Storyteller Sarah Kramer Shares Her Own Narrative

As a multimedia journalist for The New York Times, Sarah Kramer has an unusual beat. She makes audio and video documentaries from interviews and recordings, documenting the lives of lone waitresses, Chinese-American families and many others. Kramer presented segments of her many projects to the Andover community this past Sunday, sharing her experiences with the research and filming process with attendees. Kramer produced countless documentaries and audio-visual projects for the Times. In 2008, she finished a multimedia project titled “One in Eight Million,” which won a 2010 Emmy Award in the “New Approaches to News and Documentary Programming” category. For “One in Eight Million,” Kramer interviewed 54 New York residents, collecting their visions and thoughts about the city. From the interviews, Kramer pieced together stories that were ultimately combined into an hour-long, black-and-white slideshow with voice-over narration. One of the 54 pieces was “Maggie Nesciur: The Walker,” in which Nesciur, a waitress, recounts how she chooses to navigate the city on foot, walking an average of ninety miles a week. Before working at the Times, Kramer was a founding staff member and the Senior Producer at StoryCorps, a national oral history project that has amassed a collection of 60,000 stories from various individuals. The public project provided mobile recording booths where individuals who speak into a camera about what mattered the most to them. These conversations were archived in the Library of Congress and selections from the project were aired on radio. Kramer also discussed one of her latest works, entitled “Three Generations: Portrait of a Chinese-American Family Under One Roof.” For this project, Kramer spent a year shadowing an extended Chinese family occupying all three floors of an apartment building. Kramer interviewed twelve family members and made constant notes of the interactions between each individual. She also recorded the family’s oral history from the perspective of each of the three generations represented in the household. Using the interviews and stories she gathered over the year, Kramer recently wrote a Times feature piece on the family that was comprised of brief profiles of each resident. Kramer has also turned her project into an interactive online experience. On the project’s website, video taken from each of the three floors on a random summer evening streams simultaneously. When a user’s mouse hovers over one floor, sound only from that particular floor plays. Kramer said that she finds great pleasure in telling the stories of others, the process gradually revealing a person’s character through their stories. When writing about an individual, Kramer’s goal is to “unlock” the person without making her subject uncomfortable. When her subjects entrust her with private information, she often withholds those details for privacy reasons, leaving them out of her finished work. Kramer said that she has always had a certain curiosity for the narratives of different peoples. Since she was 13, she had dreamed of becoming a journalist, inspired after hearing several gripping stories and childhood adventures from peers at a sleep-away camp. Kramer majored in studio art history in college and originally planned to become a photo researcher. She wanted to give a voice to images, believing that she could thus enrich the experience of the viewer. Despite originally pursuing visual journalism, Kramer soon developed a stronger interest in audio journalism, hoping to work in radio and the documentary film business. After completing graduate school, Kramer worked with a variety of small businesses and newspapers before accepting a job at The New York Times. Some attendees noted leaving with a deeper understanding of the power potential of storytelling. “Sarah Kramer encouraged her audience, in her workshops and in her presentation, to listen with respect as someone shares their story and then in turn represent this story in audio, video, photographs and/or writing with dignity,” wrote Peg Harrigan, Instructor in Art and the faculty facilitator of Kramer’s workshops, in an email to The Phillipian. “I think what impressed me the most was how she made the stories in such a way that it was very powerful and that it could impact people,” said Ian Song ‘13, who facilitated Kramer’s MLK Day workshop. In addition to her Sunday presentation, Kramer also held a faculty workshop on Saturday afternoon and led a special Martin Luther King, Jr. Day workshop for students on Monday. The workshops discussed the “art of the interview” and participants learned the basics of gathering documentary audio. Song said, “She [taught] us to present [an interview] in such a way that it becomes a good article or a good multimedia [project]. And that’s what I think people are mainly interested in: how you can take something that may seem insignificant and you make it into something powerful. At that in itself, for her, is an art.” Anna Milkowski, Instructor in Biology, signed up for the faculty workshop having seen and enjoyed Kramer’s “One in Eight Million” series. Milkowski wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “What stood out the most from [Kramer’s] talk was probably the basic message that everyone has a story to tell and that it’s worthwhile, and often fascinating, powerful, and connecting, to voice and exchange these stories.”