Kirkus Reviews QR Code
DOING DOCUMENTARY WORK by Robert Coles

DOING DOCUMENTARY WORK

By Robert Coles

Pub Date: April 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-19-511629-1
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

 A challenging exploration of documentary writing and photography, focusing on the ways in which researchers can affect, reshape, or misrepresent what they see. Coles, the noted psychiatrist and Harvard ethicist (The Moral Intelligence of Children, 1997, etc.), notes in the introduction that he has been preparing to write this book ``for over 35 years''--ever since he and his wife, while studying the integration of schools in Louisiana in 1960, first tried to make sense of what it meant to be witnesses, researchers, and onlookers. A fascination with the moral and practical consequences that arise when observers (journalists, academics, or social activists) probe the lives of a class of people-- whether coal miners (George Orwell), migrant workers (Dorothea Lange), or Mississippi farmers (James Agee and Walker Evans)--led Coles to become one of the founders of Duke University's Center of Documentary Studies. Poet/doctor William Carlos Williams and biographer/therapist Erik Erikson are Coles's heroes, and from them and others he draws his theme: ``We notice what we notice in accordance with who we are.'' Coles offers striking examples of the way in which preconceptions can alter what is seen, including Lange's famous ``Migrant Mother'' photograph: That seminal Depression-era picture was selected from a series of shots and then cropped for dramatic impact, in accordance with Lange's personal vision, with who she was, with what she wanted to communicate about poverty in the South. Also examined, in sometimes rambling, verbose passages, are the impact the observer makes on those being observed and the tendency by writers like Agee and Orwell, for instance, to put on a pedestal the farmworkers and coal miners who helped make them famous. Journalists, social workers, and therapists, as well as producers of print or film documentaries, will find this ruminative volume of special use, reminding them of the questions they should ask themselves before they invade schools, workplaces, and private lives. (18 b&w photos, not seen)