The Camera’s Gaze and the Process of Interviewing People


I. Process of Interviewing

Courtney: I always wanted to have a cigarette when we started interviewing people, so we interviewed people outside frequently. They would sit down, then one of us would sit down and the other would set up the camera. While equipment were being set up, the people/person being interviewed had a chance to read through the questions we were going to be asking them, if they hadn’t already done so. We might talk about what questions were most interesting to them, if they thought there were other questions we should be asking people, or if they even wanted to answer the questions we had for them.
Once we were ready to film, we’d ask them to say their name, where we were and their age. The direction the interview took depended on all of us, but mostly it was based on what the people/person wanted to talk about. Often times, people initially thought we just wanted tours of the info shop and a commercial-like presentation about what goes on there and what could happen there. However, once we left the info shop or exhausted the possibility of talking about that kind of stuff people really began to elaborate and think about info shops in the terms that they felt they related to our focus on place.

After our conversations developed, it was interesting to see that the leading questions we often had in our heads were not at all what people would say about their situations or feelings. There’s this perception in research that if you ask a pointed question, they will answer what you want to hear. But I don’t think that’s true when you’re asking people questions who are genuinely engaging in a conversation, and they will teach you something as someone who has questions, things that maybe you never would have thought about before.

Our interview with Adrienne from Jane Doe Books was developed mostly because of a conversation we had over coffee before the actual interview. It felt like one of the most effective interviews, although I wished it hadn’t been such a summary of the coffee conversation. Because interviewing people for our film was always a staged situation, the conversations we had were encouraging. They represented to me the way that people can negotiate an uncomfortable situation because they have made a commitment to have a conversation about something they see as relevant. The conversation and the assumption of its preservation can allow strangers and acquaintances to be meaningful to each other, and that is what is most exciting.

Liz: The thing that most frustrated me while engaging in interviews with people during our travels was the fact that the most interesting and amazing conversations and insights with people tended to occur off-camera. The camera’s gaze and the formality of a sit-down interview intimidate people. Even during really great, insightful (sometimes mind-blowing) interviews, I was astonished by the ways that people opened up the minute that the cap was put on the lens. I remember after leaving Washington Square Park with Brendon, we took the subway back to Jane Doe with him and had an amazing conversation about gentrification on the Lower East Side and the importance of place in the area. The whole time we were talking, I wished that we were getting it on film. But I also knew that if I reached into my bag and grabbed the camera, the natural flow of the conversation would be disrupted.

At times during interviews I caught myself focusing too much on thoughts such as, “How will this fit into the film?” or “Will what she just said make a good sound clip?” or “I hope that she makes the point that I want her to make connecting capitalism with the alienation of public space.” Overall, I found myself observing people during conversation with the thought of being on the editing floor already in my mind. I’m sure that there were times when this detrimentally affected my ability to fully participate in an engaging conversation, and possibly to think about things in a way that I wasn’t expecting to. In some ways, these thoughts seem unavoidable when making a documentary, but it’s still important to do what you can to avoid censoring conversations and only hearing what you want or expect to hear.

For this reason I began to see the value of having one person behind the camera who is disengaged from the situation being filmed- where there is the person doing the interacting, the interviewing, the responding, the questioning, who engages the person being interviewed to the point that they notice less that there is a camera watching them. A person being behind the camera and engaging in conversation makes the people being viewed by the camera more cognizant of the fact that they are being monitored.

However, at the same time, I also see the value of constant recognition of the fact that the camera is watching. I see the inherent importance of an honest acknowledgment that the situation being viewed later by the viewer is not spontaneous or natural, but instead is shaped and literally “framed” by the fact that there was a piece of machinery recording, and therefore shaping the experience that occurred there.

More than anything, engaging in dozens of interviews with people about their feelings about space and place in relation to infoshop culture, made me realize how much people are dying to talk about what is important to them. It made me realize how little people actually have the opportunity to (or are encouraged) talk about the things that they care about, that they believe in, that they are doing with their lives. I’m glad that we got a chance to engage with people in this manner.

The influence of the camera

Courtney: As we went from place to place and city to city, it was interesting to see how we were received as filmmakers. There were three typical reactions: 1.) People didn’t want to talk with us at all, even to say hi. 2.) People were happy to see us doing the project but didn’t feel they had much to add to it. 3.) People were willing to be interviewed and wanted to discuss with us further, even after the interview. What was most noticeable though, aside from people’s willingness to participate, was that people reacted to us in a way that legitimized our project (and in a way, us).

Liz and I have talked a lot about this phenomenon and we think that it was definitely because we had a movie camera. If we had just gone around to these places and wanted to talk about place and space, I’m going to assume that we would have met different reactions. Maybe we wouldn’t have been able to talk to as many people because the project would’ve seemed less exciting, tangible, or accessible. Most everyone can imagine what a film might look like and what impact it might have and that seemed to legitimize our questions and our research.

While the camera seemed to legitimize our efforts at interviewing people, it also obviously, affected the types of conversations we had with people. When we sat down to talk, it was often a slow start because people were so cognizant of the camera’s gaze, and so were we, especially because one of us was most always behind it. Several times people would situate themselves to make sure it was a good angle and they would check back with us to confirm that it was. As the conversations developed, people referred to the camera most often only when there was a break in the questions or a change in topic, but it never seemed to trip anybody up.

The people who were most scared of the camera were Liz and I. I was always, and still am, nervous in front of the camera, especially when Liz is filming me and asking me questions. When we were out in the field, I oftentimes felt as if I was talking to myself, because as I was talking I was thinking of having to watch the clip later. The most comfortable situation for me when Liz and I were trying to film our thoughts was when I was driving my car and Liz was in the passenger seat filming. I’m sure it was because I had to think about lots of other things besides the camera and how it intimidated me. In conjunction, I think it was a more comfortable situation because as I was talking I couldn’t imagine what I was looking like as I was talking. It’s not the camera; really, it’s the idea that my appearance and my thoughts are being catalogued and are intended to be seen by whoever happens to see it.

Liz: I was also terrified of the camera’s gaze, even though I was really interested in subjecting myself to it, in order to situate and contextualize my self and my place in the documentary. Courtney and I could be having amazing conversations 8 hours a day about the project, but the minute the camera was turned on me I felt like a bumbling idiot that had no idea what I was talking about. This made me conscious of how it must feel for the people that we interviewed.

I realized that one of the best ways to make people feel comfortable in front of the camera is to make them forget that it is there. I wish that we had done more interviews with people doing active things, instead of just sitting. I think that in the interviews where people are doing other things while we talk to them, the interviewees are less nervous (and so was I!). For example, James walking down South St. in Philadelphia and Lauren hanging laundry in Denver. I think that these interviews are also more visually interesting because it contextualized people’s lives and made their personalities more visible.

It was also interesting when experiencing situations keeping the camera in mind, the way that colors and ordinary objects seemed to take on a heightened meaning by being filmed. I remember being really happy about the red ashtray in the background when Courtney discusses the importance of street art. I became hyper-aware of the little things that could possibly bring color to a frame or ordinary objects that could contextualize a situation, or at least make it more interesting. It gave me a way to articulate and discuss how the camera confers meaning on what it frames and how that frame affects perceptions and structures discussions.

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