October 27, 2021

Whose Side Of The Camera Are You On?

Est. Reading: 4 minutes

Nazi officers wore hats emblazoned with a big skull right in the center, and yet it never occurred to them that they might be on the wrong side of history. It may have helped that they didn’t have to see themselves wearing them. More importantly, they never had to see themselves doing what they did while wearing those hats I wonder what would have happened if everyone had cell phone cameras back in 1938. Joseph Goebbels Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda said that the Nazi rise to power would not have been possible without the radio. He understood the importance of mass media and controlling who gets to speak. In fact, he had a sort of equation or principle, “One transmitter, ten thousand receivers.” This of course can apply to television or movies as easily as it does radio.

We’ve all seen footage of people grabbing at a camera lens in an attempt to stop the camera person from filming. Like the skull on the Nazi hat, I wonder if it occurs to the person who is trying to block the camera to question why they don’t want to be seen. Their aggressive reaction to the camera is probably not a carefully reasoned one, but more an emotional response. There is a difference between shooting someone and being shot. The subject instinctually feels the power wielded by the camera.

There are two sides to a camera and the power dynamic favors the one behind it. If one person is the subject then the other is the author, the framer that turns a person into something to be described and observed. The word “subject” has different related meanings. As a verb, it creates a clear and pronounced inequality. If I subject you to something I am clearly the dominant one. Subject can be a noun as in “a king and his subjects” which provides another clear delineation of power. The subject being discussed in this essay is also a noun. To be the subject of a documentary can be rephrased as being subjected to documentation. This rephrasing makes clear the power relation.

If you ask the person trying to block the camera, what they are doing they almost never have an answer. Security guards, policemen, soldiers invariably repeat themselves. “Sir I am going to have to ask you to stop filming” You can ask why, or assert your rights but they will just repeat the sentence they just finished saying. They do not want a discussion, they want to prevent their subjugation (a word related to subject) and have their authority recognized so they can take control of the situation.


The soldier is only the sharp end of the stick. He or she is following orders and protocols. Those who give the soldier their orders have more intentionality. Why do they want to deny the camera access? Do they know what they are doing is illegal or wrong? Are they preventing evidence from being gathered? Maybe they are not doing anything wrong but they want to be in control of the narrative. They want to be the one who interprets and presents the events.

Film or video can not tell the whole story. This inability to fully convey the truth is partly what makes the medium so dangerous and so threatening. The individual trying to stop a recording being made may well be worried about the capturing of the truth, but there is also the understanding that what is being captured is not the truth. The footage can be edited, re-contextualized, and narrated over until it depicts something very far from reality.

All film is essentially a lie. It is an illusion caused by the persistence of vision. Built on top of this lie is the idea that through the camera we the audience are seeing a slice of reality. Never mind “deep fakes” and CGI, an unadulterated film still only presents one point of view and on top of that eliminates the presence of the author. It is a powerful illusion where the person who’s eyes we are seeing through is absent. We never see them and so it is easy to forget that they exist as a mediator of our experience.


People will say and feel that they saw an event when what they saw was a film of an event. No one person, or camera, or even group of people or group of cameras saw what happened on 911. The events that took place on that day generated thousands of individual experiences each limited to a single point of view.

The phrase “point of view” can be taken literally or figuratively. Either way, the content is very similar. If I see things from your physical point of view it is likely that I will see things from your mental point of view. It is not a foregone conclusion but there is a powerful connection.

In the television show Cops, it always begins with the police. We sit next to them in the car and peer through the windshield sharing their point of view. Then we get out of the car and run alongside them. We hear them breathe heavily as they pursue and take down the criminal. Imagine if instead, the show began on the street corner with a group of youths and then we watched from over one of their shoulders as a police car rolled up and shone its light in our eyes. That would be a very different show.


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