"A camera is like a gun. It's threatening... it's invasive; it is exploitative, in terms of mass media. And it's not always true."
--Colin Low, friend and colleague of Hugh O'Connor
In 1967, Canadian filmmaker Hugh O'Connor bled to death on a country road in eastern Kentucky. He was in that part of Appalachia to document its poverty, and, for his efforts, he had been shot through the chest. His killer, Hobart Ison, shot him because resented O'Connor's presence on his property and because of his lingering anger over the way that stereotyped images of Appalachian people -- "hillbillies" -- had become icons in America's War on Poverty. Ison pleaded guilty to a charge of voluntary manslaughter and served a year in prison.
I've been thinking about this murder -- and about what it means -- for the last few days. I'm working on a blog post about the history of stereotyped images of Africans, and, being stuck on a point or two, I desperately needed some inspiration. So I turned to Elizabeth Barret's quiet, passionate, and very smart film about O'Connor and Ison, Stranger with a Camera, one of my favorite documentaries. Kentucky may be a long way from Africa, at least in geographical terms, but the story of the encounter between these two men raises questions that resonate powerfully with the Africa's own experiences with film and photography.
[Please click on the black boxes directly above and below. The clips are excerpts from Stranger with a Camera, and, seen together, they'll give you a good sense of what Barret's up to.]
Barret, who was born not far from the site of O'Connor's death and is a documentary filmmaker herself, is the perfect guide. She asks questions that are fundamental to documentary work, whether we're talking about filmmakers, photographers, or even writers. She wants viewers to join her in thinking about "the difference between how people see their own place and how others represent it," about "who gets to tell the community's story," and about "the story tellers' responsibilities." Barret doesn't pretend that the answers are easy. Instead, she offers viewers a variety of voices and perspectives, and trusts them to sort things out for themselves.
I don't mean to suggest that Barret expects anybody who sees the film to come away thinking that what Ison did was ok. It was murder. Although Barret shows viewers Colin Low telling her that that "a camera is like a gun," neither she nor Low would want anyone to take that simile too far.
Cameras don't kill. But they can do a lot of damage in other ways. The images that photographers make "may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reaches of metaphor, assassinate," to quote one of Susan Sontag's best known rhetorical flourishes. "Assassinate" is admittedly over the top, but her main point is valid. Photos can hurt. Photos can do damage. That's especially true when the power relationship between filmmakers and photographers and their subjects is wildly unbalanced, as it usually is when documentarians investigate the lives of the poor and oppressed.
As Barret and others have shown, many of the documentary (and fine art) filmmakers and photographers who have worked in Appalachia have reinforced stereotypes about dumb, lazy, inbred hillbillies, despite their best intentions. The people of Appalachia understood the dynamic. The national and international media relentlessly reproduced the images for audiences that it presumed were middle-class outsiders, far removed mountains of Kentucky and its neighbors. But Appalachian people saw those images, too, and they guessed, correctly, that most people who saw them simply accepted them as accurate representations mountain life. Few people would have had either the inclination or the tools to question, interrogate, and dismantle the stereotypes.
All of this means that filmmakers and photographers have a heavy responsibility that can't be shrugged off, pushed aside, or avoided. Anyone who wants to represent others -- that is, to create their public image and a body of knowledge about them -- must always be aware of the histories and contexts within which his or her images and words will operate. The hillbilly stereotype has long been used to dismiss Appalachian people's demands for social and economic justice and to blame them for their own misery. This doesn't mean that filmmakers and photographers should devote themselves to unmasking stereotypes, but it does mean they should, at the very least, avoid perpetuating them. At best, they'll provide viewers with deeper and richer sources of information -- the tools that I mentioned above that they can use to question and dismantle stereotypes.
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I'll let Ronald Polly have the last word. He was the attorney who represented (that word again!) Hobart Ison in court and someone that liberal, affluent viewers from outside of Appalachia might have a hard time identifying with. He's nobody's fool, and people who have been victims of stereotypes and documentaries will find themselves nodding in agreement, when they hear him say that a
misplaced attitude of "Save the Aborigines" is as old as the hills. ...people who think they are more sophisticated are going to come into the backward countries and make everything right. And that kind of thing had been going on in eastern Kentucky where the people from the northeast of the United States and elsewhere were coming down filming the bad parts to publicize that kind of thing. And that's the backdrop of what happened with the Hobart Ison situation.
All of this resonates with the ways in which filmmakers, photographers, and their audiences have used and abused Africa. That's a subject that I'll return to later this week.
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