Organizing Photos and Documents for the LifeStory

You’ve gone through the first steps in preparing for the LifeStory interview. You’ve determined your “why”, had your Pre-Interview Questionnaire (PIQ) meeting and filled out the PIQ form. Now it’s time to gather photos and documents for the LifeStory. While this might seem like an overwhelming task, it’s easier than you think. Here are a few helpful hints:

Helpful Hint #1 – Specify the Categories of Photos and Quantity for Each Category – Without specifying the categories of photos and quantity of each you want to include, you could be inundated by the garage-full of boxes containing decades of photos. By “categories of photos” I mean the specific groups you want to include. For instance, the category of “family” should be broken down into grandparents, parents, siblings, children, etc. Then be sure to specify the maximum number of photos for each category. For large families, you might need to ask for only group photos of the family at different decades of history instead of photos of each individual person. In the category of “military service” you might just want one photo taken at or near induction, and one at each location stationed or each assignment of duties.

Helpful Hint #2 – Ask for Only Documents That Tie to the PIQ Info Gathered – If the interviewee mentioned that their name was changed from the original birth certificate (or another unique story involving the certificate), I’ll include a copy of the certificate. Otherwise, I do not include birth certificates. Certainly marriage certificates are included, but the marriage license and other documents are not. Don’t forget to ask for love letters and other correspondence that will evoke heart-felt emotion. The first Mother’s Day or holiday cards written by children are a nice touch. Certificates of awards, rewards or accolades could be included, but be careful to limit these or, otherwise, they could get out of hand! Asking for only those documents and photos that tie to the PIQ information will narrow the selection by a large amount.

Helpful Hint #3 – Labeling the Photos and Documents – If you are doing a LifeStory on a family member, you might assume you can identify all the people in the photos you’ve gathered…but don’t! To be accurate with this step of the LifeStory process, bring a few pads of Post-It notes when gathering the actual photos. Write specifically who is in the photo and where they appear in the photo on the note and stick it to the back of the photo. NEVER write directly onto the back of a photo! I’ve seen priceless photos permanently ruined by pens and, God forbid, permanent ink bleeding through from careless inscription made on the back. The proper identification of people in each photo is essential to making the editing process of the LifeStory video smooth and easy. You would hate to have, after the project is finished, a relative to claim, “That’s not Uncle Moe, that’s Uncle Curly!”

Helpful Hint #4 – Scanning the Photos and Documents – While technology has made it easier and more affordable to scan your own photos and documents, it can be very time-consuming. I suggest hiring a professional to do this for you. While most major metropolitan areas have professionals who specialize in this, I recommend Kim Nixon at Picture This! . She is professional and reasonable with the pricing of her work. Although she is here in Austin, Texas, she handles projects shipped to her from across the nation.

In my next blog post, we’ll cover doing the research and formulating the questions for the LifeStory interview.

Top 5 Tips for a Fun Grandparents Day LifeStory Project

Grandparents Day this year falls on September 11. As we solemnly commemorate the tenth anniversary of the September 11th tragic events, we should celebrate life as well. And while Grandparents Day isn’t the most known or celebrated day in the U.S., make this one a special one by starting a Grandparents LifeStory Project. Here are my top 5 tips for doing a Grandparents LifeStory and making it special and fun:

Tip #1 – The Grandchild is the Interviewer – The grandchild should videotape an interview he conducts with the grandparent(s). Make it simple and fun by taking the project in small bites and continuing it throughout the year. Of course, the involvement of the grandchild will depend on his or her age, but I’ve seen really well done work by third-graders! All it takes is a tripod, a video (or audio device if video is unavailable) camera, a quiet enough place to shoot and a little bit of preparation.

Tip #2 – Preparation (KISS) – Preparation should be easy, so remember KISS (Keep it Simple, Silly). Instead of doing an entire LifeStory in one sitting like I do at LifeStories Alive, cover one subject at a time to celebrate the event of the day. Make The Grandparent LifeStory Project a year-long project that might continue with another short piece filmed on Halloween, then Thanksgiving, the Christmas or Hanukkah (you get the pattern here).

Tip #3 – Questions to Ask – Start by asking five to ten questions only. Since this is Grandparents Day, you might start with, “Today is Grandparents Day 2011. Describe how it felt to become a grandfather (or grandmother) for the first time?” Asking “feeling” questions should always generate an emotional, open-ended response. You might follow with, “Does being a grandparent change as I grow older?” Have fun with the questions, too. If you feel comfortable doing it, ask, “So honestly, Grandpa, who is your favorite grandchild?”  More unprepared questions and answers will naturally appear during the interview. Be sure to go with the flow and let them happen.

Tip #4 – Other Family Members – This tip can be a tricky one because you want to be fair with everyone and not leave someone out. The upside of including other family members is that some wonderful, touching moments can happen when others chime in and talk about these special loved ones. Just be sure the number of people included doesn’t get out of hand. KISS says you might want to keep it to just the grandparent(s). Whatever decision you make will be the right one.

Tip #5 – Editing and Archiving – What do you want the final product to look like? This is where editing comes into play. Do-it-yourself editing software is getting easier to do and less expensive by the year. If you have a Apple Mac computer, it should have iMovie as a built-in editing software already there. Try editing the video yourself. If you don’t want to tackle it, hire a professional. I might be able to help you there. Be sure to save or archive the project properly. Buy external hard drives for your project or upload it to “the cloud” (virtual storage offsite). I’d hate for a priceless project like this to be lost because you forgot to back it up.

Bonus Tip #6 – Have Fun! – Unfortunately, grandparents will not be with us forever. So have fun while they are here and have the memories you capture with them be happy ones!

Have a Happy Grandparents Day!

I Now Know Why I Do What I Do

Today I saw the movie, Sarah’s Key . Through the tears I heard in my heart an amazing message that transcends the story on the screen…I now know why I do what I do. Without giving away the storyline and plot, I will just encourage each of you to see it. I want you to gather the message that means something to you from this wonderful work of art.

The message that moved me was the tremendous impact that the discovery of a family’s story can have on an individual. A discovery not just affecting those who biologically are connected to the story, but the storyteller as well. This film is as much about the storyteller as it is the story itself. As a storyteller, I have found it difficult to describe the amazing feeling of connecting generations of families by uncovering and recording via live videotaped interviews the stories of the older generations. This movie provides a good description of that feeling.

Please see it for yourself and let me know what you think. My wife, Linda, read the book and has given it to me to read. I’m sure it is good, but I do not know if the impact the motion picture had on me can be surpassed. I know now, however, why I do what I do at LifeStories Alive, and for that, I am grateful.

Who, What, When & Where – The Pre-Interview Questionnaire (PIQ) Form (continued)

We’ve gathered the Basic Interviewee Information and Early Life PIQ form facts in our last blog post . Now it’s time to continue chronologically through the interviewees’s life and gather the facts about Adult Years, Family Background and Specific Life Stories.

For the PIQ purposes, I consider Adult Years to begin after graduation from high school or at about age 18 (if there was no graduation for the interviewee). The first subject I include here is military history since many of my interviewees entered the US military after graduation from high school. To get what I want regarding military history, I developed a chart with columns that include date of service, country, branch (of military), rank attained, place stationed and primary assignments. This is an important category for your research for two reasons: 1) to properly ask questions about their military service, you must follow the chronologic and geographic journey taken; and 2) their stories of military experience are usually the periods of time in their lives they have talked least about with other family members and, therefore, are the most requested unknown life stories you will be asked to capture.

Adult Years continue with a chart of primary occupations,  a list of awards & rewards earned, a chart of health history, a list best friends as an adult and a list of current activities they do for fun. Be especially sensitive when approaching the subject of health history. If the interviewee has experienced some very “personal” health challenges in their history (whether involving physical on mental health), they may not want to address it. My position is that’s okay with me. I want the interviewee to maintain a comfort level with me in order to share what they want during the interview itself. If I push too hard gathering health history they are embarrassed about, I risk losing the trust I need during the interview…and that’s something I cannot afford to lose!

Family Background is the next PIQ section and includes the details you want about grandparents, parents, siblings, spouse(s), children and grandchildren. Keep in mind here when constructing your form that there is no family that is “typical”. Parents can be step-parents, adoptive parents or guardians. Children can be by birth, adopted, or step-children. Each atypical category creates great life questions to ask during the interview.

The last category of information I want to gather from the PIQ form is Specific Life Stories. For this I make a numbered list (1 to 15) with long blanks after each number. I ask the interviewee, “Are there any specific life stories you would like me to ask about during the interview that I will not have gathered from the facts I just filled in. For instance, you might be thinking, ‘Don’t forget to ask me about this particular Thanksgiving, last one before my mother died’ or ‘There’s a story I love telling about how I tormented my sister as a kid’.” You will probably have heard this info during many times earlier during the PIQ meeting, so be prepared during the meeting to “fast-forward” to this page often. This is the part of the PIQ form you may want to ask other family members to chime in on. Some of the “juiciest” stories come from this info.

In my next blog post, we’ll cover gathering photos, documents and mementos.