Q&A Sarah Barns


NWG Inc talks to Sarah Barns of Esem Projects about STORYBOX:

We love the technology of STORYBOX’s engagement with the public in Parramatta Square. Who proposed this method of sharing visual stories and how did it become a reality?


 Esem Projects has worked a lot with communities around Sydney and NSW in sharing stories outdoors using digital and immersive media. We started to notice that outdoor media signs could also be adapted in this way, to reveal stories and perspectives of the communities in which they are based, rather than simply selling advertisements. 

We approached the ABC about the potential to showcase some of their archives in public spaces, and together we approached the City of Parramatta Council about their potential to ‘host’ STORYBOX for a three month program.  The program launched in October 2020 with six cultural partners, including the ABC, Story Factory, Curious Works, Western Sydney University, CoP Council, and Sam I Am agency. The project was a great success and so Council decided to extend STORYBOX stay in Parramatta Square during 2021. 

What has been the impact of Covid on this project and how has your team responded?

Covid-19 has had a huge impact! On the one hand, we were delayed in launching until late 2020 after being forced to furlough the launch during the first lockdowns. During that time we did engage with the community online, and launched an online portal for Parramatta at https://www.storybox.co/parramatta to showcase the stories we were building and co-creating with the community. 

When the city opened up, we realised that being an outdoor exhibition platform was a positive when people were looking for safe activities outdoors. There’s now a lot of interest in getting people back into the city after lockdowns, and we hope to be able to work with Councils across Western Sydney to bring community stories to life. We’re finding through Covid the importance of community connectedness, and we believe storytelling is a gift we all share and should be celebrated more. 

Can you briefly tell us about several of your favourite Parramatta stories?

There are so many! I personally loved working with Leanne Tobin, who shared her story of learning about her mother’s history in Parramatta. See Secrets Untold. 
Her mother only discovered her Aboriginal heritage in her 50s, her own mother kept this hidden from her when she was young. Leanne and her family have done a lot to uncover their family’s story all the way back to Yarramundi, a tribal elder who met with Arthur Phillip, and his daughter Maria Lock, the first graduate of the Parramatta Native Institute in the early 1800s and the first Aboriginal person to marry a European at St John’s in Parramatta. You can read an interview with Leanne here about the artwork Secrets Untold, commissioned for STORYBOX by City of Parramatta Council.” 

Worth mentioning here is that most of our videos are made for outdoor viewing, hence they don’t have sound, which can be strange when you’re viewing them online! We also paired a fantastic cinematographer/photographer Tobias Rowles with Jannawi Dance Clan to tell their story of the Net Fishing Dance, and also connected with two women from Wagga, Jayne and Jules Christian, who traced their heritage back to the Barramattagal. 

Another brilliant story. With our partner the ABC, we uncovered some hyper local recordings of Parramatta in the 1960s. Due to lockdowns we shared these online ahead of the public space launch, and one of the videos, a dance at the now demolished Cedars of Lebanon Hall in 1963, was picked up on Facebook by the Lebanese community, who had never seen the footage. We met with some of the people featured in the recordings, and discussed what it meant to look back in time to this era when many families had only recently arrived in Sydney. You can learn more about this here

We love the contributions by emerging writers and residents to our Tiny Stories program, you can see these here: https://www.storybox.co/tinystories

But these are only a tiny fraction of the stories. One of the great things about STORYBOX is surfacing so many amazing stories – past present and future – that shape a place and its people. 

Is there anything special in the pipeline you’d like to tell us about?

We are planning new activations in the future! We love the idea of STORYBOX as a portal into other places, and so will be inviting contributions that take us to places around the world over coming months. 

We had a couple of new activations cancelled this year, including a new program on Climate Futures developed with writing students through Story Factory, so we’ll be exhibiting this work as soon as we are able to. 

Finally, how can locals get involved in STORYBOX?

We welcome Tiny Stories from anyone! These are 120 words or less, and can be fiction or non-fiction. 

Every month we award three prizes, each worth $120, and we animate selected contributions for exhibition on STORYBOX. Learn more here https://www.storybox.co/tinystories

We also award fees for selected artist and creative work, so please get in touch with us if interested in exhibiting on STORYBOX.