Actors or Subjects?

One thing that I have consistently struggled with when watching works of visual anthropology is how you can delineate between when the people you are filming are being treated (and behave) as actors or subjects, and perhaps which is more appropriate for the medium. ¬†Early documentaries a anthropological documentaries had a tendency to reenact what the film maker felt were genuine cultural practices from the ethnic group they were filming. The major problem with this is that by having the people being filmed reenacting their own cultural practices corrupts how they would naturally perform those practices as they may seek to “put on a performance” for the camera. This also opens up avenues for the film maker to exaggerate and focus on certain customs and traits of cultural groups, unwittingly or perhaps consciously blowing them up for the benefit of the filmmaker and the film. Visual Anthropologists rebelled against this in the late 60’s by adopting long unedited shots and little to no presence of the film makers in the film. This helped add more genuine qualities to documentaries, but the presence of the camera still effects the behavior those being filmed and so this method must still be scrutinized and analyzed otherwise we may become to confident in it’s ability to communicate genuine depictions of human behavior. Another unfortunate product of this transition is the palatability of films to the general public. By treating those being filmed more as subjects as opposed to actors the films become much better tools for academic analysis but at the same time the films become less accessible and so somewhat limit their impact on the general public. So what is preferable, to accept that to some degree anyone being filmed and is aware of the camera is an actor, or to focus instead on capturing as realistic as possible a depiction of those being filmed by treating them as subjects?

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