Soul Of AthensPosted: 05/10/2011
Soul of Athens isn’t a single story. It’s not even a single project. Every year, students at the Ohio University School of Visual Communication create a new version of the multimedia project. The topic of each one is a place most people have probably never heard of: Athens, Ohio, population 22,000.
Five editions have been created so far, each with a different overarching theme. In 2011, it was the changing American dream. In 2010, it was experience. In 2008, it was the pursuit of wellness.
With upwards of 45 different stories in each project, there’s a lot of ground covered in such a small city. Topics in the 2011 version include a taxi driver working the night shift, Chinese students at the university, and young love in a small town. Previous versions included stories about a highway being built, college basketball, bluegrass music, a nursing home, and family farms.
How It Works
Depending on the edition, stories are either organized according to fairly nebulous categories like “Expression,” “Shelter,” “Spirituality,” “Creativity,” and “Youth,” or they are all listed together.
A variety of different media is used, including text, video, photos, illustrations, and audio clips. How that media is used changes with each edition. In the 2010 edition, the stories were usually short videos with only the occasional slideshow, illustration, audio clip, or bit of text. In the 2011 version, each story combined different forms of media together. A story about a man with cerebral palsy starts with a photo slideshow, continues with a text story, and has audio clips of different characters speaking about their lives throughout. A story about our possessions starts with a video, continues with a few paragraphs of text and ends with a photo slideshow.
Different extras have been used in different years. The 2008 version included an interactive map of the area around Athens. The 2010 version included a Twitter feed about Athens (appropriately titled “The Pulse of Athens”) and allowed users to comment via Facebook. A selection of stories from the 2011 version were made into an iPad app.
What Works, What Doesn’t
Soul of Athens isn’t about linear narrative structure. Similar to Behind Bars, it’s a group of individual stories about a particular topic, in this case a place. And even in a city of 22,000 people, there are a lot of stories to be told.
The focus is broad. The rather open-ended guiding themes don’t exclude much – you could probably make the case that just about any story focused on an American living today is about the changing American dream. But generally speaking, these are personal stories centered on characters.
The integration of multiple forms of media in single stories in the 2011 edition is welcome, but there is a certain amount of redundancy. For example, the text and video used for a story about black students at the mostly white Ohio University covers much the same ground. Both talk about culture shock, racism, and Alpha Phi Alpha, the black fraternity. Some of the same quotes are even used in both the text and video. Generally, the stories use traditional approaches to the different forms of media and then stick the pieces together.
The stories that primarily mix text with photos work better, especially on the iPad version where navigating between pages is a breeze and a greater number of photos can be more easily embedded in the story.
So while Soul of Athens lacks some cohesion, both inside the stories and as a package, when all the different parts are taken together, it gives an idea of the diversity even a small city can possess.