19 October, 2011

To have, to be, - to document? (part 1)


Shortly after filming the "Samburis" short documentary, a question emerged in my mind. The question dredged up a recollection of Fromm's "To Have or to Be" - specifically, does the increasing permeation of our lives with documentary technology offer up yet a third mode of being, characterized neither by direct embodied experience nor possession? 

Mahmut Mutman's "Visual Technologies and Visual Narratives" course at Bilkent University offered up a heady bunch of ideas. The lectures, readings, and films explored how documentary technology, particularly film and video, changes our relationship with the world, among other things conceptualizing experience as a world-picture (Heidegger), penetrating a three-dimensional reality to open new angles of perception (Vertov), inserting itself into social relations to create a society linked by the experience of "spectacle" (Debord), and coming between an event itself and a collective "sense" of the event (Deleuze). 

All these concepts, fascinating as they were, seemed at some remove until this spring. As i engaged more fully with filmmaking i began to note how, for a documentarian, the camera eyepiece changes experience on a more personal level. Thinking back on last year's travels - Iraq, Georgia, Iceland, and Arizona in particular - i recall how the process of documenting the journey in photographs somehow diminished the journey. By contrast, between the time my camera was stolen in Diyarbakir, and the time i bought a new one in Tbilisi, the memories are somehow richer. As if i was more fully present.

For the photographer, the camera can become a barrier to full experience of the present moment; the presence of a lens between you and the subject modifies the interaction, undeniably creating a new present moment. Additionally, by recording a moment in time - as if preserving a specimen in ether - documentary technology alters one's experience of temporality. In the moment of recording, the camera becomes a rift, placing me in the future; much as later, viewing the document places me in the past. In the alleys of Ankara Citadel, the camera's presence widened the rift between low-socioeconomic inhabitant and tourist, reinforcing a dichotomy of subject and object that, surprisingly, flowed both ways. 

So it is that i ask: Is there a way to engage in documentary creative process while remaining in the present moment? The camera, the movie camera, they come between me and the unfolding moment. Is there another layer, on the other side of this experiential rift where, mindful of the technology's influence on the reality being created, the technology becomes almost a dance partner? Unlike fiction, where the auteur's objective is to create the story's "reality" from scratch, this question seems particularly important to the documentary style: how does one document an extant, authentic reality even as the documentary process is altering the context of that reality? 

In our age of world picture, youtube and iPhone, the balance of living and documenting in the moment begins to shift. As a sometimes-filmmaker, i question the more subtle internal effects of my work both on self and on my species. In the twenty-first century, will viewing come to replace doing? When we are intent on capturing the "real life" around us, do we lose our own? Does the democratization of documentary technology imply a mode of existence characterized neither by having nor being - but by documenting and passively observing?