The Story Within

By Carole Burns

Camera Collection on Shelf in the Wakerly Technology Training Center at Marquette University.A question I often ask my digital storytelling students is “what is the story”?  They will look at me with an odd face (this is generally after I have just finished reading their first draft). What I need to explain to them that this is the main story – but they need to go deeper to find the story within the story.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, using a sliding wooden box camera, made the first permanent photograph in 1826.  My recent bite by a shutterbug has transformed my once ‘Lord of the Rings’-themed office into a sort of museum of early camera and video equipment. This new hobby has offered me the opportunity to visit local thrift stores, rummage and estate sales, and antique shops. Along the way I find many interesting stories that go along with the equipment I purchase. Some of the pieces have been passed along from grandparent to child, while others waited patiently in a back closet to be discovered. My collection includes a video camera from 1948 and at least three that used to belong to my husbands aunt. But nothing prepared me for the story I would hear when I picked up my most recent camera.

I happened upon it this past weekend when I was out spending the day with my sister. I passed the case a number of times, but the day was warm and the store lacked air conditioning. I left the piece behind, hoping to return in a week or two when the price would be lower.

That night I thought about the camera and how nicely it would fit into the cameras in my office. I checked out the value online to make sure the $19 she was asking for it was a fair price.

Sunday was a nice day—not too warm and I had nothing else planned (except some yard work—which could wait). The camera was still on my mind so I headed back to the store to check it out once more.

When I arrived, however, it was no longer in the case. A woman was working in the booth and I had asked her about it.  She was the prior owner and wasn’t sure she wanted to sell it anymore.  She had fond memories of this camera.  I spoke with her a while and found it was the first and only camera she had ever owned.  A Kodak Bantam which she had used for the past 60 years to capture everything from a trip to Paris to meet a fiancé after World War II to the recent birth of her great-grand daughter. The previous owner told me that she had hoped to keep using it as long as it worked, however, her eyesight was failing and so she felt it was time for the camera to be retired.

She asked her family members if anyone had wanted it— they all declined. She had placed the camera in the display case for sale over three months ago. The rule of the shop from which she rented space was that the price would drop every month an item remained on display. Since the item hadn’t sold this month, it would drop once more, well below ten dollars. She couldn’t bear to have it sit when she had such fond memories, so she prepared to take it back home.

I told her how I’d started collecting cameras and had come back to pick this one after seeing it the day before. I am not sure if that made her happy or sad, but she handed me the camera and told me she wanted me to have it. I knew the value of the camera and didn’t want her to part with it —especially after listening to her story. This was obviously something she valued and had provided her with photos of her now deceased husband. I insisted on paying her for the camera, it was worth her asking price.

But I received more that day than just another piece for my collection. We exchanged contact information and I will return to use her camera in a future digital story piece. We will meet at her home and she will share the memories she has placed in albums over the years.

The camera now sits on a shelf near my desk as a reminder to me to always find the story within the story.

Carole J. Burns is the Director of the Wakerly Technology Training Center at Marquette University. Follow her on Twitter @burnsy1217.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Marquette University or the Diederich College of Communication.

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