The Observant Lens

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

The Role of Objectivity for Documentary Camera Work

“Someday I’ll have to tell you about it,” was what was going through my mind. I was holding the Canon XL1s video camera close to my chest at the time, and for once didn’t have the nerve to aim and roll. I’ve been on countless video shoots in more than 20 countries, much of it in the third world, with Fresh Air Media (Auburn, Calif.). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve either shot or stood by as another photographer drew in sensitive images. This time it was different.

My wife and I were adopting our second international child, this time a two-year-old boy from Taiwan. Dusty, my son who was 12 years old at the time, and I had been taping all morning. In this rare case, the birth mother was present and I had sense enough to ask her some questions on tape through an interpreter. It was a long afternoon of emotions and formalities, until the very end. In the chaos of the orphanage, as she was leaving, the birth mother took my wife’s hands in hers and they stood face to face, unable to speak. East and west; birth and adoptive mothers sharing tears with “goodbye” as the only common word between them. That was when I stopped rolling tape.

While it is chic to depict lens-oriented artists as developing relationships with their subjects, it isn’t always the best practice. In fact, it is sometimes the distance between photographer and subject that will permit powerful images of the moment. Indeed the more investment an observer has, the more protective he or she may be. This was one of those times. I was too close. I needed less, not more relationship with the subject.

Empathy is not relationship. A refugee camp in Mozambique made that painfully clear to me. Even though it was a target-rich situation, despair and beauty intermingled, death and hope sitting side by side eating nutrient-laced corn mash: it was empathy that kept the tape rolling. The black and white viewfinder painted the scene surreal. Even still, hollow eyes, a limp child being rocked in her mother’s lap, two boys wearing only torn burlap corn bags with holes cut for neck and arms – they all depicted incredible beauty – the unmistakable suffering-Christ in each textured gaze. The UN’s effort to restore these people’s lives was a desperate measure meant to soften the blows of civil war skirmishes in nearby areas. Would I have been able to capture images meant to raise funds and awareness in the United States if these were my own children?

Whether in documentary, directed action or photo-journalism, a lens-seer must learn patience and the discipline of observation to come home with truly great images. It’s a hard thing to desire, “discipline”. Replaying the memories of a shoot side by side with the actual footage is a great teacher. I find that I almost always wish I had captured longer shots. My memory of the place gets blurred with my memory of what was in the viewfinder. After the shoot, studying each setup and in the case of moving pictures, each frame, will very often reveal truth I didn’t see while it actually happened.

An inexperienced cameraman will often move from shot to shot in what looks like attention-deficit frustration. Especially in a documentary or journalistic project; so much is happening all at once, time begins to speed up as it becomes obvious that a decision to go after one shot means a thousand others will go by. There’s discipline again. A good practice is to press the record button, take a breath and begin counting in slow seconds. If I get twice the footage per scene than I planned to use, it was time well spent.

Sometimes a documentary shoot will be fairly tightly directed. As long as the camera is parked for an interview or master shot, reenactment or germane imagery, judgment calls are more or less deferred to a director or producer. Once the action becomes actual, the responsibility can be shared or even displaced to the talent behind the camera. Seeing a scene and its occupants not for what it is, but what it will become, is what informs judgment.

While at Fresh Air Media, one of my favorite editors was Kevin Hartman. We traveled on several occasions to far-flung places, one of which included an area outside of Cali, Columbia where an earthquake and mudslides displaced hundreds of Guambiano indigenes. Kevin’s primary role on the shoot was director of photography. He was brilliant of course, because he saw through an editor’s eyes. He would be setting a shot and look at me and say, “I already know how I’m going to use this…” He was also the first to admit that he had nobody to blame but himself for errors we would later discover in post-production. “Ohhhh, I wish I’d rolled longer on that,” he was heard to say after we’d returned.

I have consciously worried that peering through a lens at suffering would harden my heart. There have been twinges of guilt, as if to say, “Why don’t you put down the camera and do something?” Reviewing images later, a dirty-faced child with a runny nose or an old man leaning on a stick whose smile reveals a single rotting tooth, will make me pause the tape and look closely. So beautiful. I can’t help but think, now reflecting back on those specific shots burned into my memory, that our Redeemer once resembled the poor child, dirtied by Galilean streets. Was he beaten so by his captors that he too lost teeth and hung rather than leaned on the wood that prepared him for resurrection?

Of course the goal must be, in part, to never walk away from a shoot unchanged. It is a fair question, “Why don’t you do something?” With all the “reality” TV programs, camera-ready cell phones and cheap camcorders running around, we’re arguably the most documented society in history. Narcissists and voyeurs, now that’s a relationship. Discipline again. It’s the art of knowing what makes a target-rich situation and what would be better committed to memory than to tape.

Our obsession with recording every school play, recital, soccer game and birthday party doesn’t qualify us for Sundance. The temptation is strong; it certainly was for me in the sweltering southern Taiwanese orphanage. Truthfully, I sometimes kick myself for not hitting the red button as my new son’s future symbolically passed from one mother’s hands to another. Some day when I have the opportunity to tell him about it, the moment will be transferred from my memory to his imagination. If that helps him to define himself as a boy loved, it will be enough.