One Year Later: Chimpanzee Productions

Above, an Audio Postcard about the starting conditions for the project. 

When they began to work on the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR) last year, Executive Director Thomas Allen Harris imagined igniting a movement where family photos are kept, cherished and used as the basis for storytelling and oral histories. They expressed interest in partnering with public organizations, such as the New York City Housing Authority, but had not yet launched any partnerships.

A year later DDFR has an active project or partnership in each of the five boroughs and has seen an explosion of interest in their work. Through working with their partners and listening to and adapting to their needs Chimpanzee has also become more flexible in their working methods and adapting their original vision to serve a greater number of community members. The movement they imagined starting is well on its way to taking shape.

The Innovation

The DDFR project uses audiovisual experiences that illuminate the search for family and identity with a focus on communities of color. Harris explains that DDFR aims to “empower people to use storytelling as an activist tool and demonstrate that history is made by each one of us.” DDFR invites participants to share family photographs in a facilitated conversation, which they record and produce into a video.

In addition, they digitize participants’ photo archive and share it with participants at the end of the process. With support from the Rockefeller NYC Cultural Innovation Fund Chimpanzee Productions hoped to use the DDFR project as a catalyst to create a larger movement. They wanted to take time to create a greater number of partnerships, and educate other organizations about DDFR’s mission and overall, increase the impact of the project.

Progress to Date

Chimpanzee Productions has built a tremendous amount of interest in the DDFR project, taken on new partners and hosted several large, well-received events. After hearing their audio postcard last year, a coordinator of Healthy Families Brooklyn, which is located in the NYCHA’s Gowanus Houses, reached out to them. They built a partnership with the group and held a media literacy workshop and discussions about photos for the women involved, who range in age from seven to eighty.

Chimpanzee has also partnered with Brooklyn College to present a campus wide event this fall that will bring together the college community and residents in the surrounding neighborhood. Other partners now include the Sandy Ground Historical Association in Staten Island, which documents the history of the island’s Black community, the Schomburg Library, and the Louis Armstrong Museum in Queens.

Biggest Challenge

Don Perry, the Chief Operating Officer of Chimpanzee explained that DDFR, “Ignited a tremendous amount of interest and its been an excess of success. We’ve gotten more partners and with those, more complicated relationships.” Balancing the needs, input, goals and schedules of different groups to make these partnerships successful at first threw Chimpanzee off the timeline they had originally envisioned for the project. However, they have turned this challenge into an organizational strength by adjusting their approach to facilitating community workshops and photo sharing sessions.

Key Learning

Chimpanzee Productions had to shift their initial thinking about the project in order to successfully address the challenge of working with their new partners. They learned that:

  • By adopting a more flexible format they could engage a greater number of community members: Perry explained that “As a direct result of our successful experiences we have been able to change up the format of our documentary production, and be more flexible with how we engage community members to not only achieve the aims that we have, but the aims of our partners.”
  • They can respond to increased demand by leveraging the skills of their partners: As demand increased for more production crews to film larger and multi-part events, Chimpanzee found they could work with partners with production skills, such as a youth media literary program, in order to accommodate their needs.

Next Steps

In addition to upcoming projects with Brooklyn College, the Sandy Ground Historical Association, and the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection, Chimpanzee is pursuing an even more open model of an event with the Schomburg Center. Entitled “Harlem’s Treasures” it will invite community members to nominate living “treasures” who they feel “Put the Harlem in Harlem,” to be featured in a DDFR documentary.

Perry explains this new process, “Before, we were responsible for curating the interview subjects and now our partners help us to curate the subjects. Currently, we are moving to group events where subjects curate themselves and on to ‘crowd sourced’ events where a community tells us who they want to see interviewed.”

With the overwhelmingly positive response to the DDFR project, Chimpanzee has found that innovation and partnership has required them to open up and rethink their original approach the project. Harris explains, “It has been about letting go to let it grow, breathe and being flexible enough to evolve with it.”

Interview conducted by Karina Mangu-Ward.  Post written by Eleanor Whitney with Karina Mangu-Ward.  

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Innovation at EmcArts.