Students of everyday life must attune to how their research affects public perceptions of studied groups. Inevitably, we find ourselves taking sides,[1] adopting one group’s perspectives (typically those of the underdog, or disenfranchised) over another (often that of the powerful or dominant group). Those studied may reject the findings of a researcher, disavowing the presented portrait, as in Festinger et al.’s study, When Prophecy Fails,[2] or Laud Humphrey‘s infamous project, Tea Room Trade.[3] Researchers may wish to bring back findings to their study’s participants, although participants may well be attuned to matters irrelevant to researchers’ interests.[4] On one hand, we may err on the side of an overly-generous portrait of our research participants, sacrificing social critique and overlooking data that represents them in a negative light. On the other hand, we risk demonizing those who entrusted us, potentially betraying those who were kind enough to grant us entrée into their world.

The micropolitics of representations are especially prominent in studies using film, as moving pictures provide a sense of verisimilitude that is more powerful and convincing than textual representations. In this paper, I examine how my access to producing two films was negotiated with the implicit assumption that I create positive depictions of those studied. Participants in the films were highly concerned with how they would be depicted, and how these depictions might affect their interests in business in the first case, or as a non-profit organization in the second.

My short film based on a Tuscan farmer[5] was intended to be one-fourth of a longer project of four seasons in a traditional Tuscan marketplace. However, when one of the most established and influential vendors was not convinced I would portray his business in the most complementary light, he withdrew his participation. His exhorbitant mark-ups on purportedly “organic” produce, marketed through his style and charisma, would not be exposed to public view. Other vendors soon followed, and soon my hopes for the larger project collapsed. For my film based about an innovative reentry program for ex-inmates,[6] I hoped to remedy my prior problems by creating a video that extolled the virtues of the program, while offering a glimpse into their difficulties. After some initial hesitation, the program’s directors agreed to make the film publicly available. I set aside my qualms that these directors may have been exercising, in managing their nonprofit, the same skills that landed them in prison.

We are able to film and display our work only with the consent of those filmed. While I do not want to film or exhibit a production featuring those who do not wish to be publicly represented, I also do not wish them to censor or deny my work. To film and exhibit private images without the consent of those filmed may be unjust, but so is censorship exercised by those we depict in film, to limit artistic expression and the possibility for sociological insight based on what may be narcissistic reasons that have little to do with the project’s scientific or artistic merits. Are the possibilities of filmic depictions to be more subject to the tyranny of the creator or the whims of those depicted?

Hence, the same dilemmas that beset textual representation trouble those who would proffer filmic presentations, perhaps to a greater extent. My two experiences left me with a series of quandries. Is film doomed to serve as a public relations vehicle regardless of the intent of the filmmaker? If our participants refuse us either initial access or a wider public viewing, should we have some sort of recourse, an advocate who might protect filmic interests? Should monetary interests guide our choices? I have little to gain by my depictions, but those represented could potentially have much to lose. Should I compensate them if my efforts somehow undermine their livelihood? What is the relative weight of sociological concerns vis à vis monetary ones? If we are pursuaded by our participants to create films that simply promote their business interests, how are we any different from a commercial filmmaker (aside from the fact that we are not paid for our efforts)? Facile solutions may not be possible; an awareness of these issues may help refine our decisions.


[1] Becker, Howard S. 1967. “Whose Side Are We On?” Social Problems 14(3):239-247.

[2] Festinger, Leon; Riecken, Henry; and Stanley Schachter. 1956. When Prophecy Fails : A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. University of Minnesota Press.

[3] Humphreys, Laud. 1970. Tea Room Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. Piscataway, New Jersey: Aldine Transaction.

[4] Emerson Robert and Melvin Pollner. 1988. “On the Uses of Members’ Responses to Researchers’ Accounts.” Human Organization: 47(3):189-198.

[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IK0KG_h1TS8

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzGk9Ks9Ckw