Expression, Ecology, Identity

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Put Down Your Camera and Join Us"

“Put down your camera and join us.”

I saw this sign through the roiling sea of faces, voices and signs that made up the 10/15/11 Occupy Movement's International Day of Action. It was scrawled in black marker on a ragged piece of cardboard carried by a teenage girl.

“Put down your camera and join us.”

I passed her in the crowd several times and never without a jolt of discomfort - probably because, each time, I was video-recording her holding her sign.

I had come to the Occupy LA site that day to protest corporate "personhood" under the law, to challenge corporate corruption of the democratic process and to advocate for participatory democracy. My interest in the movement grew from a conviction that "business as usual" is destroying the landscape on which we collectively depend for survival, that for everyday community-members to abdicate democratic power is to invite tyranny.

But, while I considered myself to be one of “the 99%,” I also saw myself as a recorder and interpreter of these events. Clutching a low-tech camera the size of my hand, I was now a newbie filmmaker. I intended to help tell the story of this moment from the inside out, to contribute my one, admittedly idiosyncratic, perspective to the creation of a collaborative narrative about the Occupy movement.

The footage I was taking was meant for the group video project for a CLST 355 Visual Research Methods course at Claremont Graduate University (above). My collaborators and I set out to make a video that explored the “demand for a list of demands” that mainstream media had imposed on the Occupy movement. Certainly, criticisms of the movement as having either no demands or too many demands, were ubiquitous in televised news. But was this the right question to ask? Who would gain from extracting a list of demands from the movement at this stage?

“Put down your camera and join us.”

I could understand why this sign-maker protester might assume that those holding cameras were not on her side. But, the same coverage of the Occupy that may have led her to be skeptical of media-makers inspired me to bring my camera to the demonstration. The notion that reflection on and scholarly interpretation of current events should be left to disinterested observers has been around a long time. But, I’m not sure I buy it. Since we are never entirely able to check our biases and our own agendas at the door when interpreting human behavior, “pure scholarly objectivity” is largely a myth. I agree with those, like cinema verite pioneer John Rouch, that developing practices of self-examination in shared anthropology is not just possible, it is vital.

Further, I do not believe it is necessary to wait for someone else to interpret our actions for us. We can and must participate in that work ourselves. Making media is a way of engaging that task; it is a vehicle for self-expression but also of self-reflection.

Finally, believe that scholarship and activism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are necessarily connected. Once we engage in scholarship, once we attempt to know the world around us, we must decide what to do with that information. That choice of how – and when and whether - to employ knowledge, is always a political act, whether or not we intend it to be.

“Put down your camera and join us.”

It doesn’t bother me that I might disagree with my co-protester on this. We in the movement are still working out how to represent ourselves, just as we’re necessarily still working on how to articulate the complex system of changes we want to see in the world. I only wish I had spoken to her about this at the time. We might have talked about why we agreed and explored the areas where we didn’t. Indeed, conversations like this are a critically important part of the work of the movement. Perhaps this video can help to say what I wish I had said to her that day: that I – and my camera – had joined her.

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