Rituals of Representation: A Manifesto

by erinohsays

written for my documentary media course

No documentary form is neutral; therefore no attempts to attain objectivity should be made.
Thomas Keenan of the anti-photojournalism movement argues that, “Cameras create a space and time of appearance in which things happen,” and that, “sometimes things appear in the world for the sake of a picture,” (Keenan, 1). Similarly, Linda Alcoff argues in The Problem of Speaking for Others that, “Rituals of speaking are politically constituted by power relations of domination, exploitation, and subordination,” and that, “who is speaking, who is spoken of, and who listens is a result, as well as an act, of political struggle,” (Alcoff, 12). For this reason, the neutrality of documentary media must be challenged and the power relations at work in any given representation of truth must be explored.

Documentary representation of suffering must aim to move the viewer to protest the suffering.
In Your Country, My Country: How Films About the Iraq War Construct Publics Pat Aufderheide asks, “What kind of a public do these films construct? How are we addressed as people who share a problem and can act on it?” (Aufderheide, 61). Documentary representation of suffering must therefore aim to create what Aufderheide calls, “a transnational public, a body of people who have their common humanity at risk,” (Aufderheide, 61). To create such a connection among those viewing and being viewed, filmmakers must not claim to explain perspectives they do not understand. Rather, the filmmakers must insert the viewer into what they do not know and address any ignorance of complex social conflicts by allowing such conflicts to speak for themselves.

Narration and captioning must claim the subjective entry point of the documentarian to the subject matter.
No representation of truth is free of human interpretation; therefore all narration and captioning of documentary media must identify the individual entry point from which the documentarian enters the subject matter and how this entry point is connected to broader patterns of socialization. Doing so requires an identification of what Linda Alcoff describes as, “the historically specific conditions in which human knowledge occurs,” (Alcoff, 11). Such conditions are both relevant and necessary for constructing representations of truth.

Films that explore marginalized communities must be made in partnership with members of these communities.
Many documentarians have spoken of the importance of epistemic saliency and the power of embodied experience. In The Problem of Speaking for Others Linda Alcoff makes this point succinctly by stating, “who is speaking to whom turns out to be as important for meaning and truth as what is said,” (Alcoff, 12). For this reason, members of marginalized and oppressed communities must not only speak for themselves but they must also be integral to the construction of the narrative and plot development of the film. That is, members of such communities must be at least equal partners with the documentarians, and hold leadership positions in all relevant decision-making elements of the filmmaking process. One way to create meaningful participation of the communities in question is to follow their lead in shooting and then processing the collected material (Aufderheide, 60). This requires a certain degree of “letting go” of the creative process on behalf of the documentarian.

All depictions of human suffering must identify the individuals being shown to the greatest possible degree.
The suffering of others cannot go ignored if the individuals enduring the suffering are identified and their situation contextualized to the viewer. Such identification is not the responsibility of those suffering, however, it is the role of the documentarian to research and explore the ideological relevance of social conflict. This does not mean that the documentarian must completely understand the complexities of the social conflict; rather the main elements of the conflict and the individuals situated within it must be identified to the viewer.

Explorations of any social phenomenon must begin with an analysis of how identity factors such as race, class, and gender contributed to the development of such a phenomenon.
Social location impacts the representation of meaning and truth. As Linda Alcoff points out, “this is not the same as saying that location determines meaning and truth,” but rather that identity factors such as race, class, and gender, are neither simple nor static and that such factors are connected to and influenced by collective identities and broader communities (Alcoff, 13).

The ideological and economic relevance of all depicted physical spaces must be explored.
No space is politically neutral. For this reason, attempts must be made by the documentarian to explore the larger socio-economic systems of all physical spaces depicted in the work. The photographs of Allan Sekula provide a blueprint for such exploration with his micro-histories from the war in Vietnam to the war in the Persian Gulf. Throughout this work he explores the simultaneous ideological and economic relevance of various spaces, such as aerospace industries, crowded apartments, and public banks, within the broader context of capitalist development. Sekula acknowledges, “there is a larger montage principle at work than that internal to any single work,” (Sekula, 238). As a collected work, the physical spaces depicted in Sekula’s photographs come together to make a powerful statement about American post-war development, where military spending becomes a significant source of social instability (Sekula, 238).

The name of the Indigenous territory on which filming or photography takes place must be acknowledged in the credits.
In order to resist and fight against the ongoing project of colonization, the Indigenous land on which all documentation takes place must be respected and acknowledged. Such acknowledgement can take the form of credits or captioning in which the Indigenous groups to whom the land belonged before settlement occurred are identified.

Documentary films must avoid conventional story arcs, which give the illusion of certainty and completeness.
Recipients of documentary media bring with them diverse perspectives and interpretations to the subject content. For this reason, the documentarian must lose a certain degree of control over the work and allow for various trajectories of interpretation (Alcoff, 16). However, this does not mean that the documentarian has no accountability or responsibility for the work. Instead, the documentarian must use interviews to structure the content of the film and let the plot development go where it may, constructing meaning and truth as arbitrarily as the interviewees so desire (Nichols, 174). Such complex portrayals of reality are far more accurate depictions than any imposed story arc could achieve.

Re-enacted events must be clearly labeled as such.
The difference between archival footage and re-enacted footage must be made evident to the viewer so that the documentarian does not deceive the viewer into believing that falsified particular historical events actually occurred. As documentary filmmaker Jon Else argues, “if seeing is believing, then we better be damn careful about what we show people, including ourselves – because regardless of what it is – we are likely to uncritically believe it” (Else, 6).

Works Cited

Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique 20 (1991): 5-32.

Aufderheide, Patricia. “Your Country, My Country: How Films About The Iraq War Construct Publics.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 48.2 (2007): 56-65.

Bernard, Sheila Curran, and Kenn Rabin. Archival Storytelling: A Filmmaker’s Guide to Finding, Using, and Licensing Third-party Visuals and Music. Amsterdam: Focal, 2009.

Ersoy, Ozge, and Thomas Keenan. “Antiphotojournalism: An Interview with Thomas Keenan by Ozge Ersoy.” (2011). ArtTerritories.net. 24 Mar. 2011.

Sekula, Allan. Dismal Science: Photo Works, 1972-1996. Normal: University Galleries, Illinois State University, 1999.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.