Muhlenberg College Fall 2019

Documentary Research – Robert Coles

The Final Post

I enjoyed and learned a lot taking Documentary Research this fall semester. Looking into the work of Robert Coles, Bill Nichols, and Dorothea Lange has allowed to me understand the components and ethics that go along with Documentary work. I enjoyed reading Robert Coles book the most because I found it the most useful and easy to connect to my essay topics. I liked how this class gave us the opportunity to create our personal blogs. I have become apart of media other then just having social media. I also enjoyed how our two main essays that we worked on throughout the semester helped us write our final essay for the class. In addition, having the other projects such as the 30-second documentary and our final 2-3 minute documentary was beneficial because we implemented the work we have been reading out through the the semester. Overall, Documentary Research has opened me up to new opportunities and has advanced the background information about the history of documentaries and the overall components of what goes into documentaries, especially the ethics behind it. One thing I will take away from this course is the importance of one’s location in their own work experiences. The idea of location that we focused on can be applied to not only the work of media-makers but also people in their day to day actives as they want to complete their own goals.

The One With a Voice

In Marco Williams documentary piece titled, “Banished” he explored three communities that were “struggling to reconcile their past” (Williams). Williams is known for working with documentaries that are solution-oriented and focus on reconciliation for African American individuals and families who are not given the opportunity to voice their own feelings and thoughts. Williams own experiences facing racial discrimination allows him to share these type of experiences with his subjects he is documenting. William’s voice within his works develops from his location, giving him a reason to want to advocate for others because of his understanding of what they are going through.

However, it takes a lot of strength and bravery on Williams part in working on these films because of the various individuals he is working with. For example, when Williams was talking to a Clans member on the man’s property . Williams posed a question to the man which was, “If I were to move over there beyond your property, would I be accepted?” The man provided a response a long the lines of, “No, no you wouldn’t be because I want to preserve my community cultural” (Williams). This part of the documentary shows both the location of Williams, and also an example of Williams facing discrimination himself while doing his own work. The member is saying that if a man of color were to enter HIS community, it would be “ruining” the communities cultural. In addition, while in conversation with this member Williams questions him by saying, “burning any crosses lately” because of a photo collage William observed. This question shows that William was able to pose an activist based documentary question even while being faced with these discriminatory comments while filming.

Coles writes in “Doing Documentary Work, “––doing documentary work is a journey, and is a little more, too, a passage across boundaries… a passage that can become. quest, Evan a pilgrimage, a movement toward the sacred truth enshrined not only on tablets of stone but in the living hearts of those others whom we can hear, see, and get to understand… we hope to be confirmed in our own humanity–– the creature on this earth whose very nature it is to make just that kid of connection with others during the brief stay we are permitted here” (Coles 145).

This passage connects to the work of Williams because it discussed the idea of documenters connecting to the ones they are observing while documenting. Coles sums up the documentaries responsibility as a way to share stories while also informing the audience. To conclude, Williams as a documenter strives to give justice for the individuals he is documenting because wants to be able to give them that “voice” that they were not be able to have on their own.

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The Peoples Photographer

“Mother and three children in a California squatter camp”
Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Mother and three children in a California squatter camp
. Nov. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Dorthea Lange, was a struggling mother whom still fulfilled her career as a “peoples photographer” capturing the life of others and their experiences and portraying the individuals truly. The goal of Lange when documenting the lives of others was to maintain their dignity and humanity. Throughout, Lange’s career she captured individuals that were fighting to survive and support themselves during this tough time period. Lange’s work brought upon empathy and respect, it also opened the public eyes to the lives of others that they might have not ever even thought about.

“Dorothea Lange was an energetic, ambitious photographer, but she also was a moral pilgrim of sorts, ever ready to give us a record of human experience that truly matters: our day-to-day struggles as members of a family, of a neighborhood, of a nation to make do, to take on life as best we can, no matter, the obstacles we face” (Coles 114-115).

Lange was representing the individuals she captured as more than just poverty stricken individuals. Lange not being able to fulfill the domestic side to being a mother and struggling with motherhood allowed her to depict the lives of others so well. Her work showed another side to American society, the incomplete American dream. For example, Dorthea Lange’s project “Migrant Mother” of Florence Thompson showed the strength of Thompson and brought empathy upon the public because as individuals who view the photo you can sense the strength she has a mother taking care of her children in struggling conditions. The photos of Thompson with her children focus on sad facial expressions of the children and the body language of them grasping on to their mother. However, the photos also have meaning within the objects and background in the photo. Specifically in this work, Lange was representing the life of motherhood in harsh conditions. In the picture above, it has a similar tone to the photos of Thompson, because my eyes are drawn to the children being attached to the mother wanting love and help from her, leading me to feel for the mother because I understand the power and strength she needed to have in the conditions they were living in.

Lange’s way of editing her photos provides us with a sense of her point of view and it helped shaped her meanings of the photos she worked with. By cropping and adjusting the photos she took, she was keeping the subjects dignity, and respect because she would crop out objects that she did not think would be important to the overall message of the image. Overall, as a photographer Lange would never stereotype the individuals she would document, and never expressed a bias opinion while also making sure she truly shown the lives of others especially when her work was being brought to the public eye.

Chapter One- “The Work”

In Robert Coles book called, Doing Documentary Work a passage that I found interesting in Chapter one was, “I was affirming what takes place all the time in human affairs: our connectedness (in this case as teacher and student), our membership (even if temporary) in whatever “community” we are trying to “study,” and thus our ability, our inclination, our need to accommodate ourselves to one another, and our participation in what we aim to observe our participation, obviously, as well, in what we thereafter document or give to others as a stimulus for their participation” (Coles 44).

Coles is explaining that within the process of documenting and observing others, documentarians are putting themselves out there in effort to connect with their interviewees or observees. It is important that the information they are taking for the studies is accurately presented in their documents. One strategy that Coles shares that he used while working as a ‘participant observer’ for the SNCC was using a tape recorder. This allowed him to advance his observing technique because it helped him take what he was listening and put it together with what he was observing. Overall, a main message Coles expressed through the chapter was the importance of connecting with their process of “fieldwork,” and the efforts to gain information and present this information to the public.

Evans, Walker. New York, New York. 61st Street between 1st and 3d Avenues. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress). New York, New York , 23 Aug. 1938.