Shooting People: Documentary Power and Ethics

I am currently at the University of Edinburgh earning my Master’s in Film Studies.  For my “Constructing Reality” course (about documentary filmmaking), I am to shoot a minute of “Visual Truth.”  So I go out to a busy street, trying to shoot what I consider the illusions of visual truths.  I believe there are no absolute truths to an image; they always require an outside context.

So I’m trying to get shots of certain people, capturing their normal activities without them noticing my camera (which would undermine the reality I’m trying to reveal).   But to do this, I have to become this sneaky character and this feeling of sneakiness prompts questions of my activity.

First, you wonder if you have the right to shoot people.  Legally, you are allowed to photograph people if they are in a public space.  If you shoot a person for longer than 30 seconds or portray them in a way that is misleading (editing them into a negative light) then you can get into legal trouble.  Beyond this, ethically, it’s up to you.

The other thing I noticed while shooting in such a clandestine manner was the power I felt.  I mean this in a subtle way, not in a totalitarian manner.  By pointing the camera at a scene and zooming in on a subject, all of a sudden I am allowed to bring into focus objects, movements, gestures, and people who are normally overlooked or out of focus.  A guy walking to class amongst a river of people suddenly becomes a main character in a film/play because the camera is on him; a trashcan everyone walks past suddenly has meaning.  Watching these subjects through my little LCD screen enthralled me because subjects that even I took for granted, suddenly became fascinating through this focus.

Alongside the clandestine shooting technique I described, you become a sniper of the “real world” in a very literal way.  You keep at a certain distance from your subject so they do not see you, just like a sniper.  You keep your camera lens covered until you’re ready to “shoot;” if you take the cap off too soon, the glare of the lens might attract attention and throw off your shot, just like a sniper.  Even the aforementioned power aspect lends itself to this sniper comparison; the power to see without being seen.

So while in this position of power, the ability to bring forth what normally blends in, where does the line of “filmmaker” start and “stalker” end?  Should we be allowed to have such power?  “Stalker” may sound strong, but when we film someone we are invading their space in the same way of stalkers.  I’d like to think that the legal 30 second rule isn’t enough to cast aside this question of recording people, for the power dynamic that emerges forces us to take into consideration our motivations and requires a sensitivity with what we decide to publicize from our subjects.

Further, this ability to “draw out” something by filming it, beyond ethical questions (“Does this person want to be the star of this film?), illuminates the ultimate power of cinema: Representation.  By having the camera on a subject (living or not) you automatically grant that subject an importance over other subjects.  You implicitly state that other subjects are not as important.

A scholar came to campus to talk about African cinema and commented that some of the first films produced on the continent were well received because it was their home up on the screen; it was their home selected to be filmed.

And even I’ve experienced this as someone from Louisville, Kentucky, where everyone went ga-ga over Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown because it was shot in Elizabethtown (near Louisville) and in Louisville (but were annoyed that they used a dummy company for the airline, Air Kentucky).  The only reason they watched the film was to see their home on-screen.

All of this has been discussed before, the power of drawing out that which usually goes unseen, but it’s a whole different thing to actually experience it firsthand (I’d encourage you, Dear Reader, to use the video function on your digital camera and try this for yourself).

Filmmakers should also keep in mind my latter point on representation with this question: Why are you filming this subject over another subject?  As one documentary filmmaker articulated, we all come to the camera with our biases and we need to be asking ourselves if we are supporting an ideology/system by giving it more representation with our camera.  Why did we choose this person or this topic?  Are we just further entrenching the notions of “reality” we see on TV or film (white, middle class, suburban lifestyles) or are we really interacting with the world and providing a wider scope to that which is already established by mainstream media portrayals?

I guess this is a long way of saying are you trying to provide representational equality?  Whether fiction or documentary films, this is an ethical end that should be pursued.  By filming people and their story you are franchising them.  So why film those who already have the filmic representational franchise?

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