Seeing & Change: Activist Documentary
"Hope springs out of history,"
says renowned cultural critic and author Rebecca Solnit. “The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and the lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view” (Solnit, 2016. p. xix). Those who work for social change and justice know just how important our multifaceted and interconnected histories can be. Changemakers need to believe that their work has meaning — that their efforts are not in vain — despite disappointing setbacks that occur along the way. Staying in touch with our collective past shows each of us where we fit in the long trajectory of human civilization. When we can see how change has unfolded in the past, it’s easier to imagine a different—better—future. It is with this in mind that we should view society’s documentarians as harbingers of hope.
Tangible social transformation is possible.
The documentary-maker’s work is, on one hand, a dangerous and antagonistic undertaking, and on the other, fundamental to the effective functioning of civil society. These artists continually risk it all in order to collect, save, and share our individual and collective histories. Their efforts are known to catalyze important public conversations, as well as herald tangible and lasting ideological and material social change.
Often times, a quiet, collective undercurrent in society can boil over with a single image, as happened with Nick Ut’s famous wartime photo of a young, naked Vietnamese girl fleeing from a napalm attack on her family’s village in 1972. Over several years prior to the photo’s release, Americans were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with their country’s involvement in Vietnam. They had already seen servicemen returning home with extreme mental and physical injuries, young people had been protesting the never-ending nature of the conflict, and journalists were questioning the military’s strategies. Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning image immediately became a global symbol for the war’s senseless carnage.
In the moment Ut shot that iconic image, he could never have predicted the longevity of its effects. The girl pictured in the photograph, Kim Phuc Phan Thi, who is now 59 years old, eventually started a global foundation to provide medical and psychological assistance to children impacted by war. In an essay for The New York Times (2022) marking the 50th anniversary of that day, she wrote, “The thought of sharing the images of the carnage, especially of children, may seem unbearable—but we should confront them. It is easier to hide from the realities of war if we don’t see the consequences.” Documentarians’ work sometimes extends outward and impacts people’s lives generations after it becomes public.
Since the earliest days of photography, artists have been interested in using it to expose social inequality and other injustices. Once they acquired portable cameras and equipment, some eager photographers were not so concerned about disturbing or invading the privacy of folks positioned lower on the social ladder than they were, but they generally respected middle and upper class expectations of discretion. The early documentarian of American poverty, Jacob Riis (1902), wrote:
It is not too much to say that our party carried terror wherever it went. The flashlight of those days was contained in cartridges fired from a revolver. The spectacle of half a dozen strange men invading a house in the midnight hour armed with big pistols which they shot off recklessly was hardly reassuring, however sugary our speech, and it was not to be wondered at if the tenants bolted through windows and down fire-escapes wherever we went. (p. 268).
It’s surprising that Riis and his crew didn’t get injured or killed for breaking into residents’ homes. His antics were also responsible for causing a fire inside one structure where “blind beggars” lived; they had to feel their way down a rickety staircase to escape to safety. The policeman who arrived “laughed immoderately” about the incident (Riis, 1890: p. 32–33). It seemed like most spectators were more interested in the potential insurance payout than the wellbeing of Riis’ victims. After his photos of New York City’s squalid tenement housing were published, however, New York’s police commissioner shut down the most uninhabitable units and new policies were implemented to improve living conditions for the city’s poorest residents (Stamp, 2014). Despite the indignities they suffered, Riis’ photos captured a traditionally invisible population of citizens, and made their situations impossible to ignore.
Meanwhile, a set of unspoken rules were beginning to define what would or wouldn’t be appropriate subject matter for photography in public places. Some municipalities required photographers to acquire special permits. It was not okay to snap pictures of “respectable people” without their permission (Price, p. 68). These customs haven’t changed much over the past 100 years; today’s photographers are even more restricted by fair usage laws restricting the use of people’s likenesses for profit, as well as by limits on activities allowable on private property.
It's hard to see what isn’t visible.
Accessible public spaces are harder to come by in the 21st century; many places that seem open to the public are controlled by private and corporate owners who are free to control the behaviors of their “guests.” While property owners and capitalists don’t mind surveilling their customers and workers, they’re loathe to reciprocate. A good proportion of film/photography students have surely been expelled from retail and other apparent “public” places while working on their creative projects (I certainly have!).
Archival records are essentially missing entire categories of images—such as laborers on the job—argues historian Derrick Price. He speculates that, despite the massive upheaval in the way people worked during the manufacturing boom at the turn of the 20th century, cultural norms in other creative disciplines (like literature and painting) deeply influenced photographers’ choices. He also concludes that themes chosen by competition juries at the time might have dictated what photographers deemed important (p. 74). While these factors may have played a role, the more persuasive argument (which he doesn’t mention) seems related to power dynamics at play between workers and their employers. Powerful capitalists wanted to promote and idealize the technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution that were making them rich. Their messages of progress, growth, and never-ending prosperity would’ve been undermined if the masses caught a glimpse of the harsh, dirty, and exploitative working conditions many (if not most) industrial workers had to endure.
In the early 1900s, the activist photographer Lewis Hine wanted to know what was happening inside factory walls. He set out to expose what was then known as “child slavery.” In 1910, nearly 2 million children under age 15 were employed in industrial jobs. Not only were these child laborers denied a basic education, they also suffered from high injury rates and job-related illnesses such as tuberculosis and malnutrition. According to the National Archives, Hine often “tricked his way into factories to take pictures that factory managers did not want the public to see.” He recorded child workers’ stories on handwritten scraps of paper he kept hidden in his pockets. Despite the outrage his photos generated among the public when they were initially released, influential corporate interests were able to hold off regulators until the 1938 passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which outlawed child labor as part of the New Deal.
Labor conditions aren’t the only aspects of society missing from the photographic record. During wartime in the U.S., photos of injured or dead citizen-soldiers on the battlefield are seldom published. Although the military sometimes restricts the dissemination of these images, it’s more common for the press to self-censor sensitive photos of Americans killed or maimed in a war zone. Critic Sarah Sentilles (2018) describes two opposing viewpoints that news editors are often trying to balance. Some people, like Vietnam War survivor Kim Phuc Phan Thi (mentioned earlier), want the public to gain a more realistic view of what war actually means; its tangible impacts on civilians, the country’s young fighters, and the environment. Others argue that distributing disturbing images of American soldiers is disrespectful, and that it politicizes their sacrifices. Despite the newsworthiness of these images, journalism’s gatekeepers usually hesitate to inflame their patrons, and opt instead to stay mute on the issue.
The ubiquity of digital image-making has made it easier to capture photos anywhere and anytime, but it’s still difficult to obtain evidence of institutional wrongdoing. In addition to the absence of certain kinds of military images, photographs depicting life as an incarcerated person inside the nation’s prison industrial complex are even scarcer. According to the ACLU (2019), laws prevent journalists from even talking to inmates in some states. Prison authorities also actively blacklist certain reporters they think might publish unflattering stories about conditions on site. On rare occasions a camera might be smuggled into (and then back out of) a prison—and only then is the public given a peek at the overwhelming cruelty and abuse that goes on behind closed doors.
This is exactly what happened in 2019 when someone shared more than 2,000 images from within Alabama’s infamous St. Clair Correctional Facility to The New York Times. Reporter Shaila Dewan writes:
It is hard to imagine a cache of images less suitable for publication—they are full of nudity, indignity, and gore. It is also hard to imagine photographs that cry out more insistently to be seen… After considering the inmates’ privacy, audience sensibilities, and our inability to provide more context for the specific incidents depicted, The Times determined that few of these photos could be published. But they could be described.
Ultimately, the paper shared only five of the photographs in their possession. Splinter News, an alternative news outlet (that was shut down after a private equity firm bought the parent company, Gawker, in 2019), apparently published more than fifty of the St. Clair prison photos. In 2021, the company’s new owners removed all photographs from former Gawker sites without explanation (Hitt). I wasn’t able to find them elsewhere. The Southern Poverty Law Center had previously documented systemic maltreatment of prisoners in a 2014 written report titled Cruel Confinement. Numerous incidents of violence, abuse, and indifference have been described in legal filings, but photographic evidence is scant. The U.S. Department of Justice has been threatening to take over Alabama’s prison system for decades, while vulnerable human beings are still trapped inside like rats.
Conviction and courage are job requirements.
Documentary makers sometimes suffer terrible consequences for their dedication to revealing counter-hegemonic perspectives. Following the police-administered murder of a black citizen, George Floyd, in May 2020, a photojournalist observing a BLM protest in Minneapolis was blinded when police shot her in the eye with a foam bullet (Douglas, 2020). After a BLM protest in another city, a reporter tweeted, “On Sunday… I had four M16S assault rifles pointed at my head by Buffalo SWAT. I asked why… to which they responded ‘fuck your first amendment’ and put me in handcuffs” (@PhotoJazzy, 2020). The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker’s data reveals that 117 journalists were arrested and more than 300 were physically assaulted by law enforcement officers during protests in 2020 alone (p. 14); the Freedom of the Press Foundation reports that these numbers are 1200% higher than in 2019 (p. 4). While photographers and reporters can face risks to their safety in the United States, it can be worse in other parts of the world.
Documenting atrocities committed by governments and corporations can be fraught with danger, even deadly. In 2015, American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact released a report that includes preparation and process recommendations for creators including making sure all documentation is securely stored and that it is fact-checked; building solid relationships with partners, collaborators, and participants; taking preemptive steps to ensure the safety of all involved; and planning for crisis management in case of negative attacks by entities implicated in the work. UNESCO has been publishing their “Safety Guide for Journalists” since 1992. It shows that between 2006–2013, more than 700 people were killed while documenting issues of public concern (Reporters Without Borders).
In September 2022, widespread protests broke out in Iran after a young woman was killed by the “morality police” for allegedly disregarding the state-imposed dress code. The well-known Iranian photojournalist Arash Ashourinia had been documenting the unrest, but died suddenly from electrocution—widely believed to be the result of government-backed torture. Reports from citizens on the ground indicate that authorities single out photographers. One witness noted, “They don’t want any witnesses to their foul work” (Bolliger, M. et al, 2022). Despite the Iranian government’s efforts to intimidate dissidents, silence witnesses, and limit internet access, CNN learned that—in the first 60 days—at least 326 civilians were murdered by authorities, including 43 children and 25 women (Mendonca, et al, 2022). Everyday documentarians—journalists, photographers, human rights workers, and protesters—are necessary collaborators in the pursuit of justice in Iran and beyond.
Also this year, investigative journalist for The Guardian, Dom Phillips, and Brazilian activist Bruno Pereira were kidnapped and murdered by poachers in the Amazon rainforest. In the aftermath, other journalists—even those who typically report on subjects far removed from South American rainforests—descended on the issue. Mixmag, an online journal about electronic music and urban dance culture, published a feature about Phillips’ impact on the world. Writer Frank Broughton (2022) remembers seeing Phillips interrogate former Brazilian President Bolsonaro:
We watch, awed an a little scared. This is real bravery. That’s Dom up there on the world stage, asking difficult questions. Our Dom, with his 100-watt smile and his dimpled creases and his banjo and his gravelly laugh. While we piss around writing content for brands, he’s our mate at the sharp end of humanity’s future.
In this case, it wasn’t the initial reporting on the devastation occurring in the Amazon rainforest that generated outrage. Sometimes the original issue is only—finally—amplified when the world finds out that a dedicated documentarian has died in order to bring important information to light.
We must support society’s record-keepers and storytellers.
Documentary-makers of all stripes (writers, photographers, filmmakers, journalists) often put their lives on the line in the search for truth and justice. Their work has impact far beyond the artifacts they create. “Ideas are contagious, hope is contagious, courage is contagious. When we embody those qualities we convey them to others,” writes Solnit. Without documentarians, there would be few checks against harmful activities that are commonly administered by the world’s richest and most powerful people and institutions.
Sometimes a documentarian’s work sparks immediate and significant change, but positive action is almost always achieved by a collection of like-minded people who share a vision for a better world. Even in times of struggle and disappointment, the artists who record true stories, interpret them, and reflect them back to the public provide a common ground for everyone committed to a particular cause. Environmentalist Will Bates believes that “movements have arcs. They have highs and lows. They’re going to have perceived failures and need to build something new from there. At those moments you don’t stop, you double down” (Engelfried, 2022).
The best documentarians identify a problem’s roots; synthesize the facts; simplify complex, multifaceted issues; and generate useful narratives that educate, inspire, and energize meaningful action. Finally, Solnit concludes:
“Actions often ripple far beyond their immediate objective, and remembering this is reason to live by principle and act in hope that what you do matters, even when results are unlikely to be immediate or obvious… [our] work is always, first and last, storytelling work, or what some of my friends call ‘the battle of the story’. Building, remembering, retelling, celebrating our own stories is part of our work…”
We have to remember and make sense of the past in order to design the future we want. Documentary storytelling is fertile ground that cultivates the hope we need as we keep working towards a world where all living things will thrive.
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