratives with no direct interaction between subject and interviewer.
But we are aware they are there, just out of sight, probing and questioning, and then “discarding, refining and ordering”. (Hugh Levinson, BBC College of Journalism, 2012)
In each story intricate pictures are painted with words, which are in turn supported by the images that accompany each audio. We see cyclist ChristianHubert’s battle with vertigo when crossing Brooklyn Bridge, both from his description and through photos which are deliberately out of focus at key points to illustrate the dizziness he feels.
“The most important thing is to bear in mind that your viewer can use multiple senses. They’re hearing and seeing and what they’re seeing should not be redundant to what they are hearing. It should build upon the audio, enhance it or augment it or make it feel more poignant but it shouldn’t just repeat it. Because we had spectacular audio the pictures could do their own thing.” New York Times Deputy Photo Editor Meaghan Looram
We know that these stories and the accompanying photos did not just emerge, unbidden.
As archivist and oral story researcher Siobhan Stevenson explained in a recent lecture at Birmingham City University (October 2017), projects of this type involve making people feel secure to share their intimate thoughts, which takes time and effort.
We can be certain that there would have been hours of unheard recording as interviewer and interviewee settle into the conversation and trust and rapport develops.
While the audio focusses on the subject talking — no other voices are distinct in each narrative — each one is multi-layered.
In some instances the shift from one space to another is subtle; in others it is directly referenced.
For example, lawyer William A. Thomas is interviewed in a quiet room before the scene shifts to his regular lunchtime haunt, where we hear the sounds of cutlery and crockery and a hubbub of background chatter. Mayoral maid Nancy takes us on a tour of the mayoral house she looks after — we hear shoes on wooden floors and the shift in the air as she takes us from room to room.
These additions all add to the multi layered narrative texture referred to by Julian Murphet in Narrative and Media, 2005.
The shifts in time are also intriguing. Though this is essentially a ‘snapshot in time’, with the audio and images recorded during the year 2009, the participants reflect on times past and the future as well as on the here-and-now.
So Nancy recalls the time Nelson Mandela visited; art restorer Teresa Zakow reflects on her shared life with her husband, who died three years earlier; home cook Eliza Smith switches back and forth from the past to the present as she tells her story.
The use of intimate photos takes this sensory experience to another level.
The collection as a whole fits with Makagon and Neuman’s (2008) observation that: “the worlds in which we live are often far more interesting than those created in fictional entertainment.”
The simplicity and the exceptional execution of the ‘One in Eight Million” project sets a marker for work of this type. The quality of the images combines with the intimacy of the oral stories to create a genuine ‘snapshot in time’ of New York that remains timeless.
Chantler, P and Stewart, T (2003), Basic Radio Journalism, Focal Press, UK
Fulton, H, with Huisman, A, Murphet, J, Dunn, A (2005), Narrative and Media, Cambridge University Press, UK
Levinson, H (2012), in speech to BBC College of Journalism
Makagon, D & Neuman, M (2008), Recording Culture: Audio Documentary and the Ethnographic Experience (Qualitative Research Methods), Sage Press, USA
Rabiger, M (1998), Directing the Documentary, Focal Press, UK
Interview with the team behind One in Eight Million, New York Times, 2010: One in 8 Million Wins an Emmy
The New York Times’ multimedia series One in 8 Million won an Emmy Award in the “new approaches to documentary…lens.blogs.nytimes.com