A Response to Barry Hampe’s “Visual Evidence”

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“A documentary is existential. It has to stand on its own. You can’t go along with the print and explain to the audience what you meant to show or shoot, or what a particular scene is supposed to mean. You simply have to shoot the best analog of the actual situation that you can manage and then edit the footage into a single, coherent print that will clearly communicate your intentions to the people who will see it. Sound-narration, dialogue, interviews, and music-may help the audience to interpret the documentary. But it won’t take the place of solid evidence in the form of concrete visual images (52).”

This is the key takeaway I got from reading “Visual Evidence” by Barry Hampe. In this reading, Hampe discusses how the visual aspects of documentaries are the most important in communicating an idea, a point, or a message. While narration is important, what the viewer sees is what truly shapes the documentary. He gave many examples of ways that he framed what he was filming in order to convey a distinct message, as well as ways that he edited the film so that only certain sequences were shown. In both of theses ways, he was able to shape the documentary to display exactly what he wanted to get across. Because documentaries do usually take a particular stance or mindset regarding what they are about, these factors are important to consider when filming and editing to make a finished product.

The documentary I watched for class was The House I Live In. In this documentary, the narrator is explaining why the War on Drugs has been a failure within the U.S., and does so by interviewing anthropologists, government officials, law enforcement, drug dealers and users, and convicted felons. Each of these interviews were conducted in-scene, which added to the visual evidence for viewers. Being able to see each of these interviewees in their respective settings (i.e. Anthropologists in their college office, police officers in their squad car, convicted felons in prions) it added to the effect and the realness of the documentary. Additionally, the sequence in which the shots were presented was important in shaping the documentary as a whole. First, we are introduced to the slums in which those arrested for drug related charges live. Then, the background to the War on Drugs and how these slums were created was explained and shown. And finally, we go back to those slums and to the prisons and talk to the people who have been directly affected by the War on Drugs. This order of presenting information proved very effective, because it draws the viewer in with the first scenes, then takes a stance while the viewer feels an emotional connection, and then combines the emotions and new knowledge of the viewer in the final scenes to tie the documentary together. By interviewing both sides of the argument, viewers are able to see how each side truly feels, and are then able to form their own opinion without fear that they have been presented biased, misrepresented, or untrue information. These examples of visual evidence were key in making this documentary, and helped to make it the success that it was. See the trailer for this documentary here:

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