What guides what we tell and what we owe to our subjects?

I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics in non-fiction video production and storytelling over the past couple of years, in particular. For a lot of people, video production means just setting up and pointing a camera, getting some good light on the subject and… Voilá! Put this clip next to that clip and you have a video! In reality, there are so many more levels to this than most of us realize. There are at least 4-5 different major software applications for editing, alone, with different values and variables for each. But one big component of video production which distinguishes elite producers from those still learning is ethics. (I know, I used to think ethics was boring, but it’s pretty exciting, actually!) This will probably be a multi-part (at least 2-part) series, so I will keep these posts fairly simple.

To begin, ethics means a lot more than “right or wrong,” when it comes to representing people. With the DSLR revolution in video production, many people previously accustomed to knowing a video camera when they see one are now often unaware they are being video-graphed. Does this change the rules? At the least, should we ask if people are okay with video being taken of them? One major consideration is that they will no longer be “candid” or natural and this will change the value of the video for the shooter. But this is just one of the ways ethics is important and is a slight digression from the point of this post.

Tony Sermone. Photo by Sandra Sermone, mother.

Just over two years ago, I was approached by some researchers at Duke University to try to tell the stories of families in a study group affiliated with Duke Hospital.  Specifically, the study looks at rare genetic disorders among young children and what can be learned by examining the part of the genome which codes for proteins. Some of the disorders are extremely troubling and difficult to talk about, while others are fairly mild and the children look essentially “normal” to the casual observer. So, first question: Are you comfortable having the story of your child/family being told with close examination for an unknown audience to view? If so, the bigger question is how to go about this respectfully.

After having the families sign HIPAA release forms and forms acknowledging their willful participation, the plan was to send them audio recorders and provide a way for them to send us photos. We wanted them to tell their own stories, given the nature of their stories. Quickly, we realized that this was a problem, mainly because the families spend almost all of their time taking care of the children or organizing most aspects of their lives around that central responsibility. (This made perfect sense, but would have been difficult to anticipate.) The solution then became buying some good pro-sumercameras, which could be sent to the families for their own recording, and to precede or succeed that with a visit to interview them and see them in their daily lives.

This would necessarily be on the terms of the families themselves. When and how might this happen? Luckily, as producer/director/primary photographer, I was in a position to interact with each family as the primary point person. And I have had experience in living with people with different abilities from myself. So, I took the primary approach of meeting them where they are. 

This non-judgmental approach to journalism, in general, and interviews, in particular, is how I begin many stories. I have found that it’s often the best way to get to the essence of “what’s really going on,” without any pre-conceived filtered twist. What is going on in your life and what do you want to tell me? This is exactly how I approached these families, letting them know that I wanted to help them tell their stories and that they were fully in control of when to stop/start/turn/back-up.

Nearly 18 months after starting that process, a 67-minute feature documentary is fully edited and ready for distribution — telling the stories of 9 families, all of whom are happy with the ways they are represented. The editor of the film commented numerous times to me that he was amazed how much the families opened themselves to me and how much they said that should have been difficult to elicit. But I told him that the project was always about the families controlling their own stories. The earned trust of the families reveals itself in the emotional connection of the film. And that achievement on an ethical level means the film is successful.

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