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Below The Surface

Friday, September 25, 2009

What I Learned this Summer

I was on the road this summer hosting library programs for Voices, attending watershed meetings at the both ends of the Lake, and capturing stories from folks working on watershed issues. As it is with any new project or program there is a great deal of tweaking that happens as you encounter hurdles, barriers and challenges along the way. Here are some reflections on what I learned this summer.

If You Build It, They May Not Come - The model for collecting stories in the communities throughout the Lake Champlain Basin involved working with libraries to offer a program to discuss watershed issues and collect stories about the local watershed. All the libraries I worked with this summer were very excited about the project, they were fascinated with the use of technology to tell stories. The bummer part was that no one came. It didn't matter how much press we got for the program, people just didn't turn out. As the librarians expressed to me this is often the case, offering programs for adults can be a hit or miss endeavor. I did have one library with participants, but they came to share historical stories. I gave it a go regardless thinking I would figure out a way to spin the stories back to conservation. This experience revealed another flaw in the program design, the process of interviewing people to capture their stories. Not one person wanted to use the laptops with the quick capture software, they all wanted to speak one-on-one with me. Which brings me to my next lesson...

Stories Are Personal - Even before going into the libraries, I began to set up one-on-one interviews with folks who were recommended to me because they were doing interesting work in the watershed. It took a while to cultivate these contacts. Explaining the program, talking to potential interviewees on the phone, and finally scheduling a time to meet. People were sometimes apprehensive about being videotaped, or they weren't sure their story was worthy of being shared and then - they just plain didn't know me! Stories are personal. If you think about sharing your summer vacation adventures, who do you tell? What's the setting under which you recount these adventures? Who do you share the most detailed information with? I needed to build trust with each person and meet them in a place where they felt the most comfortable. With some interviewees, I spent the day with them. We went to favor spots along rivers, looked at project sites they had managed for restoration, or paddled the bay where they were pulling invasive plants. We got to know each other and only then did the camera come out to capture their connection with their watershed. Back to the one library that had folks show up - now imagine trying to interview ten people one at a time in an hour and a half. Not very comfortable, we didn't have time to get to know each other and then there's the task of editing the video. Which brings me to...

Keeping it Simple - With a video capture project you need equipment to record an interview and software to edit the resulting video. There are numerous types of camcorders from big television type cameras on tripods to hand-held camcorders to a digital camera or smart phone. Keeping in mind that most people have some apprehension about being on camera and the idea that we want the project to be easily replicated by another organization, I looked for ways to keep the process simple. I settled on using the affordable Flip camera to record interviews and, even though I took a few classes with Final Cut Pro editing software and had a friend tutor me as well, in the end I returned to iMovie on my Mac and Movie Maker on my PC at work. The Flip HD cameras have worked out wonderfully. True, the audio can be a challenge as there isn't the capability for an external mic, but I've learned how to work within it's limitations. The small Flip camera also seems to be less intimidating to the interviewee. When I sit down to talk with someone the camera becomes less of a distraction and we fall into a relaxed conversation. It produces great looking video, it's easy to carry in the field, and with the USB port it's easy to upload the video to my computer. Editing was a barrier for some time as I struggled using Final Cut Pro. My learning curve wasn't as fast as I wanted and with the video queue growing I couldn't keep up. And then it dawned on me, I was the perfect example to learn from. One of the barriers to the project itself is helping to encourage people to become creators. I am an eager creator yet still a novice. Why not use that as a model for our project's audience? Once I let go of trying to use more advanced video editing software I realized the advantage of using the basic software. I am now approaching the capturing of video in the same way that I expect the general public to approach creating video. Basic editing software like iMovie and Movie Maker are now standard programs on computers. Flip cameras and smart phone video recorders are becoming more popular; just look at the new iPod. Voices will now be looking at ways to empower people to use the tools they all ready have and will be helping them develop the skills they need to use these tools to become creators and ultimately contributors to our project.

My biggest lesson of all this summer was how to constantly and confidently reassess and redirect. Barriers turned into hurdles, challenges were met or were not met but were always used to move the project forward. I'm reworking the outreach approach for year two, continuing to play with the emergent technology that seems to be changing each day and looking at how to empower people to use this technology to share information.

Voices is about to move into year two of the project which includes launching a submit-your-own-video webpage and the design and installation of both the online and on-site exhibit. Looking forward to it!

~Bridget Butler, Voices For the Lake Manager