Cameras can be instruments of self-empowerment. They are tools used to create, innovate, and preserve knowledge in unprecedented ways.
For the past two years, more than forty residents have graciously allowed us to videotape and/or audio record their life experiences in the name of preserving and sharing the Lower Ninth Ward’s history. Cameras have provided us with the invaluable opportunity to document generations of stories that are too easily forgotten. It’s safe to say that the Living Museum couldn’t exist without the ability to record oral histories of Lower Ninth Ward residents.
As we seek to minimize the negative footprint of this project, it’s important to explore the more harmful implications of the instruments we use to record each story.
While the camera provides us with opportunities for innovation, it also has a dark history that can’t be ignored. If you have ever had an unwanted camera in your face, you’ve likely felt its potential to be aggressive and intrusive. Throughout history the camera has often been used as a weapon – to exploit, colonize, invade, twist and objectify. Even the words associated with the camera are inherently violent: to “shoot” a scene and to “capture” an image. As Susan Sontag said, “to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” Whether or not the camera is used with good intentions, the act of video taping inherently involves issues of ownership and representation.
As outsiders coming into this community bearing microphones and video cameras, it is imperative that we carry a deeper understanding of the tools we rely on. This means repeatedly acknowledging the magnitude of each interview, and our role in preventing such exchanges from being exploitative. It requires acknowledging our profound responsibility to protect every local resident’s story from being abused or misused and necessitates constantly negotiating ethical and respectful ways to showcase and honor each oral history.
The Living Museum exists to honor the rich history of the Lower Ninth Ward, as told strictly through the voices of local residents. The implications of using a camera to record history are undeniably complex, but the bottom line is not. We might hold the camera but we are not the storytellers, and this history will never belong to us.