Framing the unexpected

by Jean-Luc Lioult

The theoretician may be frustrated by the bipolarity of discourses dealing with documentary.(1)

On the one hand, critics assume documentary’s candid vision of candid eye, its fly on the wall techniques as effectively giving an accurate account of “actual occurrences in the phenomenal world.” (Guynn).

On the other hand, discourses of fakery (vs. discourses of sobriety) are also used about documentary. These seem to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction in a way that is often more confusing than productive.

How can we escape this critical (double) bind ?

To provide my own account, I will here draw from my experience as a photographer as well as a documentary filmmaking teacher.

Operating protocols

Years ago, I got involved in a project about the Highway code with a group of artists. We found inspiration in road signs and planned to produce an exhibition. As a photographer I thus started to work but did not gather much material before making two determining decisions. I would focus on “no parking” signs, especially the handmade ones, those with a personal touch. And I would treat them according to a very precise operating protocol. If pictures were always taken with the same lens, always on a frontal axis, and in such way as to reduce every sign to the same scale, then I hoped to uncover and make evident some unsuspected, accidental or intentional variations in the making, use and life of those objects. That particular method of taking pictures meant that I resigned myself to not investing what used to be the photographer’s pride: original subjects, sophisticated angles, striking composition or lighting. If shooting became a routine procedure, the camera somehow would lose its candidness. Conversely, the images —especially when grouped together — would gain an indexical strength in revealing an unnoticed variety that no reconstruction or manipulation could have simulated. The very uniformity conferred by the operating protocol was the surest means to reveal remarkable variations.

Continued: Highway code art

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