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Oral Storytelling is Touch at a Distance

"For me, the fairy tales were especially thrilling. I loved these grand and impossible stories. I loved the fantastical images I made in my mind’s eye..." - Yagazie Emezi

In the July 2023 issue of National Geographic Exploration issue titled "Chasing the Unknown," Yagazie Emezi, a self-taught documentary photographer from Aba, Nigeria, presents an essay that delves into the core of storytelling.

In the essay, 'I would like to introduce you to the storytelling that I grew up in Nigeria,' Emezi's reflections take us back to her childhood, where her father's tales of youthful escapades created vivid mental imagery.

This essay beautifully elucidates the profound impact of oral storytelling, a subject that aligns seamlessly with the mission of Talking Stories.

Emezi's father was a masterful storyteller, weaving narratives of his own remarkable experiences. He recounted tales of being “struck by lightning in medical school, how he fought of the KGB with a baton in the middle of a train station to say goodbye to his girlfriend”.

These dramatic and imaginative stories, often seemingly too grand to be true, captivated the young Emezi and others. The tales exuded a gallant and audacious spirit that was enthralling.

However, beneath the surface of these captivating stories lay another layer. Emezi suggests that these tales provided an escape from the harsh realities of growing up under a military dictatorship in Nigeria during the 1990s. They offered a temporary refuge from the turmoil and violence that plagued her community, creating a sanctuary of imagination.

In the Mind’s Eye

One line from Emezi's essay profoundly resonates: "I loved the fantastical images I made in my mind’s eye." This sentiment underscores the ethereal quality of oral storytelling.

A man ruminates on the rocks at a beach in Kerala, India.

In oral storytelling, the listener becomes an active participant, co-creating the narrative's imagery within their own mind. Unlike passive consumption of visual media, oral storytelling demands active engagement, making it a unique and intimate form of narrative.

With only a voice as your guide, you visually construct each scene in your mind's eye. The story seeps into your consciousness, unlocking your creative spirit.

Seasoned radio host Ira Glass champions audio stories as "your most visual medium." While not entirely accurate, this assertion encourages creators to transport listeners imaginatively.

Glass's renowned show, This American Life, exemplifies this approach. As a listener, you are guided through soundscapes that feel tangible. You walk alongside Glass and his producers through emotional journeys, hanging onto every descriptive word.

This essay borrows part of its title, "Touch at a Distance," from a narrative podcast episode, by the show Radio Lab.

In the episode, the podcast explores the concept that sound itself is a form of touch from afar. When sound vibrations reach our ears, we feel the storyteller's presence intimately.

This idea gave me goosebumps the first time I listened to the episode. It profoundly captured the power of oral storytelling to send your mind traveling across time and space, enabling you to live a thousand extraordinary lives.

A Shared Journey

This brings us to Emezi's evolution as a storyteller. In her adult life, she became an explorer funded by the National Geographic Society, an organization that has been supporting scientific exploration and education for over 130 years.

In this role, Emezi questions injustice and her nation's complex history through photography. Her series, "Another Tale By Moonlight," (featured in the magazine) captures surreal visions based on those she imagined as a child listening to fantastical stories. Emezi uses this art to "unpack not only my own history but also that of my country."

Sara Hernando in her studio.

In some ways, I aspire to do similar work with Talking Stories, albeit with a different focus. While my work in journalism and as a researcher allows me to delve into the socio-political discourses in our society, Talking Stories is dedicated to capturing people's stories, experiences, and memories and reflecting them through crafted portraits.

The core of our process revolves around extracting the diverse stories of people's lives through photography informed by our oral storytelling sessions.

My role as a photographer integrates my experiences and artistic style, allowing me to tune into the symbolism, metaphors, and emotions that emerge from our clients' tales. These elements are then creatively translated into photographic portraits.

That is why the photography component comes after sharing stories together. The images are not created in isolation but are informed by the narratives, perspectives, and wisdom expressed in those stories. Our storytellers (clients) play an active role in choosing locations that hold significance for them and bringing objects with personal meaning.

This essay primarily explores the world of sound and oral storytelling. In a future piece, we may delve into the impact of photography.

The power of oral storytelling, as eloquently portrayed by Yagazie Emezi's childhood recollections, offers an intimate journey into a world of imagination. The mental images woven by the storyteller's words capture the essence of this age-old art form.

Talking Stories aims to celebrate this magic and preserve the legacies that reside at the heart of these narratives.

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