How to Use Tech to Capture Your Family History

In less than 10 years, one in five Americans will be over 65 years old. As our parents and grandparents age, we grow one day closer to losing the opportunity to learn their life stories. The good news is that with the various recording options available, you don’t have to be an award-winning filmmaker or videographer to preserve your loved one’s history.

Throughout our Midwest childhood, my siblings and I wanted to learn more about our relatives who perished in the atrocities of World War II. We were eager to discover details about our dad’s life during the war, but at the same time, none of us wanted to upset him by conjuring painful memories. Also, my mom was adamant that we not bring up the subject.

Soon after his 91st birthday, I asked my dad if he would let me film his stories about what he experienced during the Holocaust. Segments I taped with my GoPro were clear, but the background audio hissed like a den of rattlesnakes. During subsequent tapings, I relied on my iPhone to capture additional memories. I’ve since discovered several strategies and resources to film others.

Getting Started

First, don’t assume that your subject will agree to be interviewed. Last year I asked my mom to let me record her life story. Her response? “No. I don’t have anything to say.” It turns out that her attitude is common.

“There are times when you find someone who says, ‘No one wants to hear my story,’” says Kate Carter, founder and CEO of LifeChronicles, a nonprofit that records life stories of seniors and seriously ill patients. She suggests telling a loved one, “This would mean so much to me and to future generations of our family.” By making it about the family, it takes the pressure off the person being asked to share their memories.

Decide: Video, Audio, or Both

A visual recording is more engaging and lets you see the subject’s expressions, but not everyone is comfortable in front of the camera. Consider a combination of audio and video recordings. When I asked my dad questions such as “What did you like to do as a child?” I filmed him. When he shared thoughts about growing older and his feelings about death, I used my voice app. It felt too intrusive to point my phone at him while he described dreams he was having of finally seeing his family decades after they died. Whichever method you choose, the goal is the same: to preserve a loved one’s thoughts and stories.

Choose Equipment That Works for You

When I switched to my iPhone, I didn’t expect to be impressed with the quality. Considering that some production companies and documentarians use smartphones to film their projects, I figured why not do the same? The key advantages to using your smartphone are cost, simplicity, and convenience. I never knew when my dad was going to share a story I hadn’t heard. The more time I spent with him, the more questions I asked, turning several visits into impromptu taping sessions. I could have used an action camera again, this time with a lavalier microphone, or rented a professional camera, but I stuck with my iPhone. After all, the best camera is the one you have with you and know how to use.

Keep your phone or video camera steady by using a tripod, and shoot horizontally—in landscape orientation—to avoid leaving a space on each side of the frame. Until I sought out advice from Randy Martin, director and showrunner at AMS Pictures in Dallas, I hadn’t considered using earbuds with a smartphone. Martin also suggests touching the screen while focusing on your subject’s face so the phone knows it’s your focal point. “Once you see that, it exposes their face, and they don’t look like they’re in the witness protection program,” he says.

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