Muhlenberg College Spring 2019

documentary research

Alumni Week 2019

I thoroughly enjoyed Alumni Week! Although I didn’t get around to every workshop I wanted to because of classes, the ones I was able to see were so informative and insightful. I think my interview with my alumni partner, Drew Swedberg, went really well. I found out quite a lot about him, as he was very eloquent when he spoke about his time at Muhlenberg (so eloquent I genuinely have no idea how I’m going to cut his responses down to just 30 seconds). One thing he said when I mentioned that to him was that sometimes as a documentarian a person will get hours of a film only to crop it to an hour-long time slot, and that resonated with me because he was definitely right, and I never thought of it that way. Next time, I would like to have a bigger time slot than 30 seconds crop the interview down to, because he really said some amazing things that I felt are necessary to learn about his place, in a sense of where he is now and where he was back at Muhlenberg.

The alumni panel with Jeri Cohen was actually really helpful, and I got a job interview out of it because she loved my ideas for advertising so much. I love how just the one workshop I did with her resulted in her offering me a chance at an internship, I didn’t even realize I could network just by being an active participant in the workshop and by coming up with creative ideas. I actually found a workshop I’d never thought I’d go to as very helpful. Overall, I think Alumni Week was a really great success for me, and I can’t wait to continue networking next year.

A Web of Complexity

Chapter 3 is a loaded chapter, in my opinion. I feel as though in the first two chapters, Coles focused very heavily on how everything is subjective, and no matter how many perspectives are viewed, there is always the subconscious bias of the creator or editor of the documentary. However, in this chapter, Coles discusses how fact vs. fiction is not as black and white as they are presumed to be. For example, he states “A documentarian’s report will be strengthened by what has been witnessed, but what will be fueled, surely, by what those observations come to mean by his or her head: we absorb sights and sounds, and they become our experience, unique to us, in that we, their recipients, are unique.” (Coles 91) Dorothea Lange edited her photos to direct them towards unfolding the humanity of the Great Depression. Although her subjectivity was evident, she used it to her advantage to convey a better understanding of the human condition to the rest of America.

Coles states that documentary work is a human, a web of complexities (background, race, political opinions, gender, sexuality, religion) interacting with another web of complexities, making this web all the vaster and all the more complicated. Dorothea Lange dealt with polio for her whole life, and then later, cancer. Location is so important to Dorothea Lange, who was born in the northeast and had a Columbia education. She witnessed the Great Depression in cities firsthand. She also experienced tremendous loss, with her father leaving and then divorcing her first husband. Location was also important because of the places that she and her second husband traveled in order to research and photograph America during the Great Depression. They traveled across the country, and her studio was based in California. She was, as Gordon stated, a city girl with a love for western environmentalism. These locations shaped her ideas, as she lived in the northeast, which is primarily liberal, and then California. However, the photo she took of Florence Thompson shows how race and economic status are huge social gaps, as one resident of California had a Columbia level education, and the other was a destitute pea picker.

This connects with the importance of Dorothea Lange’s location, and how her perspective and location shaped how she utilized her camera. Coles shows various images that Lange had cropped and edited to enable the gaze of the subject to connect with the gaze of the viewer. She did this particularly in her work “Ditched, Stalled, and Stranded” where she cut out the face of the wife in the car and kept the gaze of the husband. This shows how the subjectivity of editing gives a photo certain importance, as Coles says, “Lange turns a photograph into a melancholy statement that embraces more than the population of a California agricultural region. She does so by cropping (editing) her work, by denying us the possibility of a married couple in which one spouse seems reasonably contented, by reducing a scene to a driver who is readily seen as forlorn, and also as deeply introspective, eager for us, his fellow citizens, to return the intensity of his (moral) introspection.” (Coles 108-109). Lange showed viewers that the subjects in her photos were worthier than more than what their conditions were. She gave them a genuine sense of humanity. “What Lange saw in her subjects came partly from her own consciousness. Her portraits of sharecroppers and Japanese Americans express her emotions as well as theirs,” (Gordon 7). This subjectivity and sense of location combined into this web of complexity within Lange gave her photos a sense of meaning, which is why they are so well known today. Subjectivity is not always as negative as it is perceived to be, it is simply complex.

A Stranger With a Reflection: More Than One Perspective

This week in class, we watched a documentary called Stranger With A Camera, a film that focused on the controversial death of Hugh O’Connor in Kentucky in 1967. Personally, I feel like there is so much to be said about the documentary because it brought up so many good points about what a good, objective film should be. I love the fact that the camerawoman, Elizabeth Barrett, was from the richer side of Kentucky, because she was able to give the audience access to the Kentuckian lives. However, because she grew up living a comfortable life, she still felt as if she were a stranger to the impoverished people she interviewed.

The people of Kentucky had a tumultuous relationship with camera crews, journalists and documentarians back in the 1960s. After the conditions of the coal miners were released globally, hundreds of journalists swarmed the poorer regions of Kentucky, giving the people there conflicting emotions. One half of Kentuckians wanted the exposure, so that the world would see the miners’ conditions and find ways to help them (like through building new factories in the areas). Others felt the exposure was exploitation, that the world would see the state in a bad light and give it a reputation. The richer community felt as if they were not getting enough exposure as well. The outside views of Kentucky became warped and generalized, receiving the idea from the media that Kentucky was a poor, desperate state. Barrett helps show that there is always more than one perspective in an issue that is not always illuminated by the way it is represented. My favorite quote of hers from the film was “What is the difference between how people see their own place and how it is represented by others?”

Lastly, Barrett gives two sides to the controversy of Hugh’s murder. If anyone were to report on the murder, they would have immediately supported Hugh’s side, he was unjustly shot. However, Barrett points out that Hugh was not completely in the right. Although he asked permission of the citizens to take pictures of them, he did not inquire whether could physically be on the land itself. Many Kentuckians praised Hobart Ison, the landowner who shot O’Connor, because of the influx of invasive journalists in their state. However, when most Kentuckians did not want to have a reputation of hillbillies, Ison basically confirmed this reputation to the outside world by doing something so out of the norm for other regions.

It is controversial to say who was right or wrong in the murder of Hugh O’Connor. A camera can be invasive. It has the power to communicate, but it also has the power to exploit, and I think Elizabeth Barrett did a really great job at not only looking at the story from every angle, but for laying down the basic rules of documentary research as well.