Bill Nichols calls documentary films that ask questions about the very act of documenting “reflexive documentaries.” We tend to think of reflexive work posing questions like “Do I have the right to tell someone else’s story?” or “Who should get to say what it means?” Often in reflexive documentaries we hear the voice of the documentarian posing these questions that relate to relationships with those documented and issues of representation. Sometimes we see documentarians become characters themselves. But there is a very personal and inward component to reflexivity as well. You can engage in reflexive documentary work without the end product being a reflexive documentary. And I would argue that whatever sort of work you're engaged in will improve if you practice reflexivity.
Let’s unpack that a bit.
The word “reflexive” originated as a grammatical term, meaning that the action of a sentence happens to the person or thing that does the action. (“I wash myself.”) In social sciences, reflexive has taken that sense of how our actions reflect back onto ourselves to mean paying attention to the effect of the presence or personality of the investigator on what they are investigating (from the Oxford English Dictionary). Here’s the idea: you will affect the work you do merely by being you and by being present. Your only choice in the matter is whether to deny or ignore that reality, or to actively include it in your documentary practice (or any other work you do).
Because the word “reflexive” sounds like “reflective,” people sometimes think of that as its definition, and there’s definitely a connection there, both in the sense of a reflective surface showing yourself back to you, and also in the sense of pausing to reflect--to go within, to contemplate. Somewhat ironically, the word "reflexive" has also come to mean what you do without conscious thought, based on its root “reflex.”
I think all of these play off each other pretty tellingly – if you don’t spend the time being reflective, you are not likely to engage in reflexive work (in the sense of honestly investigating, acknowledging, and owning how you and your presence affect your documentary work). But you are very likely to engage in reflexive work (in the sense of work you do by reflex, without the benefit of the insight and sometimes challenge that comes from having compassionate curiosity for yourself and your impact on your work.)
I want to add one more component to this concept of reflexivity. Not only do you affect your work, but your work also affects you. Fellow folklorist Michelle Lanier and I once taught a whole course called The Inner Journey of Documentary Work. I still use that expression, and argue that you ignore that inner journey at your peril. There are reasons you are drawn to a topic that you may not even know consciously. Your personal relationships and experiences can stir unexpected emotion at what you thought would be an easy documentary decision. Where you get stuck in the process and can’t seem to move forward often relates much more to your own story than to the one you're telling in your documentary.
When I teach documentary classes, some students readily embrace the importance of the inner journey. Others really struggle, or outright rebel against the idea of introspection. (Isn't it interesting that as documentarians we ask other people to tell us their personal stories, but don't want to expose our own?) Over the last decade plus of teaching, former students as well as colleagues have told me stories of how attending to their inner journey has paid off . . . and of how they have been blindsided by ignoring it. When I coach someone toward finishing a project, we often find that the biggest stumbling blocks are internal, not external.
You really will do a better job of telling someone else's story if you pay attention to your own. If you want help learning to have compassionate curiosity, or planning your own inner journey, let me know!
Thanks to Michael Palko for contributing photos for this post from his Instagram feed. A Duke University Informatics instructor by day, and a photographer by passion, Michael won Best in Show at Duke's 2016 Employee Art Show, and is photographer-in-residence at the historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh (see that great Instagram feed here).
Find his articles at Candid Slice, and follow him on Twitter.
Counselor/Coach, Consultant, Folklorist, High Priestess of Where Things Meet and the Places Between