Make Video History

You make history all the time though you probably don’t think about it that way.

People often think of history as involving significant public figures and events, not average people doing things in their everyday lives.  Of course, we are the central actors in our own lives and we are part of our own and collective histories of people in our networks.

Social scientists study “artifacts,” which are any things that people create.  They can provide useful clues about people’s lives.  Museums are full of such things.  Even things like grocery lists and text messages can be historical artifacts, even though people don’t create them for that purpose.

We all do purposely make some artifacts to serve as historical mementos.  That’s the purpose of photographs, for example.

Increasingly, people are making videos, which are remarkably vivid and powerful artifacts.

As you may have heard, I love taking and sharing photos.  I love taking and sharing videos exponentially more because it includes the two extra dimensions of time and sound.  As a result, videos can be infinitely more powerful artifacts of our lives than still photos.

In this post, I describe my experiences with video history and hope to inspire you to make some video history of your own.  This doesn’t particularly involve dispute resolution, so if this is not your cup of tea, it’s time to move on.

My Video History

In the mid 1980s, I got a videocamera and in the following decades I shot more than 120 hours of video.  I knew that the videotapes in my cassettes would deteriorate over time and so I decided to digitize them by copying them as mp4 files on my computer.

I recently finished that project, including cutting up the videos into distinct clips and sharing them with friends and relatives who were in the videos or cared about people who were.

This digitizing process made the videos so much more accessible.  Instead of having a single set of cassette tapes in a box that few people, myself included, would watch, I was able to give people copies of separate, identifiable clips that they could watch on their computers at their convenience.

If you got a video of your loved ones from 20+ years ago, can you imagine what a gift that would be – especially if they were no longer with you?

Over the years, I shot various things including some you would expect like little kids, pets, vacations, public ceremonies, parties, and so on.

I also shot a series of interviews.  I always have been interested in making records of things, which suited me well to be a lawyer and social scientist.

I started by making videos to record an oral history of my parents who were in their 60s and 70s.  I have a lousy memory and my parents knew lots of family stories, so I wanted to have a record for when they weren’t here anymore.  I have a niece, who was about 10 at the time, and I wanted to make a record for her.  She wouldn’t be interested in or appreciate my family’s stories at that point but might in the future.  I was very right about that.  She is now in her early 40s and was over the moon to get the videos recently.

I also made a video oral history of Thelton Henderson, who is now a senior status federal judge in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I met him when he was in private practice and I did an externship with him in my 3L year.  We have been friends ever since.  Thelton is a remarkable story-teller and he had amazing stories to tell.  In the early 1960s, he was the only black lawyer working in the Civil Rights Division of the US Justice Department in the South.  As the civil rights movement heated up, he became a back channel between the Kennedy Administration and the civil rights movement.  He knew many of the top figures in both groups and, in his interviews, he provided fascinating behind-the-scenes profiles of some of them including Martin Luther King, Jr.  By the time we did the interviews, he was in his mid-50s and had been appointed to the federal bench.  During six hours of interviews, we started by talking about his family and childhood, and then systematically worked our way through his time in college, the Army, law school, private practice, Justice Department, Stanford Law School administration, and on the bench.  I have visited him several times since we did the initial interviews and we have made more videos about him and his work.  He is appropriately discreet – and able to tell great stories based on public information.

In 1989, I left the Bay Area to go to Wisconsin for grad school.  I had lived in the Bay Area since 1975.  That’s where I went to law school, practiced law and mediation, and developed a substantial circle of friends.

A good friend hosted a goodbye party for me and we set up the video camera in a room where friends gave a series of short interviews telling of our experiences together and giving me their good wishes as I departed for the snows of Wisconsin.  I haven’t watched the alleged “reality” tv shows, but the goodbye party interviews probably were like those on tv, except probably a tad more realistic.

At other times before I left, my friends did video interviews of me, asking what I expected from my school and career.  Some other videos I did at that time were interviews and others were conversations.

I lived in the same apartment during my entire time in the Bay Area and before I left, I made a tape touring the apartment along with my dear departed cat, Bubba.

Over the years after that, I used videos to introduce my family and my romantic partners’ families to each other.  We would make short video interviews of each family that we would physically transport and show to the other family.  Of course, these days we could do this synchronously with convenient video conferencing, but that wasn’t available back then.  I also made some great videos with my young step-kids, including interviews of them and the famous throw-Alex-on-the-bed scenes.

Having digitized and organized the videos into clips, I now am in the process of watching them and reliving my past.  My parents and many of my relatives on the videos no longer are alive and yet watching even 10 seconds of a video virtually brings them back to life.

I also have fabulous video portraits of various friends.  Some I have stayed in touch with and, unfortunately, others not.  It’s particularly neat to see videos of young kids who now are young adults.

The videos also display a younger me.  Often this was from behind the camera, but sometimes in front.  As you can imagine, I was fascinated to see what I looked and sounded like and how I viewed the world when we made the tapes many years ago.

I documented several places I lived, bringing back detailed memories of parts of my life I had forgotten.  More dramatically, I have videos of some vacations to cool places, some of which I will never see again.

As time passes, our histories inevitably constitute ever-increasing proportions of lives.  Our relatives, friends, and lovers inevitably age and some move away and die.  It gets harder to bring back our histories as events constantly recede farther away in time and our experiences pile up.

So having video recordings of our histories can be an incredibly valuable part of our lives and those of our loved ones.  They are much better artifacts than grocery lists and text messages.

Make Your Own Video History

Probably most readers of this blog are somewhere in middle age.  Think about your friends and relatives who are in the generation before you.  Would you like a way to remember them before they get much older and die?  Would you like to have a record of them for the next generation, who may never actually know them or know them only when they were children?  Would you like your children and other relatives to have a way to remember you as you are now, before you age much more?  And, of course, would you like to have videos of your kids to remember how they were when they were little – and later embarrass them in front of their boyfriends and girlfriends?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then making video history should be for you.

Fortunately, it is so much easier to make videos now than when I started.  Cell phones routinely have video functions as do digital cameras.  Dedicated camcorders are remarkably cheap, compact, and easy to use.  You can make videos by recording video conversations using programs like zoom.  Of course, the videos are already digitized, so they are easy to handle and share.  There are lots of video editing programs that enable you to do basic editing tasks as well as create a zillion special effects.

Of course, people make videos all the time these days and share them through a growing set of social media programs.  So people already are making video histories.

Based on my experience, I encourage you to do this thoughtfully and systematically, and not make all of your videos to memorialize your drunken parties.

I particularly like doing oral history interviews.  They are cooperative efforts between the interviewer and interviewee to elicit interesting and important experiences in people’s lives.  These are essentially semi-structured interviews in which the interviewer asks some basic questions and then follows the discussion wherever both people want it to go.

It’s good to develop a general plan in advance about the topics you will cover.  If you google “oral history questions,” you will find some great ideas for things to ask.  It’s really helpful to use a tripod so that viewers aren’t distracted by shaky images.  I also recommend having people look right into the camera, as if it was the person they are talking to.  That can feel odd as they naturally want to look at the interviewer.  So it helps if the interviewer is right behind or next to the camera.

Some interviews become more like conversations, when interviewers share more of themselves as well as ask things about the interview subjects.

Interview-conversations need not document an entire history.  Indeed, you can focus on anything you want and don’t need to limit the conversation to historical narratives.  For example, I had some conversations with parents of young kids and we talked about their expectations about parenting and the future in general.  They also told a charming story about how they met and their early courtship.  So it was great to make a detailed record for their kids while the details were fairly fresh in their minds.

I really like the process of setting up a quiet video room at a party and making a series of mini-interviews.  I have done this at several parties and the results have been fantastic.  We developed a short guide for interviewers and had different people conduct interviews – sometimes right after they had been interviewed by others.

Making video introductions to others – like romantic partners’ families – can produce remarkable historical records for the future.  Though people now can have immediate, synchronous video conversations without making recordings, I found the ones I did to be wonderfully revealing.  Of course, if you have such video conversations now, you can record and keep them as historical records of your family

You can upload videos on YouTube and probably lots of other programs, making it easy to share them with others.  I get spooked by insecurity on the internet, even with password protection, so I have shared my videos by using flash drives.  Flash drives constantly are being improved so that they store increasing amounts of data at lower costs.   Obviously, this is a bit more expensive and cumbersome than uploading videos on the internet, so you can take your pick how you want to do it.

You can’t watch videos that haven’t been made.  So it’s a good idea to start making them soon.  You’re not getting any younger, you know.

Feel free to email me if you want some advice about making some video history of your own.

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