CB Smith-Dahl
Director • Camerawoman

A Cameraperson’s Footprint

Every time I’m asked to film in community, I think about the history of cameras in my family. Some of my family had access to the best gear and used it on travels throughout the world. For others, cameras have been a tool of surveillance and exploitation. And for some, cameras have been both - a source of joy and of intimidation.

So when I arrive at a location, where I’ve been hired to document people through video or photography, how do I consciously honor both of those truths? 

1. Where possible, my first day of ‘production’ does not involve a camera. I show up to the location, explain what I will be doing, and listen to people’s concerns. 

2. I always use a researchers risk/benefits analysis when media-making with non-actors. How does my project put the subjects at risk? How could it benefit them? If there is more risk than benefit for them, I talk to the client about how to adjust the project. 

3. When photographing/videotaping I avoid using the word “shooting”. I try to use words like ‘documenting’ or ‘filming’. 

4. I’ll often have someone on the crew who’s job is to answer questions from the public. I do it when I can, but sometimes I’m working. It’s just respectful to tell passersby *something* about what we’re doing in their community. 

5. My goal is always centered on showing people being their best selves. This sometimes means that certain shots or conversations don’t get used. To me, relationships are always more important than products. And I’m always clear with participants when I’m not in control of the final product. 

6. I share my process with participants. I try to demystify visual storytelling as much as possible and if they express any interest in photography or video, I encourage it. After all, everyone deserves to have their story told by both insiders and outsiders. 

In short, as this article points out, we all should have less ‘extractive’ relationships with the people we film. We need to think of everyone in front of and behind the camera as one community. 

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