10. Robert Coles, Doing Documentary Work

by breavman99

coles doing documentary work

I’ve had Robert Coles’s Doing Documentary Work on my bookshelf for quite some time. I bought it because of the title, but I’d never made time to read it. I was curious, though, about why Coles, a child psychiatrist, became the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, how he helped to establish the Center of Documentary Studies at Duke University, and why he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Children of Crisis series. Why not put it on my reading list? I thought. That’s how I’ll answer those questions—and maybe it’ll be of some use. And so that’s what I did.

Coles begins by discussing James Agee’s aesthetic, moral, and intellectual struggle as he tried to report on what he had witnessed in central Alabama while writing his 1941 book about tenant farmers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. That struggle, Coles reports, can be seen in Agee’s anger, towards himself, his audience, and his editors and publishers. Agee feels inadequate to the task he is facing; he senses “that any manuscript he will complete and send to a publisher won’t convey so very much that matters about the lives of the people he has met,” and he worries that his readers won’t realize that’s the case (3). That anxiety and struggle appear in the text of Agee’s book in attacks on himself and his audience. For Coles, Agee’s story is intended “to indicate . . . some of the occupational hazards, as it were, of so-called documentary work. The intense self-scrutiny Agee attempts is, one hopes, an aspect of all writing, all research” (4). “Each of us brings, finally, a particular life to the others who are being observed in documentary work,” he continues, “and so to some degree, each of us will engage with those others differently, carrying back from such engagement our own version of them” (5). That’s because, according to Coles, documentary work is necessarily both subjective and objective: it attempts to tell the truth, but each person engaged in that work will tell the truth differently, according to their own subjectivity. Documentary work, therefore, is not neutral or impartial: “the search for objectivity [is] waylaid by a stubborn subjectivity” (5). 

For Coles, documentary work raises methodological, psychological or personal, and moral issues—primarily because he defines documentary work as research into the lives of people who are different from oneself—different in terms of class position, race, or origin. No doubt Coles thinks that way because of his experience in the 1950s and 1960s, researching the effects of desegregation on African-American children in the South and writing about the Freedom Riders. Coles does acknowledge that not all research focuses on that kind of difference, but his primary examples—Agee, George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, and Dorothea Lange’s photographs—are of documentary work that tries to tell the stories of people who are very different from the researcher. 

Coles sets out to explore a tremendous number of questions about documentary work—about telling stories, in a variety of media, about the lives of other people:

What kind of work are we doing, and to what purpose? How are we to proceed—through which intermediaries in pursuit of which men, women, children, living in what neighborhoods? How does our work compare with that of others who work for newspapers, who do more traditional social science (survey research, for instance), or who do a kind of social history that does not entail interviews with ordinary folk? When does enough turn out to be enough—when, that is, do we leave reasonably satisfied, and if so, with what messages given to the people with whom we have worked? What is our responsibility to such people, and how ought it be acknowledged? What about ourselves—when does honorable inquiry turn into an exercise in manipulative self-interest, even (that word of words!) “exploitation”? Who is to make such judgments, calling upon what criteria? As for ourselves, in the lonely corners of whose minds a certain vague yet ever so pressing moral awareness can restively lurk, ready in the most unexpected moments to pounce on us, bear down on our sense of who we are and what we’ve become—what ought we to consider appropriate or inappropriate in this kind of relatively idiosyncratic endeavor, of a kind not usually regulated by the rules of departmental disciplines, by textbooks that spell out steps and routines and procedures and the theories that justify them?

Speaking of theory—how to think of “documentary studies” in the abstract, as well as in the implementation of the concrete? Speaking, too, of the personal and ethical, as so many of the above questions do—how to talk directly, candidly (using what kind of language), about the psychological hazards of such work, and too, the ethical challenges that appear, it sometimes seems, from out of nowhere? Moreover, what to make of one’s interventions, as a writer, as an editor of tapes or notes, as the person who picks and chooses words, crops and cuts photographs, splices constantly the tapes of a documentary film? When do selection and arrangement and a response to narrative need, in the form of one’s comments and asides, become so decisive that one story (“raw interview material” or “unedited footage” or photographic film that hasn’t been sorted or sequenced) has turned into quite another? What of pictures cropped (with a possible attendant shift in emphasis, focus, not to mention the substance of a scene)? What of films that move back and forth across time and space while presenting an apparent narrative and chronological continuity? When does fact veer toward fiction—and how are those two words to be understood with respect to one another: as polarities, as contraries, or as kin, working a parallel, often contiguous territory, and borrowing from one another now and then? (15-16)

Anyone could’ve told Coles that he has too many research questions, but really, all of those questions are different ways of asking just three questions: What is documentary work? How can documentary work be conducted in an ethical way? And what is the balance between objectivity and subjectivity in documentary work?

Coles explores the first question by distinguishing documentary work from similar activities—history, journalism, anthropology, and sociology—and by thinking through the work of Agee and Orwell, which “helps clarify our thinking about the various ways observers can respond to what they have seen and heard and come to believe” (25). Both writers display similar polarities and tensions, according to Coles, including “the demands of reality against those of art,” “the demands of objectivity against those of objectivity,” and “a voice seeking to be contemplative, considered, as against one aiming for passionate persuasion, or advocacy, or denunciation” (27-28). The issue—in Agee and Orwell, and in his own work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—is “location—how a particular writer or researcher decides to commit himself or herself with respect to those others being studied, watched, heard, made the subject of a writing initiative,” as well as also how that researcher will be “touched or affected” by the people he or she is learning about (32-33). Coles finishes by considering the issue of location in the poetry of William Carlos Williams (whom he knew quite well)—the way that Williams “knew in his bones that location made a huge difference,” particularly the location of the person engaged in the project (47). If you’re surprised to hear Williams’s poetry—particularly his long poem Paterson—described as documentary work, don’t be: Coles sees the documentary impulse in a variety of forms and media.

Next, Coles looks at the moral and psychological tensions that affect the person doing documentary research, returning to Agee as an example. But that discussion quickly shifts to questions about one’s relationship with one’s research participants. Coles thinks about his work in New Orleans in the 1960s, and realizes that to some of his participants, he came across as “a self-absorbed traveling salesman, peddling my documentary (my careerist) wares,” which he was asking his participants to purchase through their investment of time and energy in his project (65-66). He came to understand how a documentary writer or photographer or filmmaker can come to feel accused—by himself or herself—and how that sense of guilt or shame can lead to the anger one sees in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and The Road to Wigan Pier. Documentarians need to ask questions about their responsibilities to their research participants:

How ought we regard ourselves, with what degree of scrutiny of our motives and our manner, of why we go where go do, and how we behave while there? Afterwards, what, if anything, ought we keep in mind? Should we keep in touch with those whom we have enlisted as informants, as participants in our project? Put differently, what kind of moral and psychological accountability should we demand of ourselves, we who lay claim to social idealism, or to a documentary tradition that will somehow (we hope) work toward a social good—expose injustice, shed light on human suffering, or contribute to a growing body of knowledge stored in libraries, in museums, in film studios? (74)

“More bluntly,” he continues,

what, if anything, do we owe those we have “studied,” whose lives we have gone to document? Should we, for instance, send back the writing, the photography, the film once it is completed? If so, at what stage of that work’s development: as it is being assembled, as it is being edited, before it is published or exhibited or shown on television or in a movie house, or well afterwards, or indeed never? Should we pay our informants for all the time and effort put into making a film or working with a photographer or an interviewer? Should we share our royalties, our artistic fees, our monetary rewards or prizes with the subjects of our documentary project, or share them with a group or fund whose purpose it is to address the particular “problem” we have presented?. . . Is it “exploitative” to do documentary work, to arrive on a given scene, ask for people’s cooperation, time, energy, and knowledge, do one’s “study” or “project,” and soon enough, leave, thank yous presumably extended? How can we do such work honorably, so that those observed get more closely, explicitly connected with it? Should “informants” be publicly acknowledged if they so desire? Should we invite them to those exhibitions or film presentations that commemorate the completion of documentary work? How do we communicate to others, called “potential subjects,” our artistic or social or political purposes, let them know what we have in mind, what we hope to do, and why it might be necessary to go to such lengths? (75-76)

These questions are much the same as the ones raised in the course on socially engaged art practices that I took last semester: how do we ensure that our behaviour is ethical, that everyone involved gets something out of the research project? The principle of mutual benefit can guide our answers to those questions. Coles doesn’t attempt to answer them, but he does suggest that researchers need to make a genuine effort to connect with their participants, and to make sure they are taking time to be with them, that they are giving as well as taking (77). It’s an attitude, for Coles, and a deliberate effort at avoiding being avaricious or greedy about the lives and the stories of the people one is studying (81).

Next, Coles turns to the question of objectivity versus subjectivity. He argues that all documentary work is made “by a particular mind whose capacities, interests, values, conjectures, suppositions and presuppositions, whose memories, and, not least, whose talents will come to bear directly or indirectly on what is, finally . . . presented to the world” (87). “Events are filtered through a person’s awareness,” he continues, and that awareness is influenced by experience, aspirations, frustrations, even moods (88). The subjectivity of documentary work leads Coles to the distinction his students want to make between fact and fiction, true and false, real and imaginary. Such oppositions, he argues, don’t do justice to the concept of documentary work. Fictional devices—the demands of storytelling—“inform the construction of nonfiction,” just as fiction often draws upon real life (90):

A documentarian’s report will be strengthened by what has been witnessed, but will be fueled, surely, by what those observations come to mean in his or her head: we absorb sights and sounds, and they become our experience, unique to us, in that we, their recipients, are unique. What we offer others in the way of our documentary reports, then, is our mix of what we have observed and experienced, as we have assembled it, that assembly having to do . . . with our imaginative capability, our gifts as writers, as editors, as storytellers, as artists. (91)

“[T]he doer of documentary work,” Coles writes, “is out there in this world of five billion people, free (at least by the nature of his or her chosen manner of approach to people, places, events) to buckle down, to try to find a congenial, even inspiring take on things” (126). This emphasis on subjectivity allows Coles to include Paterson and Hart Crane’s long poem The Bridge in his definition of documentary work. “[D]oing documentary work,” Coles concludes, “is a journey . . . a passage cross boundaries . . . that can become a quest, even a pilgrimage, a movement toward the sacred truth enshrined not only on tablets of stone, but in the living hearts of those others whom we can hear, see, and get to understand” (145). By engaging in this process, he continues, “we hope to be confirmed in our own humanity” (145).

Those words confirm what one might have suspected all along—that Coles is a devout humanist—and his final chapter, in which he discusses a wide range of documentarians and documentary practices he likes, display that humanism. He is interested in the work of Dorothea Lange and her husband, Paul Taylor, and he argues that Lange was an artist despite her “interest in polemical statement” (177)—a statement that reveals Coles’s own aesthetics. He also likes the writing and/or photography of John Baskin, Wright Morris, Anthony Walton, Kathleen Norris, Thomas Roma, Robert Frank, Reynolds Price, and Ruth Bottigheimer, and the filmmaking of Frederick Wiseman. All of these documentarians are storytellers, he argues: “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” (250). “The call of documentary work,” he concludes, “is an aspect of the call of stories, of our wish to learn about one another through observation of one another,” and the resulting stories present us with an opportunity “to wonder how we are doing as we try to affirm ourselves by reaching toward others, helping to make a difference in a neighborhood, a nation” (251-52).

So, what to make of Coles’s book? On the one hand, his definition of documentary work isn’t useful for me at all, because my project doesn’t focus on studying or researching or writing about the lives of other people. But, on the other hand, I will find myself working with other people, relying on them, and perhaps (probably?) writing about our encounters, as I did during my walk to Wood Mountain this past summer. Those people will inevitably become research participants, since I couldn’t complete the walk I am planning without their help. The questions he asks about relating to research participants are therefore worth asking myself as I move forward with my research. Some might find Coles’s humanism hopelessly outmoded, or his list of successful documentary projects obvious (I can hear someone snorting, “Robert Frank? Really?”) or old-fashioned (where is post-conceptual photography or autoethnography in his version of documentary work? where is the postmodern concern with the crisis of representation?). I did find myself curious about the mix of photography and text in Wright Morris’s The Inhabitants—curious enough that I’ve ordered a copy (since it’s not in the library here). In all of this reading, I’m trying to take what I find useful, and leave the rest behind, and I do find some of Coles’s book useful: his concern with ethics, his contention that documentary work is inevitably subjective. Besides, after reading his book, I understand how a child psychiatrist became a Pulitzer Prize-winning documentarian.

Work Cited

Coles, Robert. Doing Documentary Work. Oxford UP, 1997.