A recent editorial in the New York Times got me thinking. Why is that we have boxes, albums, and electronic devices full of photos but few, if any, recordings of the voices of the people in those photos?
In his editorial, So Many Snapshots, So Few Voices Saved, writer Verlyn Klinkenborg, postulated that part of the reason is that there is a documentary formality in recording voices that has vanished from taking photos. I don’t disagree, but I wonder: Why is it that we feel okay about taking photos without formal “permission,” such as at a family gathering, but we are hesitant to record voices?
I enjoy photos as much as anyone, but for the most part, photos are one-dimensional. Voice conveys emotion, timber, dialect, accent, vocabulary choices. Photos without captions soon become irrelevant but a recorded voice can stand alone forever.
In my own work as a personal historian for nearly 13 years, my intention has always been that the final project would be the stories in the actual voice of the storyteller. Initially, other personal historians were skeptical. It was their contention that people would only want their stories in a book or on video. Only slightly daunted, I pushed ahead, and with each passing year, I’m more and more convinced of the value of preserving that amazing, unique, and too easily forgotten voice—the one that means the world to you and that, chances are, you’ll never get around to recording, as Klinkenborg notes in his editorial.
“I remember the regret I felt after my mom died, years ago, that we had no recording of her voice on tape. And yet when my dad died in 2008—same thing. Plenty of photographs, but no record of the sound of his voice.”
So why are there relatively few voice recordings from our past? I have a few ideas:
In our culture, everyone takes pictures. And if you don’t take photos, people wonder what’s wrong with you. On more than one occasion I’ve suggested, “Why don’t you just look at that sunset and enjoy it rather than trying to take a picture of it?” The truth is, few sunsets or other such scenes will ever look as good in a photo as they do right now in real life.
In our culture, everyone is always in a hurry! It takes less time to look at photos than to listen to recordings because, as the editorial says, “sound is always a function of time.” Plainly put, it takes more time to record something than it does to snap a picture. It also takes more time to listen than to glance at a photo. Perhaps we need a reminder to stop and “listen” to the roses in our lives.
Sound can be “messy” when more than one person is talking at the same time. This can make it challenging to listen to. In normal conversation, our brains can handle more than one voice at a time, but it’s different when we listen to a recording of voices, as a recent National Public Radio story on what is called the “cocktail party effect” documented.
Maybe there are so many “voices,” so much noise in our everyday life, that we just don’t think about the value of voice.
Voice is complex, it’s alive, it’s multi-dimensional, it’s extremely intimate, and (without substantial editing) it’s absolute.
“Did I say that?” Yes, you did. Perhaps people are afraid of the permanence of the recorded voice.
In my personal history career, I’ve developed a passion for recording the voice; and I’ve thought a lot about why people might be hesitant to record their voice or that of a loved one. Next week, in part two of this post, “Why Are We Hesitant to Record Voices?” I’ll look at some of the challenges.
~~ APH: Life, Story, People ~~
About today’s contributor: A child of the 60s, Gloria Nussbaum feels she was born at the opportune time to make her the perfect age to be a Personal Historian. She is old enough to remember wringer washing machines and transistor radios but young enough to love her iPad! She discovered the Association of Personal Historians in 2001 and that same year began her business, Real to Reel, recording personal stories. Gloria is passionate about preserving the actual voice of the storyteller.
Photo of APH Conference by Brina Bolanz.