An audio slideshow on an NYC taxidermist that will really get under your skin

Melissa Dixson is a NYC resident and taxidermy hobbyist.
Melissa Dixson is a NYC resident and taxidermy hobbyist.

Audio slideshows are a compelling and intimate form of journalism that allow an audience to both see and hear the subject(s) of a story. This does much to immediately connect an audience to whom a story is about, adding a human element, which is an effect not as easy to achieve using writing alone. When such slideshows are focused on one individual–as opposed to many–this human-to-human connection feels even more powerful.

Recently I reviewed several audio slideshows on The New York Times‘ “One in 8 Million” series. The series is an audio/photo project that profiled 54 individuals living in New York City (three in the first week and then one per week thereafter) over the course of the year 2009. Of the dozen or so audio slideshows I reviewed, the one that stuck with me the most was “Melissa Dixson: The Urban Taxidermist.” The piece was produced by Alexis Mainland (who also interviewed Dixson) and was photographed by Todd Heisler.

Perhaps my attraction to this particular piece is born out of some sort of desensitization to the process of taxidermy, the result of my experience as a wildlife rehabber who has routinely handled (and cut open) dead animals for over five years. Or, perhaps it is because I am an animal person more generally and any story about furred, scaled and feathered critters piques my interest. Or, maybe it’s because of the gripping, multi-faceted approach taken in order to tell this story. Likely, it’s a combination of all three of these elements, but for now I’ll focus on explaining the last one:

Dixson’s story is told completely by Dixson–there is no reporter’s voice interrupting and asking questions. Instead, you hear Dixson’s responses to a reporter’s questions, and these responses are pieced together to form what is essentially a long, flowing soliloquy about her taxidermy hobby (full-time, she informs us, she works in a bookstore).

What I loved most about this piece was its raw, gripping lede: “The first time that I got a squirrel I thought—I looked at it—and I said, ‘Am I going to be able to do this? Am I really going to be able to cut this thing open?’ But once you think about it as a project and something that you have to do, it’s really no different than cutting chicken to make for dinner…there’s really no guts involved.”

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I mean, WOW: the image that opening statement puts in your head. Would you have cut open the squirrel? Would you have likened it to a piece of chicken?

Accompanying that statement is a photo of a dead squirrel in Dixson’s hand, which segues into a photo of Dixson hunched over her workstation, poking at some sharp-toothed creature with what looks like a very pointy tool. Dixson’s voice is surprisingly animated and enthusiastic for someone who spends her free time around dead things. This conversational tone, rhetoric and diction make her seem more relatable, more human in the eyes of her audience, even if most of her audience is probably unfamiliar with cutting open and preserving dead animals.

Throughout the slideshow, Dixson describes both the challenges and pleasures she finds as a taxidermist living in the not-so-wild NYC. I think it’s incredible how Mainland was able to cram so many of Dixson’s anecdotes and personality into less than two and a half minutes of audio. She certainly asked Dixson all of the right questions, and, in my opinion, she arranged Heisler’s photos to her audio in an order that was perfectly aligned, connecting words with images.

Accompanying this photo of her (living) domestic cat named Stella, were Dixson's words: "I definitely don't do pets."
Accompanying this photo of her (living) domestic cat named Stella, were Dixson’s words: “I definitely don’t do pets.”

Overall, this piece was excellent, and I think it should be the standard to which all audio slideshows are held. The audio, photos and actual content of the slideshow were clear and of high quality. Though I love this piece as is, I think it would be interesting to see Heisler’s photos in full color rather than black and white.

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