Review of Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary

Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary
by Pooja Rangan

Duke University Press, Durham, NC, June, 2017
264 pp., illus. 34 b/w. Trade, $99.95 ; paper, $25.95
ISBN 978-0-8223-6355-2; ISBN 978-0-8223-6371-2

Reviewed by
Ana Peraica
May 2018

Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary by Pooja Rangan deals with ethics of the video documentary genre. This discussion in a video is inherited from photography where one of the largest critics of the documentary drive in contemporary visual culture was Susan Sontag. As Sontag, Rangan also positions dehumanized life as raison d'être of the documentary genre but continues her discussion with the in-depth analysis of so-called participatory video in which cameras are supplied to population suffering or whose lives are at risk. In doing so, Rangan addresses a number of cultural theories such as Foucault's biopolitics, Negri and Hardt’s human rights, but also Butler's gender.

The book provides a number of in-depth analyzed case studies showing up the problems of film based philanthropy organized around symbols of weakness, such as the child, weather catastrophe victim, autism, and animal.

The first chapter covers the history of a child as a target of a humanitarian drive, especially the idea of the wild child (savage) and the instrumentality of such an image. These images work on projective identification model. The key example is the participatory project Born into Brothels by Zana Briski and Rose Kauffman (2004) in which the artist handed cameras to children employed in brothel so they could produce auto-biographic narratives on their own prostitution they could sell. Although the financial outcome now goes to children, the idea of children labour and the sensationalism of image of the child on utterly paedophile market of children images come in front. Also in other, similar projects as ZoomUganda (2006) by Harambee Center, dealing with orphaned children in Peru or Through Our Own Eyes (2010) by Plan International on street children in Bangladesh, or Charleston Kids with Cameras (2003), Girl Project (2007) by Kate Engelbrecht, similar outcome is reached.

The second chapter deals with natural disasters reported by participatory cameras, and it provides even more of interesting cases, as for example, Télé Geto following earthquake damage on Haiti in 2010. Teenagers holding toy tools for reporting, as plastic bottles combined with duck tape, were ironically mimicking global TV medium in a serial of Youtube videos. Another case covered is CNN inquiry for images from its own audience, during the time of Hurricane Katrina (2005) as nominated Academy and Emmy awards, Trouble the Water (2008) by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal. Examples elaborated in the third chapter deal with the issue of autism, in I am Autism by Autism Speaks and a video by an autistic blogger Amanda Baggs' In my Language (2015) and award-nominated Gerardine Wurzburg's Autism in the World (2003), whereas the last chapter elaborates on animals.

Rangan distinguishes a couple of sub-genres of the participatory documentary, as auto-ethnographic film, especially characteristic for 7'0s feminist video art, but also provides a clear distinction from a pseudo-participatory genre.

Obviously, a great compendium of contemporary documentaries, some of which are fully available online, Rangan's book is a good informative reading in the domain of humanitarian documentary genre. It is a good critical source for both authors and activists, but also for readers in cultural and film studies interested into ethical perspectives. Still, when reading, mind to be close to the Internet, so you can check works Rangan writes about.