Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filming, Calvin Pryluck

This article was published in the Winter 1976 issue of the Journal of the University Film Association, and is referred to by Anderson. It begins with an open question: “what is the boundary between society’s right to know and the individual’s right to be free of humiliation, shame, and indignity?” which harks back to Anderson’s invoking the first and fourth amendments. Pryluck uses the statements of documentary filmmakers such as Wiseman and Richard Leacock to explore the issue of different interests.

He quotes Leacock as pointing out one goal of direct cinema: “to find out some important aspect of our society by watching our society, by watching how things really happen as opposed to the social image that people hold about the way things are supposed to happen.” I think that this harks back to Arbus and her gap between intention and effect, but somehow in documentary we are not talking about an individual’s intentions so much as those of groups or institutions, which is why as exposes they are more controversial than simple street observations.

Pryluck draws attention to the fact that ethical questions usually arise in isolation, where a particular film or filmmaker is understood to have breached some code, and is rarely treated as a genre-wide problem. It would seem at first sight to be a simple granting of the request to film, but Pryluck claims that this is not such a simple affair; the participant may feel coerced into consent since “the method of obtaining consent is stacked in the filmmaker’s favor” (p 22). Not only is the question “do you have any objections?” a loaded one, people feel intimidated by the cameras and sound recording equipment – if politicians are reluctant to make adverse statements in the presence of a film crew, how less likely are common householders to refuse to give consent? I’m not sure that I totally agree with this point of view, and I have found that the public are becoming more and more aware of their rights, particularly since the advent of the Internet and digital imagery; people are less inclined to give consent to photographers since they cannot be sure of the intended use of the images obtained. People are also more likely these days to tell a photographer to get lost, even physically assault them. A photojournalist friend was recently assaulted while covering a fire at a local university: apparently the students had been instructed not to let any pictures be taken and they got carried away with fulfilling their orders.

Another quote, from filmmaker Arthur Barron, looks set to sully the reputation of documentary work: “l must say I wasn’t totally honest in persuading the school board to let me do the film. There was, as in many films, a certain amount of conning and manipulation involved” Indeed, Barron himself says there are certain cities he wouldn’t dare return to (p 22). While Marcel Ophuls admits that filmmakers are always exploiting, and that “It’s a con game to a certain extent.” (p 23)

Ultimately, we are all outsiders in the lives of others. We can take our gear and go home; they have to continue their lives where they are.” This quote reminds me of Sontag’s observation that we are all tourists in other people’s realities, as well as Shelley Rice’s slating of Arbus, who was able to “pull back from situations in which her sitters were trapped either by birth or by circumstance“(ed. Traub 2006, p 97). In fact, documentarians as well as photojournalists are guilty of this, and nobody can really predict how images may be used or perceived and ultimately affect the lives of those depicted, regardless of intentions. Exploitation is often justified by filmmakers as being done in the interests of advancing public knowledge, as such Wiseman is quoted as claiming that since his films generally focus on tax-supported public institutions, they are protected under the first amendment and “the right of the public to know supersedes any right to privacy in a legal sense.” Here we come up against the idea of a film serving the greater good, and so the ends justify the means. I think this is how many photographers and filmmakers ease their consciences.

On the subject of consent, Pryluck makes the following observation: “The requirement that consent be truly voluntary is a recognition of the fact that there is typically an unequal power relationship between investigators and subjects; the disproportion of status and sophistication is subtly coercive.” (p 25) People may feel they are not in a position to refuse (which is why many subjects of medical experiments are prisoners or military). Here Pryluck quotes Margaret Mead, who maintained that “The more powerless the subject is, per se, the more the question of ethics – and power – is raised.” Empowered people are certainly less likely to allow themselves to be exploited, but this also has to do with knowledge – how much do the participants know about their rights, as well as the amount of information available to them concerning the photographer’s intended use of the images: “Consent is flawed when obtained by the omission of any fact that might influence the giving or withholding of permission.” (p 25) This to my mind is deliberate fraud, but something that many documentarians indulge in, since, they claim, it is impossible to be able to foresee all the risks in a given project.

Pryluck advocates a collaborative approach, a human relationship in the same vein Flaherty used with the Eskimos he filmed:

The information gathering process thus becomes a collaborative seeking after knowledge on the part of scientists and their subjects. It is not unusual for this process to continue through to the final draft to permit subjects second thoughts about the propriety of disclosing certain private information. (p 26)

Indeed, this is the kind of approach that I have chosen to adopt – although Pryluck demonstrates that this right to veto is generally only bestowed on those in positions of power. Another method outlined how provisional consent was obtained from patients before filming, then the 24 hours of footage were edited down to a 4 hour version and final consent was obtained as to what would be included in the final 90 minute film, Asylum. The patients were empowered and had a say in how they were to be portrayed. The author suspects that this may have had something to do with the influential power of their doctor, the celebrated psychiatrist R. D. Laing. Nevertheless, it does go to show that I am on the right path when it comes to how I am planning to show people with disabilities – ‘according them the dignity of deciding for themselves’ how they want to be presented (p 27).

The advantage of participant collaboration is insider knowledge, and the pledge of the documentarian not to misrepresent. A destructive tension appears when a filmmaker tries to “make new ethical facts conform to inappropriate aesthetic assumptions“, since this demeans all parties involved. This comes back to the whole idea of staging and fakery, but it may come about as a result of the order in which images are juxtaposed, rather than the more obvious adding text or voiceover to direct audience interpretation of the visual.

Collaboration obviously discharges one ethical responsibility. When others supply themselves as characters telling their own story, filmmakers incur an obligation not to deform the subject’s persona for selfish motives. Collaboration fulfills the basic ethical requirement for control of one’s own personality. (p 28)

Pryluck points out that there is less potential for complaints if the participants are involved in collaboration during the production process as opposed to being presented with a final print for approval at the end of the project. Informed consent somehow also includes an appreciation of the effects the film will have on its ultimate audience, which leaves it up to the conscience of the filmmaker to apprise participants of this. Pryluck offers the following as a guideline: “Those least able to protect themselves require the greatest protection. In the extreme, utter helplessness demands utter protection.” As such, we as image makers bear a responsibility to our subjects.

In the end, since the dignity of others is best protected by a well-informed conscience, sober consideration of our ethical obligations may serve to impress all of us- beginner and old pro – with the power we carry around when we pick up a camera. (p 29)

This final sentence says it all for me, really. Knowing my own conscience and the accountability I feel before my participants, I could quite easily do without consent forms. However, for the sake of the project and the ability to use these images in the future, I feel duty-bound to obtain releases.

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