Camera Lens (Courtesy of Unsplash)

The Role of the Cinematographer

Video-based Ethnography Blog #1

The rise of digital video production within the academic research landscape could be framed as a prism; a glass orb with many sides that, when shifted in the sun, reveals new aspects and approaches to the subject. Finding its roots in anthropology, sociology, photography, and nearly every other humanities-based discipline, video research has straddled the lines of social-scientific surveillance, documentary, and qualitative study, blurring the boundaries between these spaces. As a videographer and researcher, I am left wondering then — what is the role of the cinematographer in these interactions? How does the physical presence of the camera change the observations, the capturing, and the “natural” study of the subject? How can these issues be “overcome”? Should they be?

Erickson (2011) provides a significant overview over the roots of film’s use in video research methods, acknowledging the value of silent cinema and audio recording in early studies. (180) His autobiographical account of his own use of video-based research methodologies in capturing teacher/student interactions offers important examples of applications of video research in previous studies. However, Erickson’s framing also recognizes some of the current concerns surrounding the rapid changes in technology which can lead to expanded oppressive surveillance, and behaviorally oriented work, such as gaze tracking or ergonomic studies. (185) This framing leads me to consider how we should be using the camera in the field. What applications of video-based methodologies are “too-far”, so to speak? For example, many advertisers use gaze-tracking software to learn about the effectiveness of their ad campaigns or websites on a subject. Is this ethical? What is the role of the actual camera and tracking software in that interaction?

Shrum, Duque, and Brown (2005) view that changing scope of digital video through the lens of the social world, by offering up two important concepts: the fluid wall and the videoactive context. They frame video as a methodology, rather than as a medium or tool. Honestly, I sat with this concept for a while. As a videographer, I’ve always framed the technology as a tool or medium which can be utilized; to change that frame feels awkward and difficult, but I can see its value and usefulness. Video production is just that — an action, an approach, and a technique for producing a type of research.

The article for this week by Despret (2006) also left me wondering about the manipulation which may be happening by including equipment inside of an interaction with a subject. Thelma Rowell’s 23 bowls and 22 sheep are excellent case study of this same phenomenon. By including the extra bowl, Rowell is intentionally manipulating the situation to understand a particular element of a scene. Of course, there are ethics concerns which the article deftly explains; but those aside, how do we grapple with the insertion of the physical placement of the camera into the interaction?

Shrum, Duque, and Brown (2005) offer up the the idea of the fluid wall as a way to consider the duality present between the participant and the cinematographer. (10) The fluidity of the interaction, where the production is discussed with the participants, and perhaps even exchanged roles, deeply resonates with me. Firstly, it recognizes that equality of participants within the interaction. Secondarily, it forces the camera to become an active participant within the interaction, drawing connections to Law and Latour’s Actor-Network theory, where the camera is an non-human actant. The fluid wall examines this dynamic exchanges with an understanding of the ever-changing movement of the situation. This, for me, in the answer to the above question left by Despret: acknowledgment of the camera and its role in the situation.

Although the interaction is inherently different than without the camera, the camera actually provides a novel element the sitaution which can offers new and unique perspectives, such as Despret (2006) and the 23rd bowl of food.


Despret, V. (2006). Sheep do have opinions. In B. Latour & P. Weibel (Eds.), Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (360–370). MIT Press.

Erickson, F. (2011). Uses of video in social research: a brief history. International Journal Of Social Research Methodology, 14(3), 179–189

Shrum, Duque, Brown (2005). Digital video as research practice: methodology for the millennium. Journal of Research Practice 1(1): 1–19.



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