By Robert Coles
Oxford University Press. 278 pp. $25

Go to the first chapter of "Doing Documentary Work"

Go to Chapter One

Up Close and Personal

By Jeanne Fox-Alston
Sunday, November 2, 1997; Page X09
The Washington Post

One of the things this century surely will be remembered for will be the documentary. From the images made by photographers Walker Evans and Gordon Parks, to books by James Agee and Studs Terkel, to films and videos by Ken Burns and Henry Hampton, we have looked in rapt attention, appreciative of documentarians' ability to inform and enlighten us. While excellent documentary work was done before 1900, the genre has flourished since then, as first photography and then film made this what Robert Coles calls "a century of hugely expanded vision."

There's a tendency among readers and viewers of documentary work to accept it at face value, to view it as reality. But as Coles's new book shows, while documentary work "brings us closer to the world around us," it also "poses many questions and challenges." The reality is, Coles argues convincingly, that documentary work is shaped as much by the perceptions of the person doing it as by the subjects themselves.

Coles is best known as a child psychiatrist and the author of numerous books on children, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Children of Crisis series. Yet he views himself as a documentarian, as he calls those who do documentary work. One of his first documentary projects began in 1960, when he studied four black 6-year-olds who integrated New Orleans public schools. Other studies soon followed. A Harvard professor, Coles also has taught classes there on documentary work. He was one of the founders of Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies and serves as co-editor of the Center's DoubleTake magazine.

Still, it might seem unusual for a psychiatrist to write about this subject. However, case studies, upon which psychiatry relies, are akin to documentary work in that they too see the world through the eyes of individuals. In making his points, Coles frequently cites his own experiences and conversations with the subjects of his field studies. Further, two big influences on him were the poet William Carlos Williams, who was also a medical doctor, and psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson, Coles's mentor at Harvard and the author of biographies of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther. Williams and Erikson both brought a scientist's trained eye and a poet's ear to their writing.

Coles first learned how the perception of documentary work differs from the reality early in his career, while writing about the children of migrant farm workers. "I tried to describe the various states of mind I observed," he writes. "In so doing, I called upon psychiatric and psychoanalytic terminology and wrote in the passive third voice." He was struck by the fact that the children he studied didn't draw land underneath them in their self-portraits, which he described as "a poignant denial of their very condition of young farm workers."

His editor objected to his use of the word "poignant" and convinced him to cut the offending word; he wanted a report that was seemingly unfiltered. But such objectivity is a myth, according to Coles. While documentary work -- whether done by social scientists, writers, filmmakers or photographers -- may be based on documents and research, Coles shows that it is always subjective.

He writes: "So often in our discussion of documentary work, my students . . . emphasize the 'actuality' of the work -- its responsibility to fact. They commonly pose for themselves the familiar alternative of fiction, as though we were dealing in clear-cut opposites: if not the true as against the false, at least the real as against the imaginary."

But whether or not one uses descriptive, subjective words such as poignant, "who we are determines what we notice and what we regard as worthy of notice, what we find significant," Coles says. Later, he adds, "We who cut, weave, edit, splice, crop, sequence, interpolate, interject, connect, pan, come up with our captions and comments, have our say [and] have thereby linked our lives to those we have attempted to document."

As an example, Coles cites "Migrant Mother," a well-known photograph by Dorothea Lange. Taken in Depression-era California in 1936, it shows the stoic face of a woman. Lange, a Farm Security Administration photographer, took many photos of the woman and her children in their tent, several of which are shown in the book. Yet by focusing on the woman herself, instead of showing her in her environment, Lange selected what she felt was the most telling image even though it offered few "sociological clues." In addition to analyzing the choices made by Lange, he also discusses at some length other acclaimed documentary works by writers James Agee and Reynolds Price and filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, among others.

In one of the most interesting sections of the book, Coles explores what he calls the "moral and psychological tensions" of documentary work, namely the responsibility of those who do documentary work to those who "ask silently or quite openly: Who are these visitors and what are they up to, and what will they end up doing, and what will come of all this, for us and for them?"

He answers in part by quoting the subjects of documentary work. An Appalachian woman, who met with three different film crews, tells Coles: "I know they're trying to tell folks yonder what it's like for us up here. But if you ask me, they've made up their minds about us long before they hit this hollow. . . . These people, they'll start sizing everything up, and they grab at what's not so nice, and they're disappointed if you don't have a lot of hurt to show them."

The result of all this is a thoughtful if at times somewhat overly ruminative book that offers a framework for critically evaluating documentary work. Coles ensures that one will never look at documentary work -- no matter how well done or well meaning -- quite the same way again. As he observes: "Through selection, emphasis and the magic of narrative art, the reader or viewer gets convincingly close to a scene, a subject matter and sees the documentary as one of many possible takes, not the story, but a story."

Jeanne Fox-Alston is director of recruiting and hiring for The Washington Post newsroom and a student of documentary photography.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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