The Conversation

I spent a notable part of my early life recording conversations. I was a film sound recordist and I worked on a lot of documentaries and news programs. Sometimes I’d be asked by a journalist or director what someone had said during the take; generally I had no idea, which surprised quite a few of them – “Weren’t you listening?” they’d say. But I wasn’t listening to the words themselves, I was concentrating on the whole sound, especially the ‘edges’ – the background, camera noise, fluorescent buzz, fridge compressor… all the interferences. What you might call the studium. Sometimes a playback was called for to confirm the phrases used, but mostly the interviewer was paying close attention and was confidant in their recollection.

There’s a crucial difference between this kind of conversation and the more usual type, which is that in our day-to-day conversations we use the time when we’re not talking to both process what we’re hearing and to formulate our response. If we spend too much effort on composing our reply, then what we’re hearing isn’t afforded quite so much attention. It gets mixed up with what we are preparing to say. This is a significant factor in misremembered exchanges, because our certainty over the other’s words is influenced by our own processes at the time of hearing them. We tend to hear ourselves mixed up in the other’s words.

I made a recording on my mobile of a conversation with my son. He was telling me about his plans for Christmas, how he intended to set off very early on the day, pick up his sister and make the 3 hour trip to Dorset. I’m accustomed to his tendency to mumble on the phone so I read through it in real time but it is quite noticeable on replay. There are a lot of casual interjections on both sides, the ‘ok’s, ‘right’s etc which signify understanding and encourage the speaker to continue. I was keen to emphasise that there was no rush and not to hurry his sister unduly. I asked him about his Uni work and he went into deep mumble mode, which I know to be a smokescreen.

Over the break I asked him if he remembered the conversation – he did, but didn’t recall exactly when it was or what was said, other than my reassuring him that time was not too important. His sister said she did feel rushed, but that was probably because it was precisely 7am as arranged (he is punctual!)

We played the recording back, which provoked much hilarity because he always thinks he sounds different to his actual voice, like most people. He thought the conversation had been longer than the actual three minutes or so, but that might have more to do with the nature of dad/son phone calls.

I can’t honestly say that I see a parallel here between a recorded conversation played back and a reconstructed photograph. They are such wildly different instances that comparisons are tenuous at best. Likewise in the area of transferred skills; as mentioned earlier, I have recorded many hundreds of conversations but struggle to bring to mind any aspects which would be pertinent to picture making. Sorry. Other than the ‘edges’ thing, which may have some relevance to photographic composition in the sense that what goes on at the periphery of the frame affects the subject matter in the middle area.

In a general sense though, it’s clear that our memories in these matters are unreliable. We refine the recollections to suit our own purposes, blurring the uncomfortable and embellishing the positive. This is one method by which we internalise our experiences and rationalise our behaviours and responses.