The lens is an eye. Video and photography offer a unique opportunity to represent or share a situation, an event, a person, a moment in time. Within the context of academia and research, where it can be far too easy to dilute a point through a mass of text or statistics (or big words), these mediums serve as infinitely powerful and diverse tools to reflect on a particular subject (or no subject at all).
Through my experience on the field, I have viewed the capacities of video in a few different, interrelated ways: as a documentary, evidence gathering tool; as a democratising force, a platform with which to share hidden or silent perspectives; as a tool for advocacy, support and ‘legitimisation’. As three broad categories, these ultimately refer to the opportunity to craft a certain narrative to, one that engages with the senses on a scale that other mediums cannot. You see the sights of the cameraman, you hear what and who they hear, you feel what they feel.
Working with local communities on our field-trip to Cambodia (as part of the BUDD masters), we used video to document the results of participatory design workshops we ran alongside community members. This proved valuable as a resource to draw from during presentations in front of key local and national government officials, demonstrating the success of our participatory planning pilot and suggesting a potential future for participation within the planning system. Similarly, while on the field in Uganda, I worked alongside local NGO ACTogether to document community planning meetings in which participatory exercises were conducted to attempt to address the issue of flooding. The video and media content produced as part of these meetings is invaluable in not only sharing the general aims and methodology of the NGO, but in legitimising its efforts, providing firsthand evidence of its work, efficacy and influence.
The value of crafting a narrative is particularly felt when viewing video as a democratising tool, as an amplifier for those voices unheard. Within the context of London, I have used documentary films as a platform with which to express and elucidate the concerns of various community groups fighting juggernaut developers and regeneration proposals. The typical structure for participation within the planning system does not offer many opportunities to voice objections and concerns, and where present, they remain particularly formal and confined. Creating films and sharing them online, we were able to share and voice our views to a much wider audience than would otherwise be available and generate greater opportunities for discussion than standard methods for participation would allow. This felt particularly empowering as we were able to craft a message within boundaries set by ourselves, rather than an outside agent.
The freedom offered by the last case is something that deserves greater reflection as it is not something that will necessarily be available in situations where video and media is tasked with representing the views of others in research and academic work. There is an inherent bias and degree of manipulation involved in the creation of video/film/photography; this is its greatest asset and weakness. In an academic or research context (perhaps in every context), it is important to meditate on the role of the photographer/videographer, how they may be shaping or influencing their surroundings and the material they record, and consequently the role of the editor or curator, tasked with weaving a particular narrative or message. Questions of fidelity and authenticity are necessary at each of these stages to avoid the potential of misrepresenting or distorting a subject. I am afraid I have no concrete answers though; the ultimate beauty of the medium lies in its ability to be interpreted in many different ways: to portray the right and the wrong, the easy and the hard, the simple and the contradictory, all at the same time.
My final advice:
Think, record, then think again.
David McEwen is a filmmaker and architect, a recent graduate of the BUDD masters programme, with an interest in design and democratic spatial practices. His work has included the production of documentaries on development processes in Cambodia and Uganda and more recently the representation and advocacy of minority ethnic interests in urban design and planning practices in London.