This essay is part of a forthcoming special collection, Flint Magazine, Issue 3: Wonder, which will be launched later this year. Author, Nazlı Dinçel, wished to release this article in honor of the anniversary of George Floyd’s death.
I was applying for a grant in the summer of 2020 and the first question on the application read: Why does cinema matter?
After a brutal spring of isolation and the unfolding of the coronavirus pandemic followed by the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Joel Acevedo (Milwaukee), I did not have a good answer. The feelings were compounded by the weight of the political events and triggered further by a narcissistic president. I made fun of the question in private: Cinema doesn’t matter really, in frame with these events. I am not one of the lucky makers that continued working during the pandemic. The lack of access to the cinema space, the lack of being in any physical space other than my home, not being able to touch and talk to friends in person, not being able to bounce ideas off of those acquaintances I would run into organically depleted my will to make anything new. I went back to the same place of existence I felt when I first came to the US during the second Bush administration. Because I was from a Muslim country, I was being subjected to countless microaggressions in the majority-white small town I resided in Wisconsin, even though I was secular. My only goal was to adapt immediately and survive. I thought about people making art during the pandemic having some sort of mental health or monetary capital that I do not possess.
“The metaphor of the movie camera as gun is as old as the apparatus itself,” Julianne Burton- Carvajal starts her article about the history of filming in the Latin American resistance movement of the 50s and 60s.1 In On Photography, Susan Sontag writes “we talk about ‘loading’ and ‘aiming’ a camera, about ‘shooting’ a film.”2 One can argue the etymology of these words are messy, as is language. Alee Peoples, a colleague and friend noted insightfully “one is an extension of the eye, and the other, hand?”
It is true that the use of the camera has a duality. When recording in moments of fear, the act of filming changes. When filming police brutality or filming xenophobic people calling the police on a person of color, the camera does not function to harm or to punish, but it holds the oppressor accountable: it works as a shield. Similarly, the Black Panthers used guns as protection in the late 60s, citing the second amendment in a reversal to protect themselves and their wider communities: they followed and patrolled police cars in West Oakland with shotguns.3 Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old girl who published George Floyd’s death recorded the police with the only means available to her, as anyone in a position of survival would; she used the camera as armor. “She felt she had to document it,” Ms. Frazier’s lawyer Seth Cobin told the BBC. “It’s like the civil rights movement was reborn in a whole new way, because of that video.”4 In this case, filming has the effect of putting the subject in a position of defense. While attending the Colombia Solidarity March in Milwaukee on May 10th, 2021, the crowd witnessed a black person being pulled over by a white police officer. The present members of The Peoples Revolution of Milwaukee stood by with their cameras on to patrol the officer: the shotguns of the Black Panthers have been replaced by phone cameras.
The camera-as-shield is a difficult analogy because guns have also been invoked as a safety tool. The National Rifle Association and its Institute for Legislative Action has a history of lobbying guns as a protection for citizens. At the annual NRA Meeting of Members on May 22nd, 1977, in Cincinnati, a small group inside the NRA who called themselves The Federation for the NRA took over the association in a coup, instituted amendments to the organization, and fired the leadership who were essentially meeting to terminate the NRA as an organization. 5 The wording of the second amendment for protection (which was understood for militia use) was manipulated for gun rights within the organization after this event. The metaphor for camera (or cinema as an artform) as shield gets further complicated when thinking of black-market artworks and antiquities that are often moved across channels next to narcotics and arms, or fine art being directly traded for weaponry in black market exchanges.6
Historically, however, the camera has been used as a weapon, especially in the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography. It could be used to harm communities, creating a divisive gaze, or insisting on a singular colonial “vision” coming from the privileged perspective. This creates a power dynamic between the object and the subject, between the person filming and the person being filmed. In addition to the exploitative nature of Photography, the injury could also be direct and physical.
More commonly, the harm is in the form of erasure. A filmmaker gets to receive awards or talk about their process in a film festival Q&A, in turn, the communities/histories being represented do not receive compensation, a physical platform to speak about their subject, plane tickets or hotel rooms or film festival goodies, etc. Damage also comes in the form of not giving appropriate credit to those vital to making the work.
Sontag writes: “Like a car, a camera is sold as a predatory weapon—one that’s as automated as possible, ready to spring. Popular taste expects an easy, an invisible technology. Manufacturers reassure their customers that taking pictures demands no skill or expert knowledge, that the machine is all-knowing, and responds to the slightest pressure of the will. It’s as simple as turning the ignition key or pulling the trigger. Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive.”7
In a strange turn, after the killing of George Floyd, these technologies are being physically merged. In July of 2020, a Reuters article talked about U.S. police departments experimenting with a new way of capturing potentially deadly moments: putting small cameras on their guns.8
Because of this power dynamic, I’ve always believed that the most problematic aspect of ethnographic filmmaking is filming people and other bodies native to that land, assuming the filmmaker is not a part of that history. There is an ethical distinction on what objects can be removed from their original meaning. Separating human bodies from their environment by using a camera cannot be anything other than a colonizing act. This is painfully apparent to those coming from tourism-based societies where “culture” is sold as an experience to outsiders, functioning as another act of colonization. The bodies a filmmaker borrows that benefit their career and “vision” do not necessarily give voice to those communities filmed. These conversations are already taking place in private, about filmmakers who, in 2021, still engage in this form of filmmaking. It is not surprising that these colonial-curious people are also displaying problematic/narcissistic traits. In addition to causing harm to marginalized communities for their own gain, they are also causing emotional harm and trauma to people that they target as romantic interests in our field, or to their students; undermining the diversity in the filmmaking community. The ethnographic trends in experimental filmmaking popularized in the past two decades will be an embarrassing part of this history, not so far in the future.
I found out later that my application was unsuccessful. My response to “Why does Cinema matter?” did not deliver. I asked Jodie Mack, a colleague and friend, if she agrees that the reason we have so many harmful people in our community is because we deal with a lot of rejection as filmmakers. She answered that the identity/addiction/serotonin hit for people might be confused; she asked, “is that because society never knew what to do with art?” We are essentially measured by our ability to have a masochistic relationship with our field, forcing us to take pleasure in rejection. When we talk about consent, a no means a no. If one’s field is built upon ignoring refusal, why wouldn’t those wires cross?
If you are a woman or transgender person of color, the trauma of being othered is already a given, which means one has to be resilient in multiple ways in order to achieve similar accolades as their colleagues. The relationship between cognitive function and PTSD (coined in 1980) is still being researched, but PTSD and our human responses to trauma have already been proven to disable our cognitive abilities.9 This makes rejection and problem solving harder to deal with to those living with trauma. Imposter syndrome and being undermined and misunderstood by the privileged people in your field makes it even harder to displace the power dynamic between the filmed and the person filming.
Paul S. Landau argues not only that the camera and gun mechanisms were invented in lockstep, but also that the chemical properties of analog film and the chemistry involved in firing a bullet is what essentially connects the two devices:
In 1885, Eastman and Walker developed a flexible photographic medium, a paper negative substrate coated in guncotton, which permitted twenty-four serial exposures. In a parallel development in 1886, a French inventor rolled pure gelatinized guncotton into sheets, cut it into narrow strips, and made the first modern smokeless gunpowder. In 1888, Eastman released the Kodak Camera, which took 100 exposures on a medium of paper-backed sheets of dry, etherized guncotton. In March 1889, Eastman’s chief chemist Henry Reichenbach added amyl acetate (a mild solvent, C7H14O2) to guncotton, and created “celluloid,” a tenuously stable and transparent medium that could be poured out into separable sheets and cut into strips. That same year, two Englishmen added nitroglycerine and acetone (C3H6O) to guncotton, and made the explosive, cordite. Thus breech-loading guns and the Kodak Camera not only drew on the same language; they both sealed the same sort of chemicals in their cartridges. The camera owner sent the whole Kodak Camera to the Eastman Company, which developed the pictures and mailed everything back. The watchwords of Kodak advertisements from 1888 onward were “caught” and “instantaneous.” The subject was to be “caught on the fly,” snagged like a fish or trapped like an animal. For taking pictures of people without asking, as one would if one wished to shoot another person with a gun.10
In this context, it isn’t surprising that there are still so few women of color who work with photochemical film; not only because of its physical history but because of the inevitable obligation to use the technology as armor. There is something to be said about experiencing the harm done by the camera in relation to other weapons: the systemic racism in the field, and the dismissal of filmmakers of color (who are often given a reason for rejection because of a different “taste”) by programmers or researchers who write about the practice. In recent years, I’ve experienced exclusion from books written about analog filmmaking and photochemical practices in filmmaking, which repeats this history of erasure. Talking about erasure is ironic considering the chemical properties and exposure of the photochemical film: the more glaring the light, the less an image is seen. The privileged, the affluent, and those historically in power have shaped the history of cinema and the “tastes” in the cinematic form. This hegemonic structure continues to be a challenge in academia and the film festival circuit for people of color, especially women of color advancing in the field. At a minimum, it creates trauma.
If the camera is a vestige of the uneven power dynamic between the person filming and its subject, we are still finding ourselves at the receiving end of that shot. Breaking this cycle means simply continuing to make films, unfortunately at our own expense, or continuing to create from the marginalized perspective. I don’t necessarily feel defeated yet, but I do feel the pedigree of my practice. It might all be worth it if our work functions as armor to a new generation of filmmakers in need of solidarity.
I would like to acknowledge that most of the references in this article are quoting white scholars, reiterating the lack of diversity and majority culture in academia mentioned in the article. This is also proof that allyship does not necessarily lead to diversity and support for underrepresented communities.
1. Julianne Burton-Carvajal, “The Camera as ‘Gun’: Two Decades of Culture and Resistance in Latin America,” Latin American Perspectives 5, no. 1 (1978): Pages 49-76.
2. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977), previously published as a series of essays in New York Review of Books, (1973-1977), 14.
3. Jad Abumrad, “The Gun Show,” More Perfect, podcast audio, October 12, 2017. https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolabmoreperfect/episodes/gun-show
4. Joshua Nevett, “George Floyd: The Personal Cost of Filming Police Brutality,” BBC News, June 11, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52942519
5. Abumrad, “The Gun Show.”
6. “The former head of the Art and Antiquities Unit at Scotland Yard, Dick Ellis, speculates on camera that the works may have been stolen by the Irish mob (which was prevalent in 1990s Boston) to be used as collateral for buying arms for the Irish Republican Army. Ellis divulges that during his time at Scotland Yard, the IRA attempted to steal a painting by Fred Yates to afford munitions.”
Maya Asha McDonald, “Why Netflix’s new art heist docuseries ‘This Is a Robbery’ is an absolute must-watch,” Tatler, April 12 2021. https://www.tatler.com/article/netflix-this-is-a-robbery
7. Sontag, “On Photography,” 14.
8. Reuters Staff, “U.S. Police Forces Experiment With Cameras Mounted on Guns,” Reuters, July 22, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-police-gun-cameras/u-s-police-forces-experiment-with-cameras-mounted-on-guns-idUSKCN24N2BL
9. Salah U. Qureshi et al., “Does PTSD Impair Cognition Beyond the Effect of Trauma?” The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience 23, no. 1 (Winter 2011). https://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/jnp.23.1.jnp16
10. Paul S. Landau, Images and Empires Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 148.