Documenting lives

When it comes to documenting the life of an individual we must balance both the public and the personal in order to arrive at a full and rounded picture of their life. Biography Work is not just about recording facts like dates, awards and contributions to public life, but the personal and intimate, the character and the shape of their personality. Since the Renaissance there has been a greater focus on the individual, but actually recording an accurate and rounded perspective has still eluded us. It brings us to the eternal question, what is a life?

Another consideration is the method of documentation. What tool do we use? Written account? Photographs? Documents? Or perhaps filmed interviews with the individual and accounts of others able to shed light on their place in the world. Whatever the medium, its important to ensure any documentation is wide-ranging and not simply the subjective account of a single individual, even if it is the subjective themselves!

An experienced interviewer will be able to shape the biographical research so addresses key themes or relevance to documenting that individual’s place in the world. Interviewing tends to stimulate new ways of thinking and often triggers memories that otherwise would be hidden from view. When people speak, they think and thinking unlocks the door to original insights. As a biographer, it’s never a good idea to have preconception about where the research will take you.

As a guide, a biographer should allow 3 days for a modest biographical interview. This can take place over consecutive days or interspersed over several weeks. Interviewing can be very intense and many digressions can occur along the way. Apart from filming individuals talking, this kind of biographical work can include footage of documents, locations and unique artefacts.