"Coles ensures that one will never look at documentary workno matter how well done or well meaningquite the same way again."Washington Post Book World
Doing Documentary Workby Robert Coles
Sitting in his study, William Carlos Williams once revealed to Robert Coles what he considered to be his greatest problem in writing a documentary about his patients in New Jersey. "When I'm there, sitting with those folks, listening and talking," he said to Coles, "I'm part of that life, and I'm near it in my head, too.... Back here, sitting near
Sitting in his study, William Carlos Williams once revealed to Robert Coles what he considered to be his greatest problem in writing a documentary about his patients in New Jersey. "When I'm there, sitting with those folks, listening and talking," he said to Coles, "I'm part of that life, and I'm near it in my head, too.... Back here, sitting near this typewriterits different. I'm a writer. I'm a doctor living in Rutherford who is describing 'a world elsewhere.'" Williams captured the great difficulty in documentary writingthe gulf that separates the reality of the subject from the point of view of the observer .
Now, in this thought-provoking volume, the renowned child psychiatrist Robert Coles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Children in Crisis series, offers a penetrating look into the nature of documentary work. Utilizing the documentaries of writers, photographers, and others, Coles shows how their prose and pictures are influenced by the observer's frame of reference: their social and educational background, personal morals, and political beliefs. He discusses literary documentaries: James Agee's searching portrait of Depression-era tenant farmers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and George Orwell's passionate description of England's coal-miners, The Road to Wigan Pier. Like many documentarians, Coles argues, Agee and Orwell did not try to be objective, but instead showered unadulterated praise on the "noble" poor and vituperative contempt on the more privileged classes (including themselves) for "exploiting" these workers. Documentary photographs could be equally revealing about the observer. Coles analyzes how famous photographers such as Walker Evans and Dorthea Lange edited and cropped their pictures to produce a desired effect. Even the shield of the camera could not hide the presence of the photographer. Coles also illuminates his points through his personal portraits of William Carlos Williams; Robert Moses, one of the leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the 1960s; Erik H. Erikson, biographer of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther; and others. Documentary work, Coles concludes, is more a narrative constructed by the observer than a true slice of reality.
With the growth in popularity of films such as Ken Burns's The Civil War and the controversial basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, the question of what is "real" in documentary work is more pressing than ever. Through revealing discussions with documentarians and insightful analysis of their work, complemented by dramatic black-and-white photographs from Lange and Evans, Doing Documentary Work will provoke the reader into reconsidering how fine the line is between truth and fiction. It is an invaluable resource for students of the documentary and anyone interested in this important genre.
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Locations In Theory
The noun document goes back centuries in time. It is derived from the Latin docere, to teach, and was originally, of course, used to describe something that offered clues, or, better, proof, a piece of paper with words that attested evidence. In our time, a photograph or a recording or a film have also qualified as documents. In the early eighteenth century (1711), the word document became more active--a verb, whose meaning conveyed the act of furnishing such evidence; and eventually, as with the noun, the range of such activity expanded first one documented with words on paper; later, one documented with photographs and a film crew. Interestingly, the verb would get used this way, too: "to construct or produce (as a movie or a novel) with authentic situations or events," and "to portray realistically." Here the creative or imaginative life is tempered by words such as "authentic" or "realistically," which, are nonetheless potentially subjective or elusive: a distance has been traveled from the documenting that has to do with words on paper (court records, school reports, letters, journals, and diaries) offered as proof that something happened in, say, a judge's chamber or a classroom. In the early nineteenth century (1802) the adjective documentary emerged--a description of evidence, naturally, but also as "relating to, or employing documentation in literature or art," again an encounter of the factual or objective with the imaginative. In this century (1935) the noun documentary arrived, telling of a product, the "documentary presentation of a film or novel." The one who did such work got a name in the 1940s--well, two names: documentarian (1943), and documentarist (1949). Just before those two words entered the language, and as if in anticipation of them, documentarist came into use (1939), "a specialist in documentation"--a person who furthered the tradition of old-fashioned documenting, as indicated by that word documentation, itself a bequest of the late nineteenth century (1884), and meant to refer to historical verification and substantiation.
This search through words for contemporary meaning helps bring into focus a twofold struggle: that of writers and photographers and filmmakers who attempt to ascertain what is, what can be noted, recorded, pictured; and that of presentation--how to elicit the interest of others, and how to provide a context, so that an incident, for instance, is connected to the conditions that informed and prompted its occurrence. Again and again, as I listen to my students compare their efforts with those undertaken by sociologists or anthropologists, by newspaper reporters and staff photographers responding to a day's event within the confines of a dispatch to be filed, by historians writing about a certain place and time or about those who commanded armies (or whole countries), I hear the connections those students make to the work of such individuals--yet, too, the distinctions made, the possible differences explored. Nor do we in those discussions always arrive at dear-cut contrasts and mutually exclusive definitions. Often we settle for descriptive characterizations or demarcations of professional territory, unashamedly heavy with qualifications--a documentary effort in itself: an attempt that summons the narrative side of the verb document, as opposed to its more specific reference to the accumulation or designation of various items as firm proof of something.
Historians are, perhaps, our oldest professional observers of human affairs--or, perhaps, it is best to say that writers or essayists are such, since Thucydides certainly did not have any graduate professional training, was not certified by any academic institution as knowledgeable about the past or the unfolding present. Long before there were universities with departments of history, there obviously were writers who tried to discover for themselves and their potential readers what actually happened at particular times, in particular locations, and how (and why) what occurred did end up taking place. In so doing, those writers varied with respect to their passion for factual certainty and specificity, and with respect to their interest in discursive comment, in personal or moral (or even spiritual) reflection. Even when a historian doesn't intend to ruminate or ramble along byways, even when he or she means to stick to dates and numbers and descriptions based on "data," on firsthand observations put down in ledgers, in letters, in communiques, or in news reports or dispatches published in daily or weekly or monthly publications--there still remains the task of assembling information, choosing what matters, what might be (is to be) left out, what is to be discussed briefly or summarily, what is to be highlighted, considered in great detail. The issue, finally, becomes one of judgment, and thereby a subjective matter an opinion of someone whose mind has taken in all that information, that documentation, and then given it the shape of sentences, of words used, with all their suggestive possibilities. Needless to say, even a history that insists on the primacy of statistics, of such numbers as given us by computers, will have to confront the same challenge of emphasis, of interpretation, of choice, of presentation through words, whereby the person who fed "data" into a computer is now the one using a computer in a different way, pressing letters that turn into something that is said, asserted.
By the late sixteenth century (1593), some students of their fellow human beings began to make reference to a science of "anthropology." They were not interested in a chronology or an interpretation of events, but rather in sorting people out, by virtue of their appearance, their residence, or their habits and customs. There is, of course, a historical side to all this (inevitably quite speculative): the emergence over time of various human races out of the obscurity and outright mystery of the most ancient history, which precedes all recorded data and rests upon archeological artifacts as they, like today's computer printouts, get fitted into someone's narrative, a story of the development of those races over an indefinitely long span of time. The nineteenth-century physical anthropologists (and their kinfolk, archeologists) had the company of social or cultural anthropologists, who concentrated their energies on how various groups of people behaved. Charts were developed that conveyed "relationships," "interactions," authority held and wielded, submission accepted without question. Such patterns of activity, such hierarchies of influence, such diagrams that told of consanguinity, of belief or conviction, became a body of knowledge, a field of learning, given the ultimate institutional (social, political, cultural, economic) sanction of departmental status in today's colleges and universities.
So it has gone with sociology, a term that came upon us in the middle of the nineteenth century (1843). There is an obvious overlap between the work of cultural anthropologists and sociologists--though the former, by convention rather than theoretical necessity (the anthropology of anthropologists!) have usually chosen the pre-literate, pre-industrial world as the beneficiary of their close, usually residential attention. In contrast, sociologists have given themselves over to a systematic (that word counts!) study of the way so-called groups of people come together and behave--a process of consolidation and, often, deterioration that might be called the rise and fall of classes and castes and regions and even nations. The connection of such inquiry to history as well as cultural anthropology is clear; and again, the role of the scholar's personal life is evident--his or her attitudes with respect to the attitudes of others under scrutiny, and his or her imaginative life as it gets expressed in the embrace of concepts, of generalizations, of hypotheses, which are collections of words meant to offer or convey an idea, a suggestive or organizing principle, a manner of looking at things, a gesture of interpretation, of coherence.
This move from concrete particulars to abstract pronouncement is crucial to science as we now commonly know it. It can be said, without animus, that careers are usually made in the social sciences as a consequence of one's willingness and capacity to move from the specific instance to the more general, the conceptual. Such a posture of formulation is not, however, always regarded as speculative (and thereby a close cousin--more anthropology!--to the imaginative). Instead, we hear of science: a systematic ordering of knowledge presumably based on the sifting and sorting of information, on the testing of hypotheses through experiments, through direct observation, though it is not unfair to say that, by and large, natural science and social science differ decidedly in the ability of their respective practitioners to perform tests that will definitively corroborate or dismiss various hypotheses. Still, social scientists aim for the general, hope to promulgate "laws" or postulates that give a sense of order and structure to what obtains in this world.
In contrast, journalists (who also document aspects of human behavior) respond to the particular, tell us the news--recent events that have occurred. Some journalists do so briefly, tersely, paying attention only to factuality and chronology; others give themselves (or are given) more leeway--are both chroniclers and interpreters of the news. Even the most factual kind of journalism, of course, can be suggestive, poignant, arresting--art giving shape to the presentation of reality. On the other hand, an interpretive essay in a newspaper or magazine is usually presented to the reader as the response of the publication's editors, through a writer, to something that has happened or is now going on: events with all their ramifications. In certain magazines, however, journalists may become something else--essayists who regularly contemplate those events and fit them into the larger frames of reference that historians or social scientists pursue.
The essayist is himself or herself confined by the nature of a chosen medium, even as the journalist has to contend with the confines of a newspaper story--but an essay allows for more space, for a mix of literary and analytic sensibility, for that other mix of factuality and opinion, and for the particular writer's idiosyncratic approach to a given topic. The essay gives journalists or others writers discursive freedom, and gives novelists a chance to mull over factuality directly, rather than at the remove of their created fictional characters. The essay also allows social scientists a chance to abandon their created "characters" (the theories they construct) for the possibilities and challenges of an ordinary language meant to inform and persuade the "common reader," as opposed to one's professional colleagues. Such essayists offer what used to be called "social knowledge"--Henry James commenting on Italy's gifts or on his native America revisited, Dickens observing that same America as a visiting lecturer, and, closer to our time, the poet James Agee and the novelist George Orwell trying to understand what they had witnessed and felt in Alabama, Yorkshire, and Lancashire in 1936.
A close examination of what came of the last two of those writers once they'd finished their observations, and a close reading of what they ultimately wrote about their experiences, helps clarify our thinking about the various ways observers can respond to what they have seen and heard and come to believe. It is no accident that both Agee and Orwell "failed" with respect to their respective missions, from the point of view of their assigning editors. Fortune magazine wanted Agee to do a strong piece of investigative magazine journalism. He was to spend a limited amount of time with a specific kind of people, in the company of a photographer, who was to capture pictures that would convey the (grim) reality of their lives. Instead, Agee turned his time in Alabama into a major moral and personal crisis. He lost sight of his magazine's interests and became excited and challenged by the commands and demands of both his aesthetic sensibility and his conscience. He stopped being interested in a limited, reasonably balanced, or even-handed discussion of a particular social and economic question facing the nation at the height of the Great Depression--the struggle for survival of a Southern agriculture heavily dependent on the relationship between the landowner and his tenant farmers. He turned, instead, to a different kind of language, a different way of seeing the world of central Alabama. He never even wrote the article for which he was commissioned. He quit the magazine that had sent him South, an assignment that enabled him to meet and get to know the world that had gotten him so aroused, so engaged. For several years he labored in both elation and despair with an enormously unwieldy manuscript, the result of a thorough reinterpretation of his position as an observer and a writer with regard to those he had encountered and tried to understand. The result, as we all know, was a book whose very title, Biblically connected (from the book of Ecclesiasticus), is exhortative and morally impassioned--a far cry from the tone of Fortune articles, not to mention those of so many other magazines. That book is deliberately rambling, lyrical, fiercely provocative, utterly idiosyncratic; it is also very long, at once detailed in its descriptive evocations of a kind of daily life and long-winded in its attempt to assault the supposedly conventional mind of its reader--as if the central issue is not only the suffering and marginality of Dixie tenant farmers but the assumptions (moral and intellectual) of the presumably well-off and well educated people who had the spare change in 1941, the Depression still not licked, to go buy such a book.
Orwell's Wigan Pier book also conveys a strain of moral anxiety; of all ironies, the reader is offered a measured disavowal of the author from Victor Gollancz, the one who had sent him north from London in the first place, so that the New Left Book Club might publish yet another piece of extended muckraking journalism, this one about the life of coal miners. Instead, Orwell wrote with a novelist's capacity for (interest in) the complexities and ironies of a given observed life; and he gave a much broader context for his discussion than that expected (and wanted) by his sponsors, hence their need to disclaim, at least partially, what they did publish (out of their essential fair-mindedness--others might not have been so obliging). Orwell found his own relatively entitled world in many ways lacking compared to the one he had glimpsed up north. He turned on those whose company he ordinarily kept, the London intelligentsia, just as Agee could not resist taking one swipe after another at his (Harvard, Manhattan, literary) background. The "road" Orwell took as a consequence of his visit to Wigan turned out to be toward a land of personal, moral reflection, of storytelling narration, of social and political polemic, of combative and sometimes erratic digression, of vivid presentation of moments experienced, remembered, and considered to be of significance without recourse to the justifications of social theory, political practicality, even journalistic custom or convenience. He threw his writing, as it were, in the face of those who ended up perplexed, but actually a good deal more forgiving of him than he attempts to be of them.
Later on I will try to guess what it was that got these two writers so intemperate, so angry, while on these particular missions; but here it is important to note their departure from ordinary journalism, from the conventional social essay, long or short. Both Agee and Orwell seem to know that they are in uncertain territory as they try to address their audience. They move back and forth from a posture of calm, even dry recitation of facts and figures to one of heated advocacy or derision. They also move from the third-person voice to that of the first person--a shift that tells a lot about their connection to the people being described, and about their intentions as writers. When they want to convey a kind of factuality (how cotton grows and is harvested, how miners do their work and the economic consequences of that work, coal production for a capitalist society), they can be impersonal, specific, exact, even statistical. When they want to get something off their chest, want to let others know how they reacted, on the spot, to something they had seen or heard, or how they ended up feeling later, when back on their own turf, about what they recalled, then the words "I" and "me" come to the fore, not to mention unconcealed sarcasm, even open contempt or rage toward certain others--though never, of course, are the targets of such emotions the tenant farmers or coal miners whom they have gotten to know, and that refusal of any criticism whatsoever obviously deserves our attention.
To be more abstract about both Agee and Orwell as social observers and writers (and about a kind of writing that combines reportage and reflection, delivered in a prose that is affecting, summoning, suggestively descriptive), certain polarities or tensions ought to be mentioned: the demands of reality as against those of art; the demands of objectivity as against those of subjectivity; a quantitative emphasis as against a qualitative one; the tone a first-person narrative offers as against one executed in the third person, a voice seeking to be contemplative, considered, as against one aiming for passionate persuasion, or advocacy, or denunciation; a distanced, analytic posture as against a morally engaged or partisan one; an inclination for the theoretical, as against the concrete, the practical; a narrative, rendered in personal or vernacular or even confessional language as against one replete with a technical or academic language.
Needless to say, a writer, a researcher, even, can move back and forth, draw upon one or another side of these various equations, or, again, polarities. As I well remember, when I submitted articles (they were not called "essays") to pediatric, psychiatric, and psychoanalytic journals, a word used, a single adjective, can raise the eyebrows of an editor or a "peer review" committee. When I wrote up my observations of migrant farm children for a journal read by physicians, and, especially, by my fellow psychiatrists, I tried to describe the various states of mind I observed in the children I met. In so doing, I called upon psychiatric and psychoanalytic terminology and wrote in the passive, third-person voice: "The defense mechanisms most frequently seen were..." and so it went! At one point, however, I inadvertently got myself and my editors into some trouble by using the word poignant to indicate the condition of some of the children: "In many of their drawings the children doing self-portraits refrained from putting land under themselves, a poignant denial of their very condition as young farm workers." I was discussing the use of one of the so-called defense mechanisms--now, when psychology fuels the American vernacular, a far better known maneuver of the mind than was the case back then (1966). I was dealing, really, with an irony, though I consciously restrained myself from using that word or its adjectival or adverbial versions, lest I introduce myself as an implicit commentator in a paper meant to be an account of "field research" done in the tradition of psychoanalytic child psychiatry--hence pages given over to accounts of "intra-psychic" conflict, and accounts, too, of the various "defense mechanisms" as they "were observed" (not as, actually, I stumbled into them!).
All went well, it seemed, until an editor's red pencil chanced upon that word, poignant: why was "it used," he wondered (not "Why did you use it")? I explained that I found it ironic, poignantly so, that children who put in long hours beside their parents harvesting crops (that is, working the land on their hands and knees, often, or stooped over) won't put that same land in their drawings or paintings of themselves. My editor friend (I knew him well, respected him) understood clearly what I was indicating, but noted that in this particular journal the word poignant would "stand out." I did not find that possibility especially worrisome, but he did. He pointed out that the word "in question" is a "subjective one"--my personal sense of something as opposed to a reaction of the child that I had "documented" through my "research." I remember being intrigued by the use of "documented"--a different use, surely, than the one Dorothea Lange, say, had in mind when she did her "documentary fieldwork" or "research" with migrant families during the 1930s. I also remember telling my editor friend that all of the "research" I had written up for this "paper" was "subjective"--an estimate or interpretation on my part of what I thought I had seen and heard happening in the lives of children, in their minds, rather than a chronicle of what happened independently of my mind (an account of the unfolding of an objective series of events).
True, "our discipline" is inescapably "subjective," I was told--yet "there are degrees." After all, I was tape-recording interviews and analyzing them for topics mentioned--"thematic analysis"; and I was collecting hundreds of children's drawings and paintings and putting all of them under a microscopic lens (my imagery!), that of, again, psychiatric and psychoanalytic perusal: "self-image," as reflected, for example, in the presence or absence of intact limbs, the manner in which facial features are presented (if they are), the character of clothing summoned, and again, the location the child chose for a self-portrait, or a picture of a parent, or too, a building a analyzed" (that adverb, so often used, can be all too self-serving!). In so doing, I would have "taken risks," as I've heard folks say, by "writing for the public" rather than for "the profession"--and then I would be turning into a bit of a migrant myself: on the move. Location matters for those migrant families, as I gradually learned; they had to be at the right place (the crops just ready to be picked) at the right time (the grower has started recruiting willing farm laborers, field hands). And so with a writer's career--a person tries to figure out when to write what for which publication, and how to do so, meaning with one kind of language or with quite another kind.
Meet the Author
Robert Coles, M.D. is a child psychiatrist and the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University. He is a founding member of the Center of Documentary Studies at Duke University. The author of numerous books, he wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning, multi-volume works The Inner Lives of Children and Children of Crisis. He is also the Editor of the documentary magazine Double Take.
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