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.