This interview is part of the Archives + Audiences series on the ArchivesAWARE blog. The Archives + Audiences series features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.
The ArchivesAWARE blog is ran by the Committee on Public Awareness (COPA), under the auspices of the Society of American Archivists. In this installment, Archivist and COPA Member, Rachael Cristine Woody, interviews Alexandra Horowitz and her experiences using oral histories and related archival materials as a writer, filmmaker, and producer.
Alexandra Horowitz is a writer, director, and producer based in the Washington, DC area. She founded Voices Storytelling & Media as a way to harness the power of archival material — such as oral histories, interviews, diaries, letters, and photos — to personalize history and current events. Alexandra has produced films for the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the Capital Jewish Museum in Washington DC, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, and Washington DC’s Theatre Lab. Her documentary short Reawakening was selected to screen at Jewish film festivals across the country and has been been featured in public programs at Jewish museums and organizations. A former Senior Producer at CNN International, Alexandra spent nearly ten years covering business and economics for CNN and its various networks from bureaus in New York, Washington, London, and Hong Kong. During that time, she produced full shows and individual stories, hard news and features, live and recorded broadcasts. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post. Alexandra holds degrees from Brown University and the University of Michigan.
Alexandra thank you for being here today. Would you please take a moment to introduce yourself.
Sure, thank you so much for having me. It’s really a pleasure to be here. My name is Alexandra Horowitz, and I am the founder and executive producer of a small media content producer called Voices Storytelling and Media. I started it during the pandemic My background is as an independent filmmaker, and a television news producer.
Excellent, and I’m really looking forward to having this conversation with you. The series we’re doing this interview for us the archives and audiences. And part of what the Committee on Public Awareness is so interested in is how archives are actually used, how archivists help participate and between the archivists and collections, how they can be used in new creative ways, even if they’re not new ways like non-traditional academic ways so I’m really looking forward to hearing your answers. And my first question for you is you’ve researched written and filmed and produced media using oral histories and archival materials. So can you tell us a little bit more about your process and what goes into creating those works.
Absolutely, I’d be happy to. And I just want to say, in terms of using archives in creative ways. I love that. I mean that’s what I do and that’s what I’m trying to do with Voices Storytelling and Media is look at different ways that archives can be used creatively whether it’s podcasts or digital exhibits or film audio educational materials; I just think there’s so much potential out there. What I have done until this point has been using archives for film and I have based them on oral histories. Sometimes on one oral history, Where we’re profiling, a person, either for an event where the person is doing a public program, for example, and going through the person’s oral history and taking this hour and a half or two hour oral history, and finding, you know, sort of a five minute story in there that is relevant to whatever the story is you’re trying to tell. Right? If it’s an exhibit, what is the exhibit trying to say? If it’s a public program, what is the purpose of the person being here? Just to pull out from that long, oral history, the sort of the core story that is relevant to the event or the exhibit. And so that is one way by profiling one person. The other way I’ve done it, is to take an oral history, a collection of oral histories and find one theme through that collection so I did a film called Reawakening, which was about the Charlottesville Jewish community’s response to the unite the right rally is in August of 2017 and the oral history was not about the unite the right rallies, it was just a profile of the Jewish community of Charlottesville. So each person and I used about eight or 10 oral histories, each person had an oral history of about an hour and a half to two hours talking about their whole background – their Jewish upbringing and what brought them to Charlottesville and how they practiced and their involvement with the Jewish community and what they did professionally I mean it had 99.5% of each interview had nothing to do with the unite the right rallies, but because the unite the right rallies happened everybody spoke about it in the interview. And so, I was able working with the professor who conducted the oral history. I was able to pull out sound bites from each person and put them together in a film that looked at the response of the community to this event. So, I guess that’s the first point I want to make is that the, the oral history, don’t have to be about the specific theme that you want in the final product. Right. So, so, with both of those ways of doing it, either with looking at one oral history in depth, or looking at a theme through a collection. After that the process is kind of the same, like, I go through. I listen to them, I go through the transcripts, I find the most powerful sound bites the ones that really speak to the subject and are heartfelt and compelling. And I literally just take a highlighter and highlight all of those. And then I put them together, I look at what I have in my yellow highlights, and I put them together in a story form like what story are all of these individual soundbites telling and what kind of narrative arc can you develop from them and there usually is one, thankfully.
And after that, and I don’t write any narration, I mean I really want the work I do to be – I mean I called my company Voices — it’s meant to be the voices of the people in the oral histories, it’s not meant to be, you know, my voice kind of linking everything they have to say. And then I go through and once I have the script developed from the sound bites, I look for visual archival material, mostly photographs sometimes video. Sometimes newspaper or other printed material that can be used to illustrate what they’re talking about and sometimes that comes from libraries and collections. Sometimes it comes from the people themselves or other organizations that have been involved in whatever the subject matter is. So, that is largely the process, and it’s a very fulfilling one.
Thank you so much for sharing that. Your approach and your use of the oral histories and equipment, archival materials. In general, indicates to me at least it’s like you knew that these were available and knowing the archives and archivists can sometimes have a hard time getting the messaging out that, hey, we’re here. Please use us. I’m wondering what in your background or experiences, first introduced you to oral histories and archives.
So I will say, kind of being thrown into the fire. I had worked. I mean most of my career I worked for CNN, and when, and I had no experience with archives, but I was doing daily news and when you’re on deadline, and you need video at least, I mean I worked there a while ago, but at least at the time I worked there what you did when you needed video that you weren’t going out and shooting was you call the library and you said what do we have and they made it available to you and then you used it. So, so that was my entire experience I had no… I just didn’t think about archives. I had to do a shoot once at the National Archives, but that was, I don’t even remember the story was it wasn’t relevant to using archives. So then, okay, flash forward, many years, I took some time off stay home with my kids, I started up again as an independent producer, and I did, I produce the film that is linked to this, it’s Marian Ingram, it’s a profile of a woman who is a Holocaust survivor who came to the US in the 1950s and then worked in the civil rights movement. And I have this great oral history and I had the script, and I needed pictures, and I thought, okay, I also had a deadline, where am I going to get these pictures? And I had, I had no idea there was no library to call I was kind of at a loss as to what to do and I, I started Googling and I started hunting around and I went to the Library of Congress website I mean there’s so much online I don’t know what people did before collections were really online but now you can sit at home as we all have been doing for a long period of time and have access to enormous resources around the country and around the world. So, I just started Googling and I found material in large archives like the Library of Congress and I found material in small, you know, smaller towns and libraries and universities, and, and it was, I mean to me personally I, you know, it was just this amazing discovery that there’s so much out there that can be utilized that. That’s just amazing and I wish more people knew about.
Marione Ingram: Civil Rights Activist, Author, Holocaust Survivor. Film produced entirely from archival material for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, now the Capital Jewish Museum.
Thank you so much for that answer, it’s I think it’s very helpful for us as archivist, to hear how people found us because it usually is, you know, it starts with a Google search or, yeah, asking that question of like this, this should exist where would it live?
Right, right, and it was largely entirely a Google search, but now, you know, now that I’m not so new to it I feel like there’s a whole network of people and there’s probably a listserv where I could say, you know, I need this. Does anyone have it and could I use it?
Thank you so much, that was a great answer, and very informative for us, too, and circling back to the archival materials for your work. You touched on this a little bit but just in case you had more to share. We’re curious about how you choose the videos and archival materials that you incorporate into your work.
Um, I think it, It starts with the stories that organizations want to tell, right? Is there an exhibit? Is there an event? Is there a film that’s being made for a classroom? And then, I think, in terms of the oral histories, the sound bites. It’s what is going to tell the story, the most powerfully, so not just the content, I mean, sometimes you just need a soundbite that says X because you have to get from point A to point B and it doesn’t make any sense if there’s not something that connects it but really what I look for is those that have the most heart, you know, like what is going to make people really feel and see another person’s story or another person’s point of view. And there’s, you know, much of the way that we have told history is now being revisited voices are being included, that have not previously been featured so prominently. And I am sure that there is just a wealth of archival material that that can be used to tell those stories and to help, you know, organizations that are revisiting their narratives and trying to add dimensions to race, gender, for example, that there has to be a wealth of material out there that can be used for that.
Could you share, like either one of your most favorite archival finds or like a fond memory you have working in the archives.
So, my favorite find is something that I thought I wasn’t going to be able to use and it was when I was doing this video, I have Marian Ingram, and she had volunteered and did some organizing for the March on Washington. And I hunting around I found this film that USIA had produced in, you know, in the 1960s afterwards and it had the MLK speech in it, but it also had people arriving and it had buses and it crowds and tents and. And it was just a godsend. And then I tried to get permission to use it and it seemed like a really complicated process and I had a deadline and I didn’t think I was gonna get it in time. So, I you know I put the paperwork in and went through the channels but then I forgot about it really because I didn’t think I was ever going to get to use it and then two days before I was set to edit, I got an email out of the blue. That said, “Yes, of course you can use it. The only thing you can’t use is the Martin Luther King sections because that’s protected by his estate, but anything else is fair game.” So, you know as it’s in the public domain so you can use it, and it was just sort of this waterfall of riches to be able to use it.
That is a great story, I’m so glad to hear that. When you’ve been working with archival materials and within archives and with archivists. Are there some examples of how the archives and those materials have helped to inspire and inform your work?
Um, yeah, they’re, I think it’s encouraged me to want to do more with archives. Because I think history is so important, and I, I just think… I love history. I hated history in school, I took as little of it as possible, but the, the parts of history that are really sort of rich and I think that that can teach the most powerfully, our photographs are hearing people’s stories. Yes, it’s not a collection of facts and sometimes it’s remembered with a point of view that sometimes is the one you want to teach and sometimes maybe isn’t but, but it’s, it’s heartfelt and it’s powerful and it’s, you know, the human experience. And so, I think that all of that is there in the archives in the way that it’s not usually in the history books, and so I just find that really encouraging and the more those archives are able to be accessed and used I think the more creatively we can teach connect to people, you know, whether it’s in museums, whether it’s in film, whether it’s in education and in classrooms. That there’s that connection through archives that there. You know there isn’t in other ways.
I love the word you chose to describe that as connection I think that is a powerful and, but yes, you know, simplistic, in its most awesome form in terms of as archivists, trying to have materials to be used and connect with communities to make sure that they are represented the I mean, so many ways that we could have more meaningful connections.
Yeah, and I think that the more archives, I mean I’ve always done it. You know from the producer and where I’m looking. I don’t know what archivist do proactively but I would say that the more that you can look around in your community, about what’s going on in classrooms and museums and public events, and see if the resources that you have. I think a lot of times people in the communities just aren’t aware of these repositories of material that, you know, that could be being used by the community. So maybe it’s up to the archives and archivists to try to connect with those people, or at least make known that the resources are available.
Yes, I think that is definitely, as, as the field which I can’t speak for everybody but my, my observation and experience has been, this has, has very much been a perpetual issue for us in how to one not only message value of collections but to make sure we’re actually connecting with the community in the way the community wants to be connected with. So, it’s definitely something I think it’s fair to say many of us are aware of and, and we are a very awkward work in progress toward better connections. But yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head with that one.
Yeah, I think, photos in particular you know I’ve gone, sometimes to the Library of Congress website just to look at photos if I needed them on a certain theme, and a photo can just say so much one photo that they can speak volumes about whatever the subject matter is, and, yeah. So, I just think for people in your communities to know what resources you have available is a really powerful thing.
Speaking of resources in use, is there an item or an area of a collection that you would like to use but like haven’t been able to find.
Um, I know you have connections. I’m not at the moment but I am so glad. Now to be in touch with this network of people that you know I certainly will turn to it in the future as needed, when things come up.
Yes, please do. We are here and we’re available so we welcome that. Great, that’s great. So, thinking about access to archives, and I know with COVID-19 obviously all of our realities have gotten a little bit more challenging. Yeah, but, but thinking about your past work, have there been any sort of barriers to access or any challenges specific to trying to reach archives or use the collections?
Um, for the most part, no. I tried to use. I mean in the past I’ve tried to use material that’s in the public domain.
And the times that I have had to get permission. It hasn’t been difficult. In fact, my experience has been more that professionals want their collections used and are very helpful in helping you use them, I had in the the film that I’ve linked there is a, there’s a visual of a burning, cross it towards the end of it, and it just all of a sudden realized I needed a burning cross and I googled it and I found these resources but I needed it soon. And so there were all these pictures online so I picked one and it was from East Carolina University and I emailed the person there and he was very nice and very accommodating and within, you know, I said “Well what do I do need to do to have permission to use this? Can I use it?” and, you know, “Is there a fee and how do I get is? Can I get a digital copy?” and all of this and I think within an hour maybe or two, I had permission I had the digital copy of the fill of the photo, and he couldn’t have been nicer and that has generally been my experience is that people are and especially I think I do. I generally work with nonprofits, and so if people know it’s for a community event. I use some news footage I know it’s not, I guess it’s archival news footage, it wasn’t that old, but for Charlottesville. And I went to the local television stations and at first they were like okay you know it’s this many $1,000 a minute of footage that you want and I said but it’s for, you know, an exhibit at a local historical societies. “Oh, okay well if it’s for that. We’ll send you our reel.” So, I think that when people know it’s, you know, you’re not trying to sell it, you’re not trying to put it on your Facebook page or, you know it’s a community. It’s for public history. Then I’ve generally found people to be very helpful and accommodating.
I’m very glad to hear that, that used to not be the case, way back in the day so I’m very glad that’s been your experience. What’s the one thing you wish the general public knew about archives?
Think I wish that the public just knew how much was there. And, and what an enormous resource it is, you know, I’ve got to think for teachers, for writers, for obviously for any kind of research, but I think people don’t necessarily know like I even working in media, for no more than a decade I, I didn’t have any idea so I think just for people to know what’s there, and how much is contained in them, you know, in one oral history. You know, you find things sometimes like a little piece of an interview that has nothing to do with bigger picture but it is sometimes the most valuable piece of that whole searches for people to realize what what’s out there. You know that, that we don’t normally see but that if you go looking, you might have to look a lot, but maybe with the help of an archivist. That it’s there.
Excellent, thank you so much for that answer, I think that that was such a great way to put it for us in terms of like that is something to focus on making sure that people know when that we exist and to just how much is there, and that we want you to use that kind of thing. Yeah. Excellent. Circling back to your work. And the the projects that you have done, what has been some of the feedback you’ve received, and general reception that kind of thing?
So generally good, but the one thing that has been consistent, is that people are always surprised that you can pull a storyline, like a five minute you can make a five minute film out of, you know, an hour and a half, two hour two and a half hour oral history or out of a collection that’s you know, 15 hours of oral history 20 hours of oral history that you can pull you can, you know, say I’m going to do this theme or I’m going to and you can pull a tight knit. Powerful story compelling story out of that. I think people in my experience tend to think, oh yeah, there’s an oral history on “X” and so it’s going to be everything about X, but when you, when you look for that one specific theme or that one specific subject that you can pull, you can pull a really compelling story that maybe has to do with the greater whole, and maybe doesn’t. But people are always surprised, in my experience to see that, you know, it’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
And speaking of your work and of yourself, where can people find you online and connect with you?
So, my, my website is voicesstorytelling.com, and that has my email address on it it’s got my portfolio on it it’s got my email address on it, and more about my work on it so it’s voicesstorytelling.com.
Thank you for spelling that out and we will try our best. Right. I tracked I think so. I’m expecting it to be that hard to spell it’s not hard to spell when
I type it. But anyway, it’s voicesstorytelling.com, and the company’s Voices Storytelling and Media.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us or anything? I didn’t ask that you would like to answer?
I would just say, I’m happy to be a resource or consultant with, if any, you know, if people have archives, archival material that they’re thinking of using, I’m happy to talk to anybody you know, not for any fee or anything, but just to a brainstorming session. Or, if somebody doesn’t have ideas but has this collection and wants to talk about how could they use it. I’m always happy to brainstorm, or do informal consulting to help give some shape and guidance if that’s helpful to anyone. Please feel free to reach out.
Thank you so much for that offer I imagine that would be particularly helpful, and I’m mentioning this for people listening not, not so much yourself, but you know, bringing in grants are seeking donor funding, sometimes connecting with an expert like yourself and even just getting like a one page. Here’s what Alexandra would do if we get the money…
Right, right, well they know I’m absolutely happy to help with that I have written grants myself I’ve received grants myself. And I am happy to give some shape and form to what you could do with your archives, if that’s helpful in anyone’s grant proposal writing.
Absolutely, yes. So, people who are watching slash reading definitely take Alexandra up on this offer. Well thank you so much for your time today, Alexandra. Is there anything else before I formally close our interview?
Um, no, I am really think very highly of archivists and archives and all that you do to preserve our history. And I know I would like to get those voices and get those materials out there. And so that’s, that’s it. I mean, please feel free to call and brainstorm or, you know, anytime I’m happy to do it and I’m so happy to be here today and to have found this connection.