Five great audio slideshows

I think it’s easy for people who work in television to underestimate the potential of audio slideshows as a medium for online storytelling.    When the tools of your trade are powerful video images and sound, marrying still photos to audio seems at first blush to be a step backwards, almost as heretical as it would have been to return to silent films after the talkies were invented.

It’s obvious, however, that audio slideshows are quite popular on the internet (7% of page views at the New York Times) and so I set off on a screening marathon to explore best practices and find slideshows that I think work just as well, or better than video.

Five great audio slideshows

1.   Joseph Cotton:  The Grandfather by Alexis Mainland

My favourite audio slideshow is a profile of Bronx grandfather Joseph Cotton and is part of a series by the New York Times titled One in 8 Million.  I had anticipated my top pick would have phenomenal photographs, but this slide show uses  black and white stills depicting average family routines that make up the fabric of everyday life.  It’s the character who is extraordinary — Joseph Cotton — a grandfather with inspiring wisdom and a mesmerizing voice passing along life’s lessons to his grandchildren.

Other slideshows in the series seemed to hold equal promise with similarly strong characters but fell short in my opinion because they promised the viewer more than they could deliver.  Audience expectations have evolved to the point where it’s difficult to do an interesting piece about a mambo dancer without video of mambo dancing.  The same holds true for the slide show about brothers who play rugby, even though their relationship is more central to the story than the sport.  Both slideshows might have overcome this obstacle with more use of natural sound.

2. Mishoka’s Story:  Voices from the war in Eastern Congo by Duckrabbit

Whether you’re producing audio slideshows or video, content trumps form every time.  Nothing is more important than story, and this one is heartbreaking.

3.  Dreams Come True by Colin Mulvany

The extensive use of natural sound is one of several factors that makes “Dreams Come True” an extremely effective piece of storytelling and puts it into my top five.  It’s about a young woman named Amber Green who has cerebral palsy and yet works as a paid teacher’s aid.  Supplementing diverse clips from multiple sources with a natural sound audio bed adds an extra layer of interest to the slideshow, similar to the effect in first rate radio documentaries.   In addition, when Amber speaks it comes as quite a surprise because we see photos of her before we hear her technology-assisted voice.

Dreams Come True is only 1:42 in length and yet the viewer doesn’t feel cheated.  Many experts in the craft including Joe Weiss, the creator of the popular slideshow program Soundslides, warn againstletting slideshows creep up to three to five minutes because very few pieces can sustain attention at that length.

4.  A Tour of Duty by Paul Kerley

This is another example of an excellent slideshow which combines oustanding behind-the-scenes photgraphy of British soldiers in Afghanistan with compelling audio.   The use of music is instructive because rather than using music wall-to-wall, as some tend to do to hide an otherwise dull story, Kerley is employing it to punctuate points of emotion such as the unit’s discovery and cremation of a comrade’s foot.

5.  Surf Town Canada by Evan Mitsui

I rate this audio slideshow in my top five because it beats television at its own game, showing how still photography can be more interesting than video, unlike the previous mentioned stories about mambo or rugby.  By utilising multiple photos shot at a high shutter speed, the piece successfully adds a dimension to the sport of surfing that you can’t see on television.

My quest to find audio slideshows that work as well or better than video was intuitive in that I compiled the list based simply on good storytelling. It was interesting to note after the fact that although they are different multimedia forms, the criteria for excellence is the same:  great visuals, compelling characters,  good stories, emotion, lots of natural sound, behind-the-scene access, brevity and innovation.   They key difference, beyond the fact that the pictures move in one form and not the other, seems to revolve around the way the viewer processes the information, as explained by  Benjamin Chesterton of BBC Radio and Duckrabbit:

With moving video, the viewers eye is centred – broadly, locked to the framing of the video camera. With still images, the eye roams. It stops and moves and stops and moves. Frozen gestures and expressions kick off a cognitive process – thinking – that moving images simply never do.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that video storytelling fails to kick off  the process of thinking, it’s just a different kind of thinking.

If you can recommend a great audio slideshow, I’d appreciate it if you post the link in the comment box. I’m also interested in recommendations about slideshow forums.

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13 Responses to Five great audio slideshows

  1. hedykorbee says:

    Thanks Sean. Awesome photography by Laforet!

  2. Peter G. says:

    I think the NY Times online sets the bar for great audio/video slideshows. From their man about town, Bill Cunningham, who provides voice-over comments during photos that he has taken of fashions on the streets of Manhattan, to a great B&W series about kids who do late night bike acrobatics under the bridges of Brooklyn (too bad, it’s not online anymore).
    But I also think Canada’s NFB has raised the stakes on slideshows — this is a bit more of an interactive slideshow – with Highrise: Out of my Window. It explores personal stories of people who live in apartments around the world – vertical communities that are often overlooked as urban spaces. I see it like another type of documentary journalism.

  3. Peter G. says:

    By the way, did I mention that the appeal of the NY Times online slideshows were also because they were free?

    The NY Times just announced today (March 17, 2011) that they are trying (again! as they did in 1996) to charge online readers. First test market: Canada.

    This may just change everything.

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  6. VisVox says:

    Lovely compilation of audio slideshows you’ve got here! My personal favourite is also ‘Joseph Cotton: The Grandfather’ as I love the pictures and the whole story! Could you point me in the direction of where the 7% figure for the New York Times comes from please? We’re writing an audio slideshow blog and this figure is interesting for us. Check out our blog

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