More Than a Pretty Picture
Note: By Jennifer Huang. The SLFP crew went to Papua New Guinea in April, 2010 to film a segment of Standing on Sacred Ground. We are posting a few stories from that trip.
The woman selling bananas smiles at me, warmly, excited. I snap her picture, then, like so many times before, I spin my camera around so she can see herself in the camera’s LCD display. Onlookers gather round. They point at the photo and nod excitedly, give me the thumbs up, and go back to studying the screen. The banana woman reaches out to shake my hand. “Thank you.” She pushes a bunch of bananas into my hand.
Traveling through Papua New Guinea, this scene replays itself with construction workers, fishermen, betel-nut sellers, toddlers, teenage boys carrying machetes and wizened men wearing traditional wigs decorated with flowers. All reacted with wonder, curiosity, surprise and glee at seeing their own photos.
Especially in areas without electricity (or photo development labs, for that matter) possession of these photos was extremely valuable. My husband brought a small photo printer, and whenever it spit forth its diminutive image, the recipient would retreat without another word to study his or her likeness. Friends would gather and comment, point and laugh, and we would usually leave them still staring at the print as our boat pulled away.
Ownership and control of one’s own image is not a new issue for documentary filmmakers, but it’s especially important in places like Papua New Guinea, where most people have little or no access to cameras, video and other technology. Tellingly, in the places where we spent the most time, the thing people wanted most from us (after first aid) was copies of our photos and video.
“It doesn’t matter if it takes a long time,” the Huli men from our guest house told us. “Please send us our photos.”
Having just completed the BAVC Producer’s Institute for New Media, we newly realized how many issues there are in this new era of filmmaking. YouTube and Vimeo make global distribution possible at the click of a button, and online tools make it possible for people separated by thousands of miles to share footage and collaboratively edit a film. In many ways that’s revolutionary — a plurality of voices, people telling their own stories, sharing and pooling resources to reach as wide an audience as possible.
But this “democratization” of the means of production also means that filmmakers can easily lose control over the images they create. And that could be a problem. Giving up your own likeness makes you vulnerable in surprising ways. The people who allowed us to take their images trusted that we would not misuse them. It would be negligent and unethical to share those images, especially the editing of them, in ways that the subjects haven’t agreed to.
In Papua New Guinea, that responsibility could easily be lost — since so many people so freely invited us to take their photos. In a country where Internet access is sparse and we saw no local television production, the need for media literacy and empowerment is taking a back seat to more urgent problems like health care, nutrition, schools, roads and violence.
But I believe that producing media and learning its power are also crucial elements in development. Of course, I’ll be a bit sad when my digital camera in a riverside village fails to elicit the simple, immediate thrill that it did this past April. But I would trade that for seeing kids using cameras to interview their elders, mothers telling their own stories, and people along the road taking pictures of the fascinating foreigners, instead of the other way around.
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