Stranger with a Camera

The film, “Strangerwith a Camera”, is one of the most moving films that is centered ona place and people that remains misunderstood, more often than not,by the outsiders. The documentary bases its plot on an event thattook place in 1967. Hugh O’Connor, the Canadian filmmaker, with hiscrew, had just visited the Central Appalachian Mountains to make adocumentary on poverty that had struck the area. Unfortunately, Hughwas short by a local property owner who resented their presence inhis property (Barret 9). Elizabeth has taken into analyzing thesituation that took place. One point that remains clear is a filmmay never represent any single community in entirety, regardless ofthe elements they capture.

The filmmaker,Barret, who is an Appalachian native, takes advantage of the death ofO’Conner and uses it as a lens in exploring the multifacetedrelationships that exist between the people involved in the making offilms geared towards promoting social change and the ones that theyrepresent their lives in the films. With the setting of the film inthe first account approach, viewers plunge into a quest, which probesBarret into examining her double-facet role, both as a media producerand as belonging to the community that she portrays, Appalachia. Byusing the definition that Geertz advances regarding culture, theaccount that Elizabeth has of the shooting may be possible tounearth.

According to thedefinition of culture given by Geertz, culture is “a historicallytransmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system ofinherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of whichmen communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about andtheir attitudes toward life” (Norton 25). From his definition, itis conceivable that culture may never be a force, rather contexts inwhich people live out of their personal lives. He reasoned thatpeople would normally establish various symbols and signs, whichenable them, understand experiences as well as help in shaping theirbehaviors. As such, meaning is very significant in order for peopleto be able to maintain their lives in the social realms. He wentahead to state that, “man is an animal suspended in webs ofsignificance he himself has spun I take culture to be those webs.”

The main aim of thefilm is to evaluate both the two sides of the situation, theconflict. In this case, the perspective of the insiders, theAppalachians, and the outsiders, the various groups who are trying toanalyze the case. Barret, being an insider, is mainly seeking tohighlight the way the views that a people have of their communityaffect the manner that they perceive the outsiders against theinsiders, people who live amongst them. Rather than posing as a groupof people looking into the event from the outside perspective, shedecided to present herself as an insider. The members of thecommunity had the feeling that the media was, in real sense,portraying Kentucky the wrong way, making most of them hate theattention that the media gave them. Indeed, within the documentary,one woman by the name, Mary says outright that she was upset by theway the films failed to take an account of the people or theirculture, beyond the poverty. She said, “Some of the films insultedme” (Rankin 133).

However, somethingthat remains very significant is the general nature of human beings:they hate truth, and this is why journalists usually become targetsof most people. Well, it is true that it may never be possible tocover an entire story in a short time period. However if onesincerely intends to tell the truth, they can always do so bycapturing specific items of the society. While watching thedocumentary, one should take note of the various questions thatBarret keeps on asking herself. At some point, Barret asks herself,“What is the difference between helping people see their own placeand how others perceive it?” (Rees 121). One would find themselvesasking the very question. One question that closely links to this ishow possible it is to make someone look terrible by simply takingtheir picture ideally, the moment is a representation of theiractual life.

Some people from thesame community had a different feel about the people who constantlycame to the community they argued that the visitors tried toinfluence them in a way, to share in the same ideals. When the filmis nearing its end, Barret is confused as to whether the media canreally represent the situation accurately. One of the individualsBarret’s interviewed states that the cameras may never lie as theyonly tend to show what truly is there however, the same personstates that the cameras may never give the story in entirety,“cameras only capture what can be seen” (Rees 119). In thissense, the implication is that the cameras can never give the storybehind the picture that is there, and which it can see. This is verymuch in agreement with the definition of culture by Geertz. He saidthat culture is supposed to be a means of people to give theexpression of how they communicate and come up with an attitudetowards their culture.

In a differentperspective, the very community that was portrayed as characterizedwith poverty and pathetic life has another class of people whoactually lived affluent lives. In this context, this specific classof people might have viewed the journalist in their own context, andfelt that they were not as poor as they were shown to the world. Theymay have felt that this story was unfair as they had different livesfrom the poor people whose pictures were taken. Such people viewedthe journalists as “outside agitators”, and may have used this tojustify Ison’s action. However, the question that they may neverhave answered is whether one must be a part of the society in orderfor them to know and understand the situation of the people. Geertzargument fully disputes this in fact, he states that a singleindividual may successfully portray the society in entirety (Norton25).

The filmmakereventually decides never to take any sides rather, she feels thatshe should show the facts and reality of the situation in entirety.By taking sides, she could only display the various aspects that mayonly be of benefit to the community in which she belonged. Shestates, “This is my community. My life is here. As a filmmaker Ihave the responsibility to see my community for what it is, to tellthe story no matter how difficult.” Her approach aims at showingwhat really happened without spinning to bring out both sides of theissue, with both the good and bad parts (Barret 12).

At the end of thestory, Barret states that, “Stay true to what you see and hope thatit’s enough” (Barret 15). This sarcastic statement gives adifferent turn on the perception of the entire documentary.Initially, the narrator has command of the story, and she manages tohelp in outlining the various issues that arose. From the beginningto the end, Barret manages to stay in the middle without takingsides. However, an in depth analysis of the statement shows somebetrayal in her thoughts she seems to have worn a mask in developingthe story. In essence, the implication of the statement is that theviewers of a production should try to believe in what they see,however, they should have it at the back of their mind that it maynever be a representation of the entire story.

All through thedocumentary, it is very evident that the various cultural aspects ofa community, brought out in a film, are never everything thatconstitute the dynamics of such a community. Though the notion isthat a picture may never lie, rather only take what it is in itsvicinity, several questions still remain unanswered. One particularaspect that is questionable is whether the journalists or filmmakersreally capture all aspects of the community. This is one point thatcan water down the entire story to nothing since, such people usuallycapture only what they wish to. Mark you, a camera only takes what itis focused at, nothing more. The journalists, therefore, have fullcontrol of the entire ideal, they can decide to portray a society aspoor by only capturing the region where only poor people live,something that is synonymous with every community.

Works Cited

Barret, Elizabeth.&nbspStranger With A Camera [Videorecording] /Producer And Director, Elizabeth Barrett Narration Writer, FentonJohnson Appalshop, Inc. n.p.: San Francisco, CA : CaliforniaNewsreel, [2000], 2000.&nbspHarvard Library BibliographicDataset. Web. 21 June 2015.

Norton, Matthew, et al.&nbspInterpreting Clifford Geertz :Cultural Investigation In The Social Sciences. New York: PalgraveMacmillan, 2011.&nbspDiscovery eBooks. Web. 14 June 2015.

Rankin, Tom. &quotStranger With A Camera.&quot&nbspThe OralHistory Review&nbsp2 (2003): 133.&nbspNaxos Spoken WordLibrary. Web. 21 June 2015.

Rees, Stephen. &quotStranger with a Camera.&quot&nbspLibraryJournal&nbsp2001:&nbspNaxos Spoken Word Library. Web. 21June 2015.

Thesis statement

Regardless of thevarious elements that the film producers are able to capture, theymay never be able to capture the various elements of a community thatare distinct and synonymous of the society.


  1. “A historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life”: This is statement by Geertz, outlining the relationship between humans and the society. Only the members of a society may be able to understand the community, the insiders.

  2. “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun I take culture to be those webs.” This statement by Geertz implies the importance of one to be in a society for them to understand how it operates and why it does so.

  3. “Some of the films insulted me”: This was a statement by the woman interviewed by Barret, Mary. It relates how the community perceives the filmmakers.

  4. “Cameras only capture what can be seen”: This was said by Ison to help in justifying his act after shooting the cameraman.

  5. “This is my community. My life is here. As a filmmaker I have the responsibility to see my community for what it is, to tell the story no matter how difficult.” This is Barret speaking. The statement shows the finality with which she has concluded. This will help in the presentation of the insider/outsider perception of the entire situation, unlike the outsiders or insiders who only look at it from their points of view.