Some of us attended a workshop on “flood stories” in Cardiff yesterday. Well, attended is probably the wrong term, because Lindsey gave a presentation there, and she, Iain and Owain had been involved in the organization of the workshop. The workshop was part of the AHRC funded “sister project” of ours, a network-in-the-making on Living Flood Histories.
There were a number of presentations on various forms of storytelling, including digital stories, journalism, undergraduate research projects, interviews with flood victims, and an art exhibition. Karen Lewis from the University of Glamorgan talked about the concept and applications of “digital stories” – the 21st century equivalent of postcards, i.e. a succinct combination of words and images. Pioneered by Joe Lambert and Dana Atchley, this form of stories is to give ordinary people a means to formulate their own narratives, usually autobiographical. People combine voice, sounds, still images and video, to create and share brief stories, on DVD, television and – of course – the internet. Because they choose (and often produce) their material themselves, as well doing all the editing according to their own ideas, digital stories are said to “democratize the media”. For more info on digital stories, have a look at StoryWorks where Karen is involved, at Joe’s and Dana’s Center for Digital Storytelling, or at the collection of digital flood stories from one of Lindsey’s previous projects.
James Stewart, also from the University of Glamorgan, talked about the Severn (estuary) stories in the media, including the Cardiff flood of 1979, the Sea Empress oil spill in Milford Haven of 1996, the Cardiff Bay Barrage, completed in 1999, and the discussions surrounding a Severn Barrage. He pointed out that there always needs to be some story for an event to become a news item, and this story has to match people’s interests at the time. In environmental journalism, these stories are often about the victims of particular events or plans, sometimes humans, sometimes animals. Drawing on news coverage of the recent floods in Queensland (Australia) and Honshu (Japan), James illustrated how journalism in flood-affected areas often amounts to “reporting heartbreak”, and journalists are facing the challenge to what extent their stories make things public that should not be ignored, or exploit people’s suffering.
The ethical issues of journalists’ flood-storytelling are further complicated by the fact that news tend to lose their appeal once the catastrophe is past. The real difficulties for flood victims may begin after the flood, or continue for months or years; but the reporters, along with the attention of the public, usually move on to tell the stories of fresh disasters in new places. James recommended the website of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma for interesting and revealing discussions and recommendations about the relationship between journalism and disasters like floods.
Alongside these and other presentations – with two presenters not even physically present, but nevertheless active through skype and a pre-recorded presentation, respectively (long live digital communications technology!) – we had a chance to talk about various flood stories. Geoffrey Mackett who works in the Somerset County Civil Contingency Unit, for instance, told us that he had recently been contacted by a concerned resident, who related the recent Japanese tsunami to the risk of flooding in Somerset. In order to illustrate this risk, the resident referred to stories about a flood that is said to have devastated parts of Somerset – in the early 17th century! It is quite fascinating how flood stories can be remembered, mixed, and re-told in various contexts, and with different agendas.
What gave the workshop a special – and memorable (sic) – touch was that not only academics and flood managers participated, but also a number of artists. So the power-point presentations were interspersed with – and matched by – readings and performances of poetry by Mike Wilson, Dave Reeves, and Philip Gross. Philip has written a lot about water and rivers and tides, most notably in his amazing poetry book The Water Table. And he even commented – as did Dave – on the presentations and discussions in poetry form. Thank you, Philip, for allowing us to publish your reaction to “Sustainable Flood Memories” here.
“Sustainable flood memories”
the flood of memory
may swamp us or sustain us
depending how we build the ark
Some good thoughts, I find, to end this post with.