Being involved

As a documentarian, sometimes you have to make a decision to stay behind the camera or to get involved in a situation outside of documentation. The ethical issue is how to balance your involvement in a situation as a videographer, which includes the responsibilities of honest journalism and creating engaging material, balanced against your subjects’ emotions, injuries, or other difficult situations which need attention. Imagine people getting hurt, or having emotional breakdowns in front of your camera. There are times when you need to keep capturing. Other times when you need to put down your camera and take action. Knowing how to behave in these situations totally depends on the context of your situation, but it’s a serious and interesting moral issue surrounding documentary video.

A more emotional side of this dilemma happened while filming a documentary about my brother and my dad. After working on a car together intensely for a month, a difficult but important bonding experience, my brother was leaving home to go back to Oregon. While everyone was saying their goodbyes, I held the camera at my side and caught the raw emotion of the moment (I did put the camera down to hug him goodbye).

But this left me wondering – should I have put down the camera and been more present in the moment? Did I miss something as a family member? From a filmmaking standpoint, it was an important moment in the story and the whole piece ended up being a deeply meaningful experience to the whole family which could be shared beyond my immediate family. My dad watches this video anytime he needs to smile. Because of that, I don’t regret my decision to keep the camera rolling and include that footage in the final video.

Another example of this dilemma happened while photographing a group of skateboarders. One of my subjects decided to do a flip trick off of a fairly large drop. On the second or third try, he landed badly and rolled his ankle. He laid on the ground in pain, groaning, and couldn’t get up.

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My first reaction was to stop taking pictures and move over to him. But as I was helping him, the skaters around me ran up to take care of him and told me that I should keep taking pictures – that it was important to document this part of skateboarding. The photos were powerful, and showed the essential but least glamorous part of skating, falling.

You can run into this dilemma in many different ways, and I’m thankful that I’ve never had to regret the decision to keep the camera rolling or snapping. In an emotional documentary your interviewee might start crying and be overwhelmed with emotions about the subject. It’s a very difficult to decide if you’re going to stop the camera and comfort them, or keep rolling and show your compassion through a comforting look behind the lights.

My opinion, and my best advice on this issue, is keep filming unless it’s an emergency, someone asks you to stop, or someone is in severe danger. It’s your job to keep capturing, to get that story even if it’s difficult. But I think the thought of capturing footage should be put away if someone is in real danger or is in a damaging emotional situation. There’s a balance to be made with helping people and shooting at the same time, and knowing that balance will I think make you a better person, and a better documentarian.

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