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BEHIND THE SCENES with Ben Calhoun


Where did you meet Bill Stenberg and why did you choose to include his story in After the Wars ?

I met Bill Stenberg through a guy who works with veterans on behalf of the City of Chicago. We were specifically looking for Korean War veterans at the time - people who had stories that were representative but also uniquely compelling. I'd been doing phone work searching for someone with this kind of story, and my father had been attending events for Korean War veterans with the same goal. Among the people we found, Bill's story stood out.

How did you work with him to help him tell his story?

The interview process for Bill was especially simple compared to some of other veterans. I pre-interviewed him for something like a half an hour getting a sense of his story, and a sense of what he was like as a storyteller. Then I just brought him into the studio. Although he wouldn't say so, Bill is a natural storyteller, so I had to do very little to steer the interview, and ultimately our conversation only lasted about 80 minutes. Some of the veterans I interviewed more than once, for as long as 4 or 5 hours total. From there I just logged the audio, cut it, scored it--and passed on some details to my father so he could incorporate them into his photographic work.

Did a particular event or interview inspire this series?

Not really. This is common area of interest for both me and my father. I think we're both deeply interested in the complexities of the politics surrounding war, and even more so, the the human dimensions of war. The politics speak for themselves. In terms of the human experience, however, I think we both feel war combines so many conflicting forces. For example, it combines fighting for something you believe in, something we fundamentally admire, with inflicting violence on other human beings, something we fundamentally condemn. For that reason, veterans often feel guilty and proud at the exact same time. And while the politics can fade relatively quickly, the people who fight are left with the task of sorting this stuff out for years and years - often for the rest of their lives.

Why did you decide to make it a multi-media project? And is there a process for the collaboration between you and your father?

I think my father and I both find the combination of still photographs and audio compelling. Without speaking for him, I think still images have a power and an intimacy that are really singular. Our relationship with them can be especially profound because we live in such an ocean of disposable moving images. At the same time, audio of the isolated voice is compelling and intimate in its own way. I think both my father and I find the combination to be greater than its sum of its parts. I wouldn't necessarily say its more evocative or meaningful than each of the mediums on their own - but revealing in a separate way, a way that neither could achieve independently.

We'd worked together somewhat minimally on another photo/audio project I'd directed a few years earlier. But we'd never worked together extensively. It was a total learning experience. We come from two distinctly different media generations, and so working in this context took a lot of conversations about how the photographs and the audio would relate. We also discussed how people would interact with the combination differently in different contexts, an in-person exhibition versus an online presentation. It was tough. I think this particular multimedia approach is not new anymore, but it's young and still finding its way. There's a lot of room to test, explore, and struggle. We did all of those.

As an individual radio maker, what does it take to pull off a series like this? How much time/money/personnel/smarts etc?

I think when everything is added up, my father and I will both have made way way below minimum wage for this project. I may have ended up in the red. Not that anyone does stuff like this to make big money, but I still feel like anything I say should be taken with a fairly large grain of salt. In any case, we had support from the Wisconsin Humanities Council an WBEZ, somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 dollars.

It was essentially a three person operation. My father, myself, and Cate Cahan of WBEZ-FM in Chicago who edited the project. For each of us, this project was completed in the midst of a lot of other work. My father teaches at about half a dozen colleges, universities and art schools. Cate Cahan, who edited the project did much of this work outside of her regularly full-time-plus responsibilities WBEZ. While working on it, I was doing a lot of other radio work. All told, we worked on it over the course of about a year. As you'd expect, you need a lot of improvisation, belief in the work, and understanding.