Muhlenberg College Spring 2019


A Stranger in a Familiar Land

A Zorki 4 Camera. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Mohylek.
A Zorki 4 Camera. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Mohylek. (

In this interview clip of Elizabeth Barret, she is deeply invested in the concept of location as it concerns the place she documents. She mentions place both in terms of geographical setting and of “placing oneself” in a specific setting. Aside from location and place, Barret also mentions her relationship to setting and community at various points throughout the clip, which suggests that she is aware of the space that she occupies in the world that she has chosen to document.

A key point here is that Barret has lived in her documented setting for a long period of time. Whereas journalists and other documentarians are transient in their locations, Barret has integrated herself into the community that she is investigating. This might have some interesting ramifications for the documentary. For example, as a long-time resident, Barret may have access to stories, details, and information that would not otherwise be available to an “outsider.” While this level of access may sound desirable for a documentarian at first, it also creates a struggle: Barret would then have to make the distinction between acceptable details to include versus what information might be too private to show on a screen. She would also have to do this while preserving the journalistic integrity of the documentary and while considering her personal biases and relationships to those she interviews. In Barret’s case, the documentarian’s twofold struggle that Coles describes in Doing Documentary Work may take on added personal, emotional nuances.

Throughout this interview, Barret is not only aware of her relationship to her location, but she is also aware of herself. She takes into account her multiple roles as both a filmmaker/media producer – the “outsider,” or the titular “stranger with a camera” – and as a resident of the place she is documenting – the “insider” – and tries to navigate the dynamics of both. This sort of negotiation between roles adds tension to the documentary-making process. It may give texture to the documentary itself, since its director brings to the process a specific perspective as both an insider and outsider with a camera.

I chose this photo of a camera because it ties into Barret’s work. In one way, she is – as the title of her film suggests – a stranger with a camera. But in another sense, she is a familiar resident of the place she has set herself and her film in. Barret’s use of a camera in a place that she has lived for a long time, among people she knows intimately, has the potential to create tension in her documentary work.