Photographs from The Shoebox
In November 2005 my mother Heather and I traveled to Heather's birthplace, a small rural town named Nhill in the wheat-belt of the Wimmera, a region near the border of the Australian states of Victoria and South Australia. It was a trip of discovery that had begun in 2002 when Heather, at the age of seventy-two, was given a shoebox of documents. This shoebox had been stored in a shed in the Wimmera for over half a century. Its contents answered many questions for Heather about her childhood. She had little knowledge of her parents or her extended family because she had been orphaned in 1941 at just ten years of age. With the discovery of the shoebox, Heather began a quest to uncover more of her family history and to meet relatives long lost to her. Our trip to the Wimmera was the beginning of these journeys that have taken Heather to the Victorian State archives, historical societies, cemeteries, the Australian War Memorial archives, the World War I battlefields of France and Belgium, and key localities from her childhood. Historian Anna Haebich describes this type of travel as genealogical tourism with 'off the beaten track' destinations 'where travelers seek emotional, personal and even spiritual contact with the past, as well as museums and archives where they search for genealogical and historical facts to embellish their memories .' I have accompanied Heather on many of these journeys and have recorded her conversations and reactions as she uncovers fragments of her history. We have also discovered an unexpectedly rich collection of family photographs, many of which Heather had not previously seen. These photographs stimulated Heather's memories about significant events of her childhood, memories; she articulates with surprising accuracy. With the combined rich resources of Heather's recorded memories, the information gleaned from the documents in the 60-year-old shoebox, research from historical archives, and our visits to key locations, I produced a web-based biographical history documentary of Heather's unique story titled The Shoebox and created an interactive online architecture to mirror its content. The narrative structure of The Shoebox is designed to accentuate the fragmentary nature of Heather's memory story. As the user explores each 360-degree panoramic scene they are prompted to access embedded clips within each scene. Once viewed these embedded fragments build on a timeline that can be played, after a specific cue, as a "traditional" linear documentary narrative with scripted beginning, middle and end. Naming this story-telling structure memoradic narrative I designed it to mimic the process of autobiographical memory recall whereby a recollection is accessed as numerous small memory packages stored throughout the brain that are combined into a comprehensive narrative by the one remembering, to another, as a continuous (personal) story. Engel explains autobiographical memory as a reconstructive process where 'one creates the memory at the moment one needs it, rather than merely pulling out an intact item, image or story. This suggests that each time we say or imagine something from our past we are putting it together from bits and pieces that may have, until now, been stored separately .' There are over 60 still photographs in The Shoebox. Some were taken by myself as Heather and I uncovered her story, others are scans of old documents found in the shoebox; the majority, however, came from Heather's family's own photographic collections circa 1915 to 1955. Selecting just six of these photographs this chapter explores the relationship between image and memory in Heather's narrative, and the use of images and oral testimony in digital history-making.
Oral history and photography