The interviews in Sephardi Voices Archive have been conducted as ‘oral history’ interviews and the interviewers have been trained how to conduct these particular interviews.
The focus of oral history interviews is the creation of life story narratives within a non-confrontational and listening environment.
The Development of Oral History
Let us explore what ‘oral history’ is and how this academic discipline has developed. This is an excerpt from Dr Bea Lewkowicz's book ‘The Jewish Community of Salonika. History, Memory, Identity’ (Valentine Mitchell: London 2006), p30- p.32:
Various definitions have been used to describe ‘oral history’ which can be both a method of research and the object of research. Roper defines ‘oral history’ as “the recording and interpretation of spoken testimonies about an individual’s past” (Roper 1996: 579), Perks suggests that “oral history - the interviewing of eye witness participants in the events of the past for the purposes of historical reconstruction - has had a significant impact upon contemporary history as practised in many countries" (Perks, 1998: x).
The development of oral history is clearly linked to the development of Alltagsgeschichte (a form of history developed in Germany focussing on the 'every day') and ‘History from Below’, which attempted to give voice to marginalised groups, in order to “give history back to the people in their own words” (Thompson, 1988). It was the aim of oral historians to challenge traditional historiography and to ‘recover’ evidence of non-elite groups. In this vein many studies were published based on interviews with women, immigrants and the working classes (Roper 1996: 579). By writing about non-dominant memories (which some scholars call ‘counter memory’), the historian transforms the standing and character of these memories because they then become, in Assmann’s words, part of the Kulturgedächtnis (cultural memory).
The work of the ‘Popular Memory Group’ has further developed this kind of approach to oral history by looking at memory as an ongoing process of contestation and resistance, in which “reading and reaction, official and unofficial, public and private” inter-penetrate (Olick and Robbins, 1998: 127). Its focus is not the memory consensus but the struggles over the construction of the past which are attributed significance for contemporary politics and individual remembering (see Popular Memory Group, 1998). The Popular Memory Group focused on struggle because it recognised the differential power of different memory agencies, such as the dominance of ‘national memory’ over other memories.
At the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, some oral historians challenged the pure ‘recovery’ and ‘gathering’ focus of oral history and asserted that “memory – personal, historical, individual, and generational” should be moved to the centre stage of analysis and not only remain the method of oral history. Frisch wrote in 1979:
Used in this way, oral history could be a powerful tool for discovering, exploring, and evaluating the nature of the process of historical memory - how people make sense of their past, how they connect individual experience and its social context, how the past becomes part of the present, and how people use it to interpret their lives and the world around them” (Frisch quoted in Perks and Thompson, 1998: 2).
In the recent work of oral historians, for example in the studies of Alessandro Portelli (1991) and Luisa Paserini (1987, 1996), the aspects which distinguish oral sources from other sources, namely subjectivity, orality, and the narrative form, are woven into the framework of analysis. Paserini’s study on ‘Ideology and Consensus under Italian Fascism’ (1987), demonstrates that the influence of public culture and ideology can be revealed in the silences, discrepancies, and idiosyncrasies of personal testimony. Portelli highlights the question of discrepancy between ‘historical facts’ and memory. He states:
The discrepancy between fact and memory ultimately enhances the value of the oral sources as historical documents. It is not caused by faulty recollections..., but actively and creatively generated by memory and imagination in an effort to make sense of crucial events and history in general...Beyond the event as such, the real and significant historical fact which these narratives highlight is memory itself (Portelli, 1991: 26).
Oral History at Sephardi Voices UK
An interview is not only about the reconstructions of historical facts and events, but also about memory, and the way somebody remembers their life. The interview process is part of the process of remembering, and it is therefore very important that the interviews are conducted in an appropriate manner, which ensures that the interviewee is listened to and can tell his or her story without being rushed.
The interviews are filmed as ‘head and shoulder’ shots and the camera stays in the same position for the entire interview. The reason for this is that ‘zooming’ in and ‘zooming out’ can give visual significance to what somebody says, and from an oral history point of view this provides an unnecessary interpretation to the narrative of the interviewee.
The Sephardi Voices UK interviews normally take place in the interviewee’s homes and often last for at least half a day, sometimes a whole day. After setting up the camera and making the interviewee comfortable, we conduct the actual interview which covers the entire life story of the interviewee. After the end of the interview, the interviewer will select a number of photographs which are filmed on full screen, while the interviewee describes the image. You can read more about the interview process here.
After the recording the interview is digitised, but not edited. The interviewee receives a copy of their contribution, and another copy goes to our archive.