Among personal historians the topic of honesty in interviews is a recurring topic. We want to ensure that our interviews illuminate the depth of a person’s life and not simply skim across the surface. Questions arise about how far we should go to uncover the “truth” of a life lived.
I’ve done hundreds of interviews in my twenty-five years as a documentary filmmaker and personal historian. The interview subjects have included political leaders, prominent artists, historians, the dying, and the elderly.
This is what I’ve learned:
- People will tell me only what they are prepared to tell me. No amount of clever or challenging questioning will change that fact. And I respect my client’s wishes.
- The interview is not about me and my agenda. My focus is always on my client and his or her needs.
- I must have the courage to ask reflective and sometimes difficult questions. We owe it to our clients to raise questions that no one else may ask. “What have been the regrets in your life?” or “What are your fears around dying?” However, going back to my first point, I’m aware that asking the questions doesn’t always elicit a full response.
- I am not a therapist. My role is to help a person tell their story, not to make them better. I’m aware though that through the process of interviewing healing can occur for a client.
- Clients will sometimes reveal information to me that they have told no one. Having revealed this information they may not want it preserved in print or video for the whole world to know and may ask that it be deleted.
- The degree to which people confide in me is directly proportional to the trust I’m able to establish. This means that in my initial interviews I cover soft, easy topics like happy childhood memories or descriptions of a childhood home. Once the client and I have been together for a number of sessions, then I raise some of the more challenging questions.
- I’m not an investigative journalist. Getting at the truth is critical for an investigative journalist. Compassion can be an impediment to their work. I’m a personal historian and my need for honesty is tempered by compassion for my client.
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