Monday, October 10, 2016

The Seanchai Within

by Carol

Did you ever consider that within your photography you are part of a long tradition of story telling? 

This was brought to my mind recently while listening to Elizabeth Gilbert's Magic Lessons podcast. She was counseling a woman named Colleen, who wanted very much to join the story telling movement - people who literally take the stage to tell their stories. (You might be familiar with public radio's broadcast called The Moth Story Hour, or with the podcast called Mortified, in which people (hilariously) read their childhood diaries out loud.) Colleen was struggling because her first generation parents came from Ireland and worked hard to establish themselves in this country, and to afford their children college educations. Her father eventually owned a bar in Philadelphia, and with working in that bar for years, and having a very large family, she felt that she was chock full of stories. However, she was stuck working in finance in New York, and her heart was longing for expression. Yet simultaneously she felt that she would be letting her family down if she gave up all the things they had allowed her to attain and ran off to tell stories.

You really should listen to the whole podcast. I love the way that, each week, Elizabeth listens through all the concerns  that keep people from creating, and boils them down to the nitty gritty. In this case, she prefaced her advice by saying that this is not an "all or nothing" situation. As many of us here at FOL can relate to, Colleen could use her career to support her creative habit. She could perform, join groups, travel and pursue your art while still supporting herself and using her education. 

But I was more interested in the way Liz Gilbert delved into the story-telling tradition. She assigned homework, as she often does, asking Colleen to read the Irish poets and writers. There are few countries more associated with the written word than Ireland. Even earlier history finds the oral story tellers, who kept Ireland's history alive through the ages. The podcast introduced a new word to me, and I went down the rabbit hole when I looked it up! Irish social history speaks of the seanchai .
These are the historic story tellers. In pre-literate Celtic culture, laws were not written but were sung by bards in long, lyric poems. The seanchai were well respected servants to the clan chiefs and kept track of all important information. They used all kinds of expression and speech conventions to tell their histories and their skills were passed down through the generations of their families.  Law and history existed because of them. And that defined their people and their place in this world. Their stories have been preserved in Ireland and are often performed at Gaelic celebrations. 

And so Liz convinced Colleen that the skills of story-telling are far from frivolous, are born of your heart and your history, and indeed, preserve your true identity. Story tellers are to be honored for giving us our past and our present.

Everything in these lessons related in my mind to my own pursuit of photography. We and our followers at FOL are all readers, and preservers. Whether we approach it by appreciating our pasts, or by preserving our family's future memories, our photography makes us part of the story telling tradition. Sometimes each individual image is a story in itself. Sometimes we create series or composites. Sometimes we are scrapbooking or thumb-nailing our immediate families lives.  But we are always preserving our history and defining our place. Tell us some stories in the gallery this week. Who are you and where do you come from? And remember not to belittle your contribution. Your love of  and place in the world show throughout your photography, whether or not your shots are technically perfect!

"People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact it's the other way around..."
                      Terry Pratchett


Cathy H. said...

I'm blown away this morning, Carol. This post touches me deeply. I'm so grateful that through my lens I can capture the stories that surround me and preserve them. I love your vintage books and the autograph book . . . what a treasure!

Dotti said...

Yes! We are indeed story tellers. "A picture is worth a thousand words." There is nothing I love better than a story-telling photo, which in essence, they all are. Some are just more obvious. I love photojournalism for the stories it tells, the history it leaves for future generations. We're all doing that in our own way, in our own little worlds, and in our own photo journalistic style. Ahhh, Carol! The wheels are spinning ...

kelly said...

carol this is a beautiful post. it's so funny that you mention this particular episode on her podcast because i was listening to it too! i love this idea of storytelling because no matter where my photographic journey leads me, storytelling is always at the heart of it. thank you for sharing why this matters so much. xoxoxo

Sarah Huizenga said...

I was just reading an article in the latest edition of Lenswork Magazine. In there is an article entitled Rethinking The Photograph and in the section The Background Story this excerpt struck me - "With every body of work there is a story that goes along with it. You know this because I'll bet I could ask you about any one of your photographs at random and you could tell me the story behind it -- what it is, where it is, why it is important to you to photograph it, what it means to you now, why you chose this composition, or at the very least (and least important) the production details.

"As photographers, we're not always comfortable with this aspect of consumption because we would like to think that the photograph should stand on its own. We've been taught that a good photograph shouldn't need a background story. But in fact, once known, the background story does change the way we look at a piece of art. If a background story has such power, why not use it to our benefit?"

I found this very insightful as I continue to move forward with my own work.

Jeanne said...

Thanks for sharing these podcasts.... Will definitely check them out. Storytelling is such an important part of our lives!

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