I’m back from a road trip with family through PA, WV, VA and KY (really not the summer to do this, although gas was a lot cheaper down south). Along with some hiking and biking and fabulous roadside dioramas, I had the pleasure of making a short visit to Appalshop, the legendary arts, media and cultural center in Whitesburg, KY. My fellow archivist here at WITNESS, Chad Hunter, spent two years at Appalshop (and continues as a staff archivist, remotely); I got to see the great vault he was largely responsible for having installed (and in which my kids had no end of fun, crushing each other between the moving shelves.) I got a tour from Caroline Rubens, who took over from Chad about a year or so ago. The archive houses somewhere around 13,000 items, including multiple formats of film, video, audio, and photographs, all depicting myriad aspects of life in the region over the past half-century or so. And I met Elizabeth Barret, the Archive’s director, and a filmmaker responsible for (among others) Stranger with a Camera.

I had seen this remarkable film when it first aired on POV some years ago; I watched it again right before our trip. The film explores the relationship between camera-wielders – filmmakers, journalists, photographers – and their subjects, within the context of the 1967 murder of Hugh O’Connor, a Canadian filmmaker. O’Connor and his team had obtained permission from a miner to film him on his front porch; the owner of the property, a local man named Hobart Ison, got wind of their presence, arrived at the scene and shot O’Connor dead, despite the fact that the crew was retreating. The murder occurred in the wake of Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands, and subsequent intense focus by news media, VISTA volunteers and others, depicting the Appalachian region as the epitome of desperate rural US poverty. A considerable portion of the population felt belittled and humiliated by such scrutiny, and therefore sympathetic to Ison.

Of course this resonates. Because at WITNESS we facilitate the documentation of human rights transgressions, the stories of victims or abuses, marginalized individuals and communities. Regardless of intentions or means, there is a power relationship implicit in the wielding of a camera, the control of how and when and to whom images are disseminated.

As archivists in guardianship of the unedited, raw – in every sense – material, we are constantly wrestling with when, how and in what manner to allow access. We believe we are ethical and judicious in our decisions but it can be a source of anxiety. Several years ago I was on a panel with an archivist of materials depicting Aboriginal peoples; she believed that the images showing colonial-era subjugation and abuse of native people should suppressed, accessible only through permission of the group’s descendants. She had seen such images misappropriated, used for nefarious purposes, and identified with the humiliation and impotence of the subjects. I found this quite moving but also not tenable; it is easier to manipulate the truth when information is suppressed. But it’s important to be reminded of what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.

Do see Stranger with a Camera.

–Grace Lile

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