Documentary Manifesto

Last Spring we were encouraged to come up with a manifesto that would speak to our beliefs and approach to documentary media making. As assignments often go, you produce them and then file them away. This one, however, has been on my mind lately. Perhaps it’s time to take another look and see if I’ve been faithful to my beliefs thus far:

1. Don’t go it alone, partner up!

Beginning a project can be a daunting process. Is your idea a good one? Where to begin? How should the topic to be covered? How will it be produced? How will it be funded? The questions, concerns and planning are enormous. Leave those fears behind! Work with a colleague who shares your interest(s) in the topic(s) you want to cover, whom you respect and can compliment your experience and skills. Working together will be the first step to accomplishing the tasks ahead and will be a valuable means of reaching your project goals.

2. Just Do it! Shoot. Record. Edit. Upload.

Do your research, be mindful of ethical concerns that could present themselves, but don’t refrain from media production by hiding behind the over-analysis of an issue; this may occur out of a concern about how to speak for others. As Linda Alcoff states in her essay, “The Problem of Speaking for Others”:

“[The] problem with the retreat response is that it may be motivated by a desire to find a method or practice immune from criticism. If I speak only for myself it may appear that I am immune from criticism because I am not making any claims that describe others of prescribe actions for them. If I am only speaking for myself I have no responsibility for being true to your experience or needs.” (p. 22)

It’s OK to learn and grow from mistakes, to learn in the process, to learn from your subject(s). As a documentary media creator, it is your responsibility to seek, share and record social issues. Stories need to be told, injustices need to be revealed and communicated to a global audience.

3. Use Aesthetics to Compliment, Not to Overshadow!

As a visual artist, there is a common desire and comfort in seeking aesthetically striking imagery through the lens. When doing so, ask yourself how this imagery is complimenting the subject(s) at hand; if it’s not, you may be misleading your audience and misrepresenting your subject(s). In her book, “Regarding the Pain of Others”, Susan Sontag addresses this issue with regard to images of war, in the following quote:

“Photographs that depict suffering shouldn’t be beautiful, as captions shouldn’t moralize. In this view, a beautiful photograph drains attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture’s status as a document. The photograph gives mixed signals. Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!” (p. 76-77)

4. Think outside the box!

Stay challenged by contemplating creative ways to tell a story. Don’t feel you need to adhere to familiar documentary film form; don’t assume that conveying ‘truth’ will be dependant on a particular documentary filmmaking style. There is no absolute method of conveying ‘truth’ through media. Errol Morris has ardently stated:

“Truth is a pursuit, it’s a quest… Style is not truth. Just because you pick a certain style does not mean that you somehow have solved the Cartesian riddle of what’s out there, that you no longer have to think about anything. You just adopt a methodology.” (p. 57-58)

5. Liberate your media, but don’t lose it!

Creativity is built on the past. We can thank everyone and everything that surrounds us for the ideas we come up with, the art we create and the stories we document. We borrow from the world that which inspires us and create new media. Sharing your creations through a Creative Commons license is, therefore, essential. It frees your creations for public consumption whilst ensuring that the degree to which you would like to share your work is respected. In some cases, allowing complete modification of your work might not be in the best interest to the original message. Consider Allan Sekula’s remarks in “Reading An Archive: in Mining Photographs and Other Pictures:

“In an archive, the possibility of meaning is “liberated” from the actual contingencies of use. But this liberation is also a loss, an abstraction from the complexity and richness of use, a loss of context. Thus the specificity of “original” uses and meanings can be avoided, and even made invisible, when photographs are selected from an archive and reproduced in a book…So new meanings come to supplant old ones, with the archive serving as a kind of “clearing house” of meaning.” (p.194)

“Losing” your documentary media to an archive, nonetheless, must be avoided as its ongoing circulation enriches our collective history.

6. Respect your subjects but don’t pay them!

Documentary media-making should be a means of raising awareness toward subject matters and stories that have been dismissed, gone unnoticed and/or have been avoided. The documentarian gives voice to the voiceless. A price tag cannot, and should not, be attributed to such an endeavor. As remarked upon in Stella Bruzzi’s book, “New Documentary”:

“To Pay someone who appears in a documentary would be to treat them as an actor, and that would be the death of documentary filmmaking” in addition, “A rash of such interventions would soon see the end of the serious feature-film documentary” (p. 224)

Respect your subjects’ environment and the limits they wish to place on their engagement with you, but never turn their participation in a documentary for social change into a commodity.

7. Don’t rely on post-production

Yes, technological advanced continue to make digital media creation easier and capable of producing once labor intensive tasks easily in post-production, but don’t skip steps during the production process by thinking that the sound and image can be corrected if not ideally captured. This will lead to a negative chain of events, such as: post-production frustration, wasted time and a reputation for lack of professionalism. Be prepared for your shoot, rehearse production plans, create a checklist of needs and be sure to consider back up plans in the event of unforeseen changes.

8. Share your production knowledge!

Too many voices are unheard. Possessing media production knowledge is a privilege. Offer this knowledge to those who desire it, particularly if they are marginally represented in society. Give them the opportunity to voice their experience, opinions, concerns and/or plight through media. This could be through a teaching career, offering workshops, volunteering for a nonprofit organization such as WITNESS ( or simply teaching an interested party one-on-one.

9. Be as passionate about outreach as you are for media!

A document is only as valuable as the eyes and/or ears that experience it. There are multiple ways in which your document can be shared, such as through festivals, dedicated websites, social networking, community gatherings, word of mouth and printed media. Don’t leave the document to idle. Raise your voice, share your work, be visible and advocate for change!

10. Immerse yourself in media-culture!

Listen, touch, smell, feel, observe… Learn from the world around you. Absorb the ideas, creativity, passion and vision of the media-artists and critics in your midst and those that came before you. In so doing, you will marvel in new ways of thinking, and find excitement and inspirations in ways you may have never dreamt of.


Alcoff, Linda (1991-2). “The Problem of Speaking for others.” Cultural Critique, Winter. NC: Oxford University Press, 5-32.

Bruzzi, Stella (2006). New Documentary (2nd Edition). London and New York: Routledge, 224

Errol Morris (2005). “Revealing Unexpected Realities.” In Megan Cunningham (Ed.) The Art of the Documentary. Berkley: New Riders.

Sekula, Allan (1983). “Reading An Archive” in Mining Photographs and Other Pictures 1948-1968, Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 193-202. 264

Sontag, Susan (2003). Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


About cayoup

Colleen Ayoup was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec. She has been engaged in media creation for nearly twenty years. After attending the Dawson Institute of Photography (Montreal), she worked as a commercial photographer for several years until the craving for different creative pursuits gave way. This desire led to two subsequent degrees in Psychology/Film Studies and Film Production (B.A., B.F.A) at Concordia University in Montreal. Her short fiction films and documentary, Kings (2001), about drag-king culture in Montreal toured festivals internationally. In 2004, she joined the National Film Board of Canada where she coordinated Doc Shop, a program designed to give emerging filmmakers an opportunity to learn trade skills from industry professionals and produce a short documentary for broadcast on CBC. She also contributed to the development and creation of CitizenShift (, the NFB’s first social-media website that she subsequently coordinated for five years. She is a recent graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program in Documentary Media at Ryerson University (Toronto, ON)