How close are you to yours?
Elizabeth Barrett in her film, Stranger With a Camera, poses the ethical dilemma of where the boundary of exploitation and education lies. Being personally connected to Jeremiah, Kentucky, she tells the account of the murder of Hugh O’Connor, a well-respected, Canadian filmmaker. With his camera crew and a car filled with recording equipment, O’Connor wanted to document the families and lifestyles of Appalachia that were subjected to the manipulation and unfair treatment of the coal mining companies. However, he was not able to complete this project when he was shot by Hobart Ison: a property owner that murdered this filmmaker when he was unsettled by the invasion of privacy and trespassing of his property. Although, O’Connor did secure authorization to film and photograph Ison’s property when he spoke with Mason Eldrige, a family-man living on Ison’s land. As a result of O’Connor’s actions, Ison perceives this media coverage to be exploitive and falsely-representing of his location. Ison felt it was necessary to shoot O’Connor to stand up for his community. Most of the inhabitants of this region are depicted to be suffering from starvation, low wages, and harsh living conditions by numerous journalists, news corporations, and other media sources. However, to Barrett, they were telling a story that she had never heard before.
To Barrett, this description does not match her own tale of her home. She grew up attending school, living with her family in a safe house, eating homecooked meals, and celebrating the holidays. In light of her own life experience, O’Connor’s research depicted her location, unknowingly, in a negative light, despite the actual poverty occurring in the area. Documenting this murder in light of the ethical and moral boundaries that come with filmmaking, she displays the importance of one’s location and how it can essentially make or break the intent and quality of one’s work.
O’Connor, a family man of the middle class, came to this impoverished area with expensive, technological-equipment with the intent to simply inform the rest of the world about the quality of life these people have. However, Barrett poses the question of whether he had the ethical license to invite himself into this community to film these inhabitants, including children, in such a vulnerable state. To not only Barrett but to also the Jeremiah, Kentucky area, O’Connor’s intentions of pure documentation were not seen as genuine, thus leading to their overt support of Ison during his court trails of involuntary manslaughter.
Ultimately, it is one’s bind to one’s location that does not allow full objectivity when documenting anything from film to photography. Barrett is unsure as to how justified Ison was in committing this crime as his dignity and pride were infringed upon, as she carries the dual-perspective of not only the filmmaker but also the subject. However, she acknowledges the efforts that O’Connor made to assure permission of documenting this property when he spoke with Mason Eldridge. The controversy of these events surrounds the moral and ethical dilemmas of documentary filmmaking.
A push and pull
“To be more abstract about both Agee and Orwell as social observers and writers (and about a kind of writing that combines reportage and reflection, delivered in a prose that is affecting, summoning, suggestively descriptive), certain polarities or tensions ought to be mentioned: the demands of reality as against those of art; the demands of objectivity as against those of subjectivity; a quantitative emphasis as against a qualitative one; the tone a first-person narrative offers as against one executed in the third person; a voice seeking to be contemplative, considered, as against one aming for passionate persuasion, or advocacy or denunciation; a distanced, analytic posture as against a morally engaged or partisan one; an inclination for the theoretical, as against the concrete, the practical; a narrative, rendered in personal or vernacular or even confessional language as against one replete with a technical or academic language” (Coles 27-28).
Coles displays the paradoxical dynamic that comes with documentary research, as he concludes that it is impossible to maintain complete balance and regularity. This quote speaks to the chapter in its entirety when he describes inconsistency or errors, whether it be human or technical, as being embraced and accepted as it allows for an organic piece of documentary work. Coles acknowledges the unavoidable biases, different points of view, and overall emotions that can seep into the work, and describes this as a natural occurrence that does not devalue the work as a whole. For both Agee and Orwell, documentary study depicts reality, and this destined push-and-pull between objectivity and subjectivity, theory and actuality, etc, thereby enforces the gray areas of the creative process in documentary research.