A camera isn’t like a mirror. It’s more like a Velvet Underground song. The song goes “I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don’t know. I’ll be the sun, the rain and the darkness, lighten your door everytime you’re home…” Like the ‘I’ in the song, the camera, though it reflects, isn’t entirely neutral, it has its own mind.
Let me explain what I mean. When you introduce a camera into a situation, it isn’t a neutral act, it’s a catalyst. And that catalyst creates potential, it changes situations. In old school documentary theory, documentaries are divided into categories depending on how much the camera is observational, and how much it is a catalyst for events. Reality TV for example, wouldn’t happen unless there was a camera to record it in the first place. On the other end of the spectrum, supposedly, Dispatches, or one of the news based documentary items, is more of an observer of events than a creator of them. But I would argue that as we have become more used now to reality TV and more accepting of the camera in our day to day lives, we are more accepting and less critical of its catalyst role.
You see it in groups of tourists in Trafalgar Square, in family interactions with children, in selfie shots of friends out on the town. Pull a camera out of your pocket and everyone changes. Becomes more (or less) expressive. Life gets heightened as people become aware that part of the fabric of it is about to be framed and documented. And in the same way that photos become our memory of childhood or of time long past, those filmed fragments that we take of our kids or of our night out, will become our memory in the future. Arguably the contention that you can even make an observational documentary without affecting events in the first place is more distorting of the notion of what a camera really does than the idea of reality TV.
I’ve played with different types of documentary making and have been aware in some of my creations, though not all of them, that the events that I was filming wouldn’t have happened were it not for the fact that we had a camera at hand to record them. In particular, I’m thinking of a film I made for the British Library, Makers of Modern Asylum, where a group of three service users got together to question an architect on his practice and what he put into designing new mental health units. It was a revelatory piece of filming for all concerned. Certainly for the service users, Frank Armstrong, Clive Taylor and Alsaint Nash, who had never met someone in his position before and found the whole process of his work intriguing. And also for Mungo Smith of Medical Architecture, who hadn’t met service users outside the context of a specific brief, though he had friends who were service users. But to meet and discuss his work in the abstract and reflect on his practice was an opportunity that he enjoyed and found an eye opener.
Like a good host at a party, a camera can facilitate the meeting of minds. This can happen in front of the camera, and also, intriguingly, it can happen behind. So a service user who was previously a service user can temporarily become a boom or a camera operator. When I call ‘action’ in that moment I am a director. Because film making is an episodic thing, it always involves temporarily resetting roles for that moment while the eye of the lens trains itself on what it is we are supposedly neutrally observing.
So you see it isn’t possible to turn on a camera without affecting events. And we should use that to our advantage. As we press ‘record’ the question to pose is not ‘what am I recording?’ but ‘what am I changing?’ Because if we can use the camera to affect positive change, in the events we’re recording and in the identities of the people recording it – and we can – then we should.