It’s a common adage that documentary “gives a voice to the voiceless,” allowing marginalized people to express themselves and report to the public. That principle ostensibly underpins today’s visual culture: from PBS coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake to Vice Media specials on Syria, we frequently encounter documentation of people facing extreme danger. But what if these videos are distorting the reality they purport to convey? What if the people featured are not gaining “voice” but being exploited?
In her book Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary, Assistant Professor Pooja Rangan takes a stand against the “voice-giving” ideal. She argues that “participatory documentary”—which engages directly with communities by inviting them to record their own experiences—has distorted the lives of marginalized people, including slum children in India, people on the autism spectrum and survivors of Hurricane
Rangan claims the camera has become a “humanizing prosthesis.” That is, rather than actually humanizing—by expanding a viewer’s understanding or empathic response—it turns the suffering of others into entertainment.
In today’s world, responsible citizenship is embedded in responsible viewing.
Immediations is an incisive study of the politics of representation and the way ideas of “the other” manifest visually. The book takes us on a tour of films such as Trouble the Water, a 2008 documentary that uses footage recorded by two African-American survivors of Hurricane Katrina, Scott and Kimberly Rivers-Roberts. Rangan makes a strong case that this film, while critically acclaimed upon release, is deeply exploitative: at the same time the U.S. government was failing to protect residents of the Ninth Ward, the suffering of black citizens became, in Rangan’s words, a “mediatized spectacle.” Placed amongst inspirational soundtracks playing over video of the hurricane’s effects on New Orleans, and up-close footage of families trying to save homes, the couple’s traumatic story is obscured in favor of a drama.
This leads to distortions. For another critically acclaimed film, 2004’s Born into Brothels, director Zana Briski offered camera lessons to the children of sex workers in Kolkata, a choice that, Rangan argues, perpetuates racist ideas while failing to present the real experiences, struggles and voices of these children. The documentary purports to give unfiltered access to the children’s lives, but as Rangan points out, a single question actually frames the entire film: Will the children retain their “innocence”?
You might think Rangan is asking us to dismiss documentary, but the opposite is true. She wants us to be conscientious viewers, alert to media tactics and able to identify documentaries that depart from disturbing trends.
Rangan closes with a chapter titled “The Gift of Documentary.” Responding to immediations as the underlying problem in representation, she points to films that do the opposite: they bring us into the “spontaneous moment” of a place. In the 1895 French film A Boat Leaving Harbour, we witness three men as they begin paddling out to sea, away from a group of women and children on a nearby jetty. We feel immersed in the scene, and we sense their laborious effort, the expectancy in the outing. In this way, the film acts as a gift to both subject and viewer: the camera reveals how, and the conditions in which, the subjects navigate a complex world.
Rangan’s book was recently shortlisted for an ASAP Book Prize. She has been at Amherst since 2015.
Yet today, we increasingly encounter global conflicts via videos, and often on social media, where sensational appeal—and immediations—outweigh accuracy and honest, nuanced representation.
Immediations thus presents timely reading in an era when responsible citizenship is embedded in responsible viewing, gifting us with the critical eye to see behind the scenes.
Pagano has reported from China, worked with the In Contrast podcast and written for the Oxford Review of Books. He lives in Los Angeles and writes frequently on Medium.