Nick Hand is a born and bred Bristolian, who trained as a typographer at Stafford Art College and Bristol Polytechnic and now works as a graphic designer and photographer. He has three children, Ellie, Jess and Laurence. He lives with his partner Harriet in Redland, Bristol in the South West corner of England.
In the Summer of 2009, Nick rode his bicycle around the coast of Wales, England and Scotland and then, in 2010, he set off around the coast of Ireland. On his travels, he called in on some of the artisans who live on the coast.
To share the experience with others, he recorded, edited and uploaded the resulting Soundslides of these extraordinary encounters as he went along, on a dedicated website Slowcoast
As a designer, I also enjoy user-research, so I was curious to ask Nick how he approached the tasks necessary to document, edit and post his Soundslides. Nick has a very easy going manner, which undoubtedly enables him to quickly establish a sense of trust and put the Artisans he wishes to interview at their ease. Arriving on a bicycle is a good conversation starter of course!
The soundtrack Nick makes to accompany his beautiful photographs, has been carefully edited down to four minutes from an average recording length of about 45 minutes. In the editing process, he aims to try and reveal the spirit and passion which each Artisan feels for their work. Consequently, the final Soundslides convey something of the emotional connection behind the Artisan and their love for their craft, which is perhaps why his ‘quiet’ documentaries resonate with the many people, who have been lucky enough to have seen and enjoyed this intimate window into the lives and hand-skills of the Artisans who build everything from canoes to flutes to unique Artisan cheese, which is sold in farmers markets. These Soundslides present a wide spectrum of the craft-based cottage industries, still very much alive and kicking in Britain and Ireland today.
So what characterises his research process and what can others learn from it?
Despite the fact that Nick has now made over one hundred documentaries in his own unique way, there is really no set formula for the interview process, in fact almost the opposite is better. Interviews usually begin much like any everyday conversation, except that the interviewee can often be the only person Nick has spoken with that day, as he arrives tired, after several long hours in the saddle, since he left his previous destination. “that person becomes your best friend…”
In this unique way, I think the Slideshare films that Nick makes, share something of the feel and values of the slow movement. They feel respectful in tone and are gentle on the eye and the ear, without any unnecessary visual gimmicks distracting the listener from the narrative. Indeed, interviews with the Artisan’s Nick meets, follow a natural, almost organic ‘no-process’ and are often processed the same day. After a little sleep, Nick is off to his next destination and will seek out another Artisan.
In terms of interview style, Nick follows his intuition for pace and timing in order to allow space to naturally draw out the subject. As a social documantary, every Slideshow feels unique and bespoke but after making over one hundred of them, three ground rules have emerged, which is useful to know.
- keep the recordings short: no longer than 45 minutes
- keep the questions focussed on what you are doing: don’t interrupt and ‘talk over’ the person you are interviewing
- four minutes is the ‘magic’ length of the final Soundslide edit
factors which influence behaviour
Occasionally the artisans Nick is interviewing know who he is and what he does, but more often they don’t, and have no pre-conceived expectations. He prefers this, as the former scenario can feel a lot less natural and affects the spontaneity of the encounter.
The people Nick is interested in are often initially reluctant to give their time, as business interruption is a factor, this is a working day for the artisan after all. However, once the subject feels relaxed and is enjoying sharing their passion for their work, who looks at their watch?
How do you make people feel at ease?
To establishing trust, the preliminary questions the subject needs an answer to are often how Nick funds the work and whether he will be making money from it?
Once it becomes clear that Nick is not exploiting their time for commercial gain, he and his interviewees can relax and mutually enjoy the co-creation process. The conversational style and duration encourages subjects to talk about themselves in an intimate and open way, without feeling unduly hurried or directed.
Nick will begin an interview in a naturally similar way to the way he’s start almost any conversation; by first expressing his curiosity in what someone does for a living and expressing an admiration and empathy with their craft skills. In this way questions and responses emerge naturally, although Nick sometimes does background research on his subjects to keep the questions and energy flowing.
There’s an acceptance of social responsibility that comes from being permitted into someone’s working life. Interviews often take place in people’s work spaces which also provide a context for the photographs. However, If Nick sees or hears something that could prove to be awkward for the subject if published, he will respectfully ask if there is anything that shouldn’t be photographed or should be edited out.
Empathy by observation: “you use the camera like they use their eyes, you become their eyes for them”
When Nick first enters the artisan’s work space, he quietly observes and photographs the things he finds visually quirky or characteristic within it. These digital photographs are later saved to his Mac in RAW format, and then whittled down, before being duplicated in a folder and then converted into the low resolution jpeg’s, which are suitable as Soundslide resources. This visual resource becomes one half of that needed to make a new Soundslide, the MP3 recording the other.
The sound recordings he makes often capture about 45 minutes of someone’s working life, but the 41 minutes of unused material is long enough to expose “the little moments when they are lost in their world, unconsciously revealing a love for what they do”
I am very pleased that Nick Hand has expressed an interest in my new social design project I love Café Kino, which also aims to try and capture the spirit of a people-centred community café and the hopes and dreams of those who work in it, before it closes the doors at 3, Nine Tree Hill and relocates to its brand-spanking-new premises down the road in Bristol’s famous creative quarter, Stokes Croft.
©2010 richard louis arnott