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Behind the lens of NOLAbeings: On quoting strangers

Creator of NOLAbeings Claire Bangser sat down with NolaVie and revealed aspects of her editing strategy. 

How do you edit someone else's personal story?

As part of my NOLAbeings portrait project, I talk with people every day about their lives. I ask personal questions and do a lot of listening. When a response has naturally ended, I usually follow up and ask more questions -- sometimes on the same topic, sometimes not. It's not rocket science; it's an interview. But how do you take a 10-minute or hour-long conversation with a stranger and pick just a sound bite to share? How do you do justice to the experiences the person has shared with you?

The process of transcribing and editing conversations -- boiling them down into short quotes -- has taught me that, no matter how hard I try to remove myself from the equation, my own (metaphorical and actually also physical) lens will have a huge influence on the end product. I am the one deciding what questions to ask; I am taking the photos; I am selecting the words and image that will ultimately represent this person in front of an audience.

With this power comes a great responsibility to put as much of that work into the interviewee's hands as possible. If a conversation has hit a dead end, I'll ask “What do you want to talk about?” or “What's on your mind as you walk around today?” And later, if chosing between multiple quotable moments in a long conversation, I'll tend toward the quote that best represents the person in that moment (or at least the way they shared themself with me).

Walking along Bayou St. John last weekend with my friend Erika, our ears were tickled by the melodic tunes of a violinist serenading his sweetie by the water. First I took pictures from a distance, but then I approached Donald and Christina, and we began to talk.

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The conversation started sort of like an interview -- me wondering if this violin serenade was a special occasion or something that happens often, wanting to know more about their relationship with each other, and expressing a deep curiosity as to how Donald found his passion for music. But the conversation continued for over an hour. Christina's cousin and my friend Erika joined in, too. Soon, I was no longer recording, and we were all just hanging out.

From experiencing Donald and Christina's personalities with the microphone turned off, it became easy to identify the quote that I thought would represent them best for the project. I selected a quote that revealed their dynamic with one another and touched upon Donald's roots of inspiration: the use of music to connect with people.

Instead of trying to find one all-encompassing phrase that attempts to represent a whole person or experience, I have come to seek that moment of insight that shines a little light on to something unique about a person -- something we might not learn just from merely 'hello'-ing them on the street (or Bayou), something that leads us all to a little deeper understanding of what or who is here, all around us, all of the time.

Claire Bangser is a New Orleans-based photographer and filmmaker with a passion for storytelling. She is the creator of NOLAbeings and has produced work for local, national, an international organizations and media since 2009. Highlights include a three-month bike tour storytelling project on the west coast, documentation for a four-month National Geographic Young Explorer’s grant in Turkey, and New Orleans-based digital storytelling projects like Cry You One and BOUDIN: The New Orleans Music Project. Find more of her work at www.clairebangser.com.