Case Study: The Haiti Memory Project
I had no experience with oral history when I stepped off the plane into the dusty heat of Port-au-Prince in June 2010, but frankly, I’m glad I didn’t. If I knew more, I might have talked myself out of taking on a project as ambitious as the Haiti Memory Project (HMP).
My goal seemed simple enough: To document how Haitians living in the capital interpreted the January 2010 earthquake and the impact it had on their lives. Though I lacked training and funds, it was crucial to do the interviews as soon after the disaster as possible, before the memories faded as stories were repeated and refined, others’ experiences were absorbed, and interceding events changed the meanings of the history. Waiting around for institutional support could have stalled the project indefinitely. But what I found was that without extensive planning, the project kept shifting under my feet, changing in response to the experience I gaining. Nonetheless the project has been a success because despite my learning curve, I managed to document stories that will be important for interpreting the full range of meanings ascribed to of one of the most destructive natural disasters in recent history. Alessandro Portelli writes that the best guideline for oral history may be simply “minding our manners”. After my experience learning oral history through doing it, I am certain he’s right. I’ve concluded that if approach your participants with the deepest respect and honesty, you will guide yourself towards and meaningful and ethical oral history project even if you are figuring it out as you go along.
When the earthquake struck, I was a first year graduate student at New York University. As a student of Haitian history I was acutely aware that those few seconds had utterly transformed the country’s future. I also knew from my experience studying Haiti’s past that the people most directly impacted by poverty and destruction rarely leave traces in traditional archives. Oral history was the obvious methodological choice because it is one of the only ones that permits us to document the insights and perspectives of ordinary people in a culture where literacy is not the norm.
I spent the first two weeks getting my bearings and building contacts before beginning my initial tentative interviews. At first, the experience was nerve-wracking, even harrowing. I didn’t know how to formulate meaningful questions or use the support of my friends who agreed to translate for me. Much to my horror, I once even accidentally deleted an hour long interview.
After a few weeks of interviewing people daily, I started to feel more at ease in the position on the interviewer. I hired a student, Valerie Michaud to work with me daily as a fixer, translator, and collaborator. I met Valerie in a group interview I did with students who had volunteered in hospitals in the wake of the earthquake and was impressed by her eloquence and wit. In the fall she went back to school and I began working with her older brother, Stanley, who has become a major collaborator on the HMP. Developing these relationships was essential to the project’s maturity because they helped stabilize the quality of interviews and offered a lot insight I couldn’t have gathered on my own. My language skills and my confidence greatly improved with experience and enhanced the quality of the interviews.
No longer as daunted by the challenges I faced building an oral history project from scratch, I ended up extending the project from six weeks p to six months (thanks also to the support of my dissertation adviser who gave me encouragement). I found the key to the HMP’s success was a relaxed, flexible approach to my methodology. My Olympus LS-10 audio recorder was small and unobtrusive, which permitted me to do interviews in all kinds of settings: cars, tents, houses, parks; on benches and street corners. I approached potential participants on the street, and wherever they wanted to talk, I made sure I was ready to listen. The informality allowed me to interview people spontaneously without having ask them to commit any more time than it took to do the interview. Some of the subjects were so animated that I would have liked to use video, but I find the audio recordings satisfying. The sound quality was excellent and the voices are well captured while the audio remains expressive of the time and place.
But a consequence this flexible approach was a lack of focus. The earthquake had affected millions. It was a entire city almost entirely populated with survivors. As I spent more time interviewing I began to worry that by interviewing whomever, wherever, that I wasn’t really in control of the scope of the project. Was I trying to document stories from the entire society? Of only people living in Port-au-Prince’s pervasive camps? After much consideration I settled on a urban geographical approach that emphasized the city of Port-au-Prince itself by doing interviews in distinctly different neighborhoods throughout the city, from the most well-to-do to the most impoverished. This allowed me to categorize the interviews I had done ad-hoc and plan a more organized approach for future interviews. By the end of 2010, I had conducted over 100 interviews with survivors in three languages, ranging from twenty minutes to two and a half hours.
When I first began planning the HMP, my goal was to someday donate the interviews to a traditional library or archive. But after living in Haiti for awhile, it dawned on me that storing the interviews in a library would guarantee that few people, especially not the men and women whose stories compose the HMP, would ever have access to them. Instead I decided to build a WordPress website that would provide internet access to the recordings. People could listen and download the interviews on their own without the intermediates of a library or a transcript.
Building a website put me into conversation with the budding digital humanities movement, which was an important step for gaining support for the HMP. After returning to the States I met Dr. Douglas Boyd of the Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky. Doug offered to lend the HMP institutional support and integrate the interviews and website into the Nunn Center’s digital collection. He also began overseeing some transcriptions, which will be used to highlight the bilingual component to the OHMS software he is currently developing.
I have also since taken major steps to develop myself professionally as an oral historian, including classes and workshops and participation in other New York based projects. The training will help me improve the next stage of the HMP and develop new projects. But the knowledge I gained through experience remains critical to my thinking and has helped me identify some lacuna in my formal knowledge and training. I need to familiarize myself with more methods for working with extremely poor and illiterate communities. For example, I have been challenged by the importance of the text in oral history. Many in the oral history field advocate an empowerment model that encourages participants to exercise authority over how they are represented in the final document through editing transcripts. Is this possible when working with people for whom where literacy is not the norm? If it is possible (perhaps by returning to participants and reading the transcripts to them?), then is it logistically practical when people are in unstable living situations? If the audio recording is the primary file, how can I extend the opportunity to edit it? I currently don’t have answers to any of these questions; these are some of the unanticipated ethical concerns I am struggling with as the HMP advances.
When considering these issues, I take solace in Alessandro Portelli’s suggestion that oral history ethical guidelines are merely the formalization of the deeper spirit of oral history. This is comforting advice for novices like myself who are at the beginning their relationships with oral history. While training and experience are invaluable, they cannot replace an inner compass that guides many people to oral history in the first place. “Ultimately, in fact ethical and legal guidelines only make sense if they are the outward manifestation of a broader and deeper sense of personal and political commitment to honesty and truth.” As I experiment with methods that fit the particulars of my project, I try to do so with respect and integrity, or as Portelli would say, “mind my manners.” My advice to other neophyte oral historians is to not be discouraged by what you don’t know. Keep in mind that when dealing with unfamiliar challenges you might be surprised to find how often your solutions overlap with already existing methodological frameworks. And where they don’t, you probably have something to learn, but you might have a valuable new perspective to offer.
Citation for Article
Payton, C. (2012). Case study: the haiti memory project. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/haiti-memory-project/.
Payton, Claire. “Case Study: The Haiti Memory Project,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/haiti-memory-project/
This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project (http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu) sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Please consult http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/about/rights/ for information on rights, licensing, and citation.