The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary

Book Pages: 264 Illustrations: 34 illustrations Published: June 2017

Author: Pooja Rangan

Cultural Studies, Media Studies > Film

Endangered life is often used to justify humanitarian media intervention, but what if suffering humanity is both the fuel and outcome of such media representations? Pooja Rangan argues that this vicious circle is the result of immediation, a prevailing documentary ethos that seeks to render human suffering urgent and immediate at all costs. Rangan interrogates this ethos in films seeking to “give a voice to the voiceless,” an established method of validating the humanity of marginalized subjects, including children, refugees, autistics, and animals. She focuses on multiple examples of documentary subjects being invited to demonstrate their humanity: photography workshops for the children of sex workers in Calcutta; live eyewitness reporting by Hurricane Katrina survivors; attempts to facilitate speech in nonverbal autistics; and painting lessons for elephants. These subjects are obliged to represent themselves using immediations—tropes that reinforce their status as the “other” and reproduce definitions of the human that exclude non-normative modes of thinking, being, and doing. To counter these effects, Rangan calls for an approach to media that aims not to humanize but to realize the full, radical potential of giving the camera to the other.


“Rangan moves diagonally across disciplinary boundaries and media forms, tracing the past and future of theory and practice concerning participatory documentary. Immediations offers substantial theoretical matrices for scholars to contend with going forward, and new challenges for interdisciplinary practitioners.” — Joel Neville Anderson, Visual Studies Workshop

Immediations marks an important contribution to documentary and anthropology studies, making exemplary use of multidisciplinary research to explore more deeply the human power structures and their relationship to the politics of representation.” — Almudena Escobar López, Film Quarterly

"A good critical source for both authors and activists, but also for readers in cultural and film studies interested into ethical perspectives." — Ana Peraica, Leonardo Reviews

“Pooja Rangan provides a precise and accessible theory of the aesthetic and political implications of the audiovisual tropes mobilized when documentary is in emergency mode.” — Genne Speers, InVisible Culture

"Pooja Rangan’s Immediations is a provocative, polemical, and vital book for thinking through the often problematic humanitarian impulse to give the camera to the Other. . . . Immediations is a bold, refreshing book that I simply cannot stop thinking about." — Ryan Watson, Cinema Journal

"Documentary’s apparent generosity toward its most hapless subjects is an ambivalent gift. With elegance and precision, Pooja Rangan demonstrates that participatory documentary more often than not obliterates the others it means to help by forcing them into humanist molds of selfhood. Instead, she asks, what if documentary were to yield to the beings of the world in their unassimilable singularity? The answers she finds will stimulate both documentary makers and scholars." — Laura U. Marks, author of Hanan al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image

"Pooja Rangan's incisive voice brings tremendous critical acumen and clarity to the interpretation of the humanitarian documentary impulse in global media now. A powerful and timely work, Immediations will undoubtedly exert a strong influence on film and media studies and will be widely read by those who care about the sentiment of benevolence and its mediated impacts for a long time to come." — Lisa Cartwright, author of Moral Spectatorship: Technologies of Voice and Affect in Postwar Representations of the Child


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Pooja Rangan is Assistant Professor of English in Film and Media Studies at Amherst College.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations  ix
Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction. Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary  1
1. Feral Innocence: The Humanitarian Aesthetic of Dematerialized Child Labor  23
2. Bare Liveness: The Eyewitness to Catastrophe in the Age of Humanitarian Emergency  61
3. "Having a Voice": Toward an Autistic Counterdiscourse of Documentary  103
4. The Documentary Art of Surrender: Humane-itarian and Posthumanist Encounters with Animals  151
Conclusion. The Gift of Documentary  191
Notes  197
Bibliography  223
Index  241
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Winner of the 2019 Harry Levin Prize, presented by the American Comparative Literature Association

Finalist, 2018 ASAP (Association for the Study of the Arts at the Present) Book Prize

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6371-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-6355-2
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