The Listener: Just as Important as the Storyteller

I had the pleasure to take these seniors’ picture for the Yearbook’s Seniors of the Month pages for the month of March/April. I enjoy these photo shoots very much because they allow to go crazy with the concept of each photo shoot. This one was special in particular because it took over two hours. The first hour was spent waiting for one of the seniors to arrive. As we had time to kill, the other three seniors and I headed over to the cafe by the lake and talked about our past years in high school. I didn’t have much to say because I was much more interested in hearing what the other seniors wanted to bring to the table. They talked about funny moments that happened during band class and their ex-crushes. I can’t remember specific details, but I remembered the enjoyable forum that was established. It made us forget that we waited a whole hour. 

I recently discovered a national project called StoryCorps. Beginning in 2003, they have collected over 45,000 interviews from people who were passing by Grand Central Station in New York City or some other corner of the world. All they need to set up are two microphones. The interviewees do the rest. Here is a video that describes what their project is about and features some of the interviews conducted:

“People might shout a little less, and listen a little more. When we take the time to listen, we see that kindness, courage, and generosity is all around us,” says founder Dave Isay. That, to me, defines the mission of a listener.

It really is amazing how so many people will donate their time to story – no matter who they are. For example, I photographed a student on the wrestling team who just won the Five Counties tournament in his weight division last year. The tournament consisted of fifty schools from around Orange County, and there hadn’t been a winner from FVHS in 25 years, until now. During the photo shoot, I asked him casual questions just to keep the small talk alive. I asked him about his family and what inspired him to be a wrestler at one point. The next thing I knew, I put down my camera to listen to him talk for half an hour about how his two brothers and his dad were wrestlers and how strength was valued in his family on the same level as honor was to the Japanese samurai. It was surprising to me how reflective this burly wrestler was, but it just goes to show that everyone needs to be listened to in their life.

A listener does more than just pay attention and uses more than just his/her ears. They ask good questions to bring out the substance in people. A listener needs the courage to take a person out of his/her cycle and the charm to make it worth his/her time. Good listeners become prominent members of society such as journalists, talk show hosts, and lawyers. They are no more than a good friend people want to confide in.

I think of myself as a listener by nature contained in a storyteller’s body. In the world of filmmaking, the word “storytelling” gets thrown around a lot – in film supplements, prompts, festivals, reviews, and lectures. I really think this is an advantage I have over other people who produce films because I use my surroundings and my daily encounters as inspiration for what I produce. I’m not interested in filming car chases, bank robberies, and schmaltzy candlelight dinners, but rather the boy building a tree house with his dad and the two unlikely friends being neighbors for thirty-something years – both of which I observed during a bike ride around the cul-de-sac one July.

It shouldn’t take a project like StoryCorps for people to realize that listening is important. People just need to invite more listeners into their life, and listen as well. That’s certainly what I plan to do  to resolve the new year.

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