2020 was an interesting year for oral historians. If we wanted to continue our work, we needed to adapt our methods of interviewing. In this blog, I will reflect on my experience of conducting socially distanced interviews via Zoom, as well as in interviewees’ gardens and homes.
Interviewing via Zoom
I conducted my first Zoom interview in April 2020. As a complete novice I was lucky to get instructions from my interviewee, Martin Stern MBE, an active Holocaust educator, who at that point had already given numerous presentations on Zoom and knew all about screen backgrounds, external microphones and appropriate lighting.
We arranged our first meeting and subsequently had three more sessions. I found the interview very engaging and felt that I was sitting in the room with Martin. I did, however, feel that after two hours, it began to be tiring to look at the screen. We therefore ended up having four sessions and since the interview did not involve any travel time or booking of a cameraman, this was easily done.
I was surprised that remote interviewing was so easy to do. There were some drawbacks, however. As any trained oral historian knows, one should try not to interrupt the narrative of the interviewee. This proved to be especially difficult on Zoom. Due to the slight time delay of sound, it is sometimes inevitable that the interviewer and interviewee will talk across each other and I found it harder to indicate to the interviewee that I would like to ask another question or ask for a clarification.
Keeping the screen on ‘speaker view’ created another problem. The filmed screen is switched automatically to the speaker, who makes a sound, and sometimes the screen switches while someone is speaking. This can look messy, so my preference was to keep the recording on ‘gallery view’, which records the interviewee and interviewer side by side. I also think this better conveys the nature of the interview for anyone who will watch it at a later date.
The next Zoom interview was very different. Although I had arranged a pre-interview session on the phone and tried to make sure that the image and sound of the interviewee’s device would be as best as it could be, neither the image nor the sound was very clear. This made it difficult to carry out a proper interview and I felt the technology did not allow me to connect to the interviewee. Following a few failed attempts to meet on Zoom, the interview remains unfinished.
So, it is very clear that the ability to carry out a remote interview depends on the tech literacy of the interviewee and the interviewer and therefore might simply be unsuitable to some.
When the first lockdown came to an end, I was keen in getting back to in-person interviewing. Due to the good weather in the summer of 2020, we were lucky enough to be able to carry out a few socially distanced interviews in private gardens. Yet, the biggest obstacle in this instance was noise interference and the change in weather, and we often found ourselves having to move inside to the house, or at least move the interviewee inside while the cameraman and myself remained outside.
We managed to sit for almost 6 hours in the garden of 98-year-old Dutch resistance fighter Selma van De Perre. Although I had to sit more than 2 meters apart from her, our communication worked well. It reminded me that in-person interviewing is very different from an interview on Zoom. There are so many more things you notice when you meet the interviewee in person. You see the interviewee in their own environment and you can see and hear them without the mediation of a screen.
The garden interview was followed up by a Zoom session where we talked about Selma’s photos and documents that we could not film properly because of social distancing. If the interviewee is familiar with Zoom, they can even ‘screenshare’, which makes it the perfect medium for looking at photographs and also capturing the voice of the interviewee. But even without screen sharing, this can work very well and is a wonderful follow-up to the in-person interview. This might be an interesting option to explore for the future.
In some cases, interviewees preferred to be interviewed in their homes, despite the risk posed by COVID- 19. While we managed to stay mostly socially distanced, I found it particularly difficult when interviewees were not keeping to the ‘rules’. Yet, it seemed wrong for me to tell off interviewees in their own homes.
Now, in late April 2021, the situation has changed again, many interviewees have been vaccinated twice, as have the interviewers and cameramen. So should we go back to in-person interviews?
My feeling is that we need to make case by case judgements. I think that Zoom interviewing will stay with us as it makes the cost of interviewing cheaper and does offer a viable alternative to face to face interviewing. On Zoom, one can also interview two people who are not in the same location. Last year, I interviewed Eve Willman BEM, who had come to the UK on a Kindertransport as a five-year-old, and her great-niece. It was wonderful to facilitate a conversation between them about Eve’s experiences during a time when we could not have met in person. Some interviewees might also be happier to be interviewed on Zoom because it is less time intensive than an in-person encounter. On the other hand, some interviewees will prefer the social interaction that an in-depth face to face oral history interview has to offer.
I believe the pandemic has created a silver lining for oral historians. It’s created new interviewing opportunities that might stay with us for the foreseeable future. Future oral history research will no doubt examine how our new ways of interviewing will have shaped the creation and content of oral history interviews. I look forward to reading these findings.