By Frank Ready
The magnet hanging on the side of Eileen Kent’s silver Honda Accord bares a slogan that leaves some room for interpretation- one more tempting than the others depending upon proximity to the holidays.
“I shoot your relatives so that you don’t have to,” it reads, with a simplicity that could cause the casual observer to wonder if they’ve stumbled across one of the FBI’s lazier sting operations.
Fortunately for overbearing mothers-in-law and ungrateful children everywhere, the accompanying graphic of a smoking video camera grants the solicitation a definitive (and some might argue important) distinction. Kent isn’t in the business of ending stories, but immortalizing them on video for generations to come.
Her Utica-based business, Stories of a Lifetime, creates a visual record of the hobbies, treasures, and people of Central New York. Over the course of several interviews, Kent compiles footage that is edited and intercut with photos and snapshots, integrating stolen moments with living, breathing history.
Over the course of her now eight year career as a personal historian and videographer, Kent has worked on a variety of projects ranging in scope and scale. She’s created family and business histories, pet tributes and memorials, and home and collection inventories for insurance purposes. Her busy schedule has kept her leaping from one life narrative to the next.
“Most people think nobody wants to hear their story. They think ‘I don’t have a story, I’m just an average person.’ Almost everybody says that, but everybody has a story and I’m very good at convincing them of that,” Kent said.
She put that theory to the test during a 19 year career as a councilor at the Women’s Consultation Center, where she learned how to navigate the highs and lows of people’s personal narratives.
After a comparatively brief stint working at a senior activity and resource center, Kent joined the Association for Personal Historians, an organization devoted to condensing individual histories and using them to fill books, photo albums and the occasional silver screen.
While Kent was certainly no stranger to words like “lights,” “camera,” and “action,” it had never occurred to her to string them all together before. Prior to joining the APH, she had a been a technological holdout who only purchased a computer to view photos of her first-born granddaughter. Becoming a personal historian and professional videographer meant spending retirement money on a camera, lighting equipment and editing software- an investment rewarded with four months devoted to tutorials, trials and errors.
“I look at my colleagues work and it drives you to become better. We have a video share every year at conference where people will offer a five minute or a seven minute clip to share with the people who come to video share and some of them are just so inspiring and so phenomenal when it comes to technique that it really makes you feel that big by the time you leave,” Kent said.
Despite becoming increasingly tech savvy, Kent believes that it’s her former career as a councilor that has lent her a competitive edge. Many of her clients are reluctant to have old wounds opened on camera or are unprepared for the emotional toll collected on trips down memory lane. Documentarians have traditionally maintained a strict division between subject and auteur, a line where emotion begins and ends in front of, not behind, the camera. Kent favors a more hands-on approach.
“Sometimes you can get into tender territory and you have to know by listening very carefully whether to pursue or back off… You can’t just pack up your equipment and say ‘thanks very much, bye now,’ if you left an open wound there. So you need to know what to do there and if necessary how to refer them to get the help that they need,” Kent said.
She recently worked with a reluctant senior, a natural-born storyteller who preferred to limit his gifts to family functions. After his daughter in-laws finally coerced him in front of Kent’s camera, she couldn’t get him to stop talking. The end result was a mini-series worth of personal anecdotes, a five disc recap divided between his childhood, career, and loves.
“He was a natural storyteller but often got very emotional and would get embarrassed by that and so we kind of had to stop and talk about ‘that’s OK. That only means that you feel deeply about something. There’s nothing to be ashamed of,’” Kent said.
She truly values the mission of the APH and the opportunity that it has given her to tell stories and preserve history for generations to come.
“We’re just trying to save stories. We actually say we’re saving lives one story at a time,” Kent said.
The greatest compliment to her craft came when she attended the wake of a former client. Kent arrived to find the video she had made playing in the background and was immediately greeted by one of the man’s sons.
“You’ll never know how much Dad loved that movie you made,” he said. “He would play it and make us watch it over and over.”
Business Through the Ages
Eileen Kent secured her own place in history sooner rather than later. She helped plant the seeds for the Mohawk Valley Business Women’s Network, an organization of women business owners and entrepreneurs that provides support, advice and assistance to one another in the business community.
She was teaching a course dedicated to helping women start their own businesses.
“That core group of women had so much fun in that course they refused to leave and they created a network that went on and met once a month for the last 30 years,” Kent said.
She was a member of the network for 20 years while she had her counseling practice and returned again after she became a videographer.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful empowering group for women,” Kent said.