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The renowned child psychiatrist Robert Coles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Children in Crisis series, offers a penetrating look into the nature of documentary work. Utilizing the documentaries of writers, photographers, and others, Coles shows how their prose and pictures are influenced by the observers frame of reference: their social and educational background, personal morals, and political beliefs. Through revealing discussions with documentarians and insightful analysis of their work, complemented by dramatic black-and-white photographs from Lange and Evans, Doing Documentary Work will provoke the reader into reconsidering how fine the line is between truth and fiction. It is an invaluable resource for students of the documentary and anyone interested in this important genre.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780195124958
ISBN-10: 0195124952
Format: Paperback
(203mm x 135mm x 14mm)
Pages: 288
Imprint: Oxford University Press Inc
Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc
Publish Date: 4-Feb-1999
Country of Publication: United States

Other Editions


US Kirkus Review » A challenging exploration of documentary writing and photography, focusing on the ways in which researchers can affect, reshape, or misrepresent what they see. Coles, the noted psychiatrist and Harvard ethicist (The Moral Intelligence of Children, 1997, etc.), notes in the introduction that he has been preparing to write this book "for over 35 years" - ever since he and his wife, while studying the integration of schools in Louisiana in 1960, first tried to make sense of what it meant to be witnesses, researchers, and onlookers. A fascination with the moral and practical consequences that arise when observers (journalists, academics, or social activists) probe the lives of a class of people - whether coal miners (George Orwell), migrant workers (Dorothea Lange), or Mississippi farmers (James Agee and Walker Evans) - led Coles to become one of the founders of Duke University's Center of Documentary Studies. Poet/doctor William Carlos Williams and biographer/therapist Erik Erikson are Coles's heroes, and from them and others he draws his theme: "We notice what we notice in accordance with who we are." Coles offers striking examples of the way in which preconceptions can alter what is seen, including Lange's famous "Migrant Mother" photograph: That seminal Depression-era picture was selected from a series of shots and then cropped for dramatic impact, in accordance with Lange's personal vision, with who she was, with what she wanted to communicate about poverty in the South. Also examined, in sometimes rambling, verbose passages, are the impact the observer makes on those being observed and the tendency by writers like Agee and Orwell, for instance, to put on a pedestal the farmworkers and coal miners who helped make them famous. Journalists, social workers, and therapists, as well as producers of print or film documentaries, will find this ruminative volume of special use, reminding them of the questions they should ask themselves before they invade schools, workplaces, and private lives. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Author Biography - Robert Coles

Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist, and the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University. An essayist, poet, and noted writer, he is a founding member of the Center of Documentary Studies at Duke University and co-editor of the documentary magazine Double Take.

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