Real Lives: Camcorder Cults

By Jon Dovey

Suddenly camcorder footage is everywhere. After 20 years as the poor cousin of moving-image culture, video is being embraced in an embarrassingly hurried courtship by TV executives world-wide. Major programmes, like You've Been Framed, Video Diaries, Undercover Britain, Emergency 999, Private Investigations, Horizon, Video Nation, Living With the Enemy, Caught on Camera, have all been based on the use of low-gauge camcorders or even smaller fibre-optic-based minicams. Camcorder footage has infiltrated itself into every corner of TV. On This Morning Richard and Judy invite us to send in videos of our ghastly interiors for ritual humiliation and decor advice; kids’ shows like Alive and Kicking or As Seen On TV invite children to submit tapes; General Accident and Radion reproduce camcorder style in their advertising campaigns. Welcome to the wonder of wobblyscope.

giant-michael-klier-1.jpg The Giant (Der Riese), dir. Michael Klier, Germany 1984

Of course, this is just another passing mainstream fad, another example of the mediacrats’ obsessive itch for novelty. But this infusion of low-gauge video is part of a bigger picture, a re-telling of the myth of realism. Its embrace by the mainstream has coincided with the development of the TV style known as ‘Reality TV’: factual programming which uses camcorder footage, reconstructions and narrative dramatic techniques in a raw, high-energy and sensational form, a kind of ‘tabloid TV’. Camcorder footage is not a prerequisite for the style. However, it neatly slots into the regime of immediacy which ‘reality’ demands.

‘Reality TV’ is driven by the increasing competition for ratings within TV networks, which squeezes the public service tradition of factual programming into more popular, more immediate forms. ‘Reality TV’ offers its audiences the most sensational, tabloid, voyeuristic pleasures, which it justifies by proclaiming them socially responsible, challenging or engaged, or even describing them as ‘access TV’. Within this broader mass-media market framework, the camcorder comes as a godsend to the mediocracy. The hard-pressed TV executive can programme in camcorder footage knowing that it will pull an audience, that it is cheap and (currently) fashionable. (Though programme-makers working with camcorders on access-based projects within the BBC are at pains to protest that their programmes are just as expensive as anybody else’s…) You may even be able to get away with really cheap royalty payments which you can then turn into big bucks by selling the footage on to the global cartel that now controls the circulation of home movie disaster footage.

giant-michael-klier-2.jpgThe Giant (Der Riese), dir. Michael Klier, Germany 1984

As in many aspects of popular culture, the progressive and the reactionary dance side by side in the ‘Reality TV’ thrash. I want to highlight some of these contradictions and make some observations about the emergence of new forms of subjectivity against this dominant background of tabloid TV.


There is an explicitly political aspect to the spread of camcorder culture. In a global context, the use of video echoes domestic camcorder pleasures in its insistence on the subjective, the individual or tribal experience in the face of the homogenising forces of global media. The Kayope Indians of the Amazon basin are no longer content for visiting anthropologists to record their life-styles. They now make their own programmes on tape. Here and elsewhere video is used to speak of difference, of the particular, rather than the endless replication of ‘first world’ objective realism.

Then again, we can find examples of camcorder culture as counter-surveillance, a means of collecting evidence of oppression. The Witness Project issues groups subject to human rights abuse with Hi-8 cameras to document their plight. Camcorders have already been used in the US to document police brutality. Here, crucially, we move into the area of camcorder as people’s evidence used against the state.


It is a commonplace of media histories that new media technologies increase the potential for Bentham’s Panopticon to be realised by the state. While video surveillance images have become a pervasive feature of our lives, we can now observe the use of surveillance being taken over by the citizenry. In the UK, ‘trial by TV’ is instigated by the use of the hidden camcorder in Private Investigations or Undercover Britain. A network news show in the US, A Current Affair, issues camcorders to a group of residents trying to clear prostitutes off the streets and broadcasts the results. In this Panopticon the mechanisms of the all-seeing eye are internalised and replicated a thousand times by the inmates themselves.

Here we have camcorder users adopting the evidential status of ‘home’ video in order to protect themselves. You can use your camcorder to collect evidence of police brutality, harassment by neighbours, or to pressure the ‘deviants’ in your community. These uses of the camcorder reflect precisely a sense of powerlessness and alienation in the user – a sense that the mechanisms of control have broken down. There is here a heavy investment in the idea that your own personal visual evidence is meaningful in a world in which power is measured through representation, a world where you know you’ll be lucky if the cops even answer your call let alone do anything to solve your problem. The video vigilante is here recolonising the domain of sight in an attempt to impose his or her local and particular sense of order upon it.

These individual acts of surveillance reflect and support some of the uses of camcorder material within the ‘Reality TV’ regime. The sense of powerlessness is a constant dynamic of the ‘Reality TV’ narrative strategy. The emergency services are foregrounded. Seemingly endless documentary and fictional series devoted to police, ambulance workers, fire-fighters, life boatmen, customs officers and hospital casualty units testify to our deep longing for the agents of state-promoted safety to keep the wolves of chaos at bay. So, whilst individuals deploy the camcorder to protect themselves, ‘Reality TV’ adapts the same techniques to tell tales of powerlessness and disaster, creating new heroes and providing us with the comfort of narrative closure against our deep-seated fear of accidental and sudden mortality.


The compulsions of ‘Reality TV’ cannot be divorced from the voyeurism in camcorder culture. We enjoy a sense of power at being privileged to see that which was meant to remain unseen: the point at which the private, connoted in the actual visual grainy texture of the camcorder image, goes public through TV. Here, camcorder use extends TV’s potential to act as cultural confessional. Current women-run chat shows – Esther, Oprah, Ricki Lake – extend this potential within the ‘People TV’ manifestation of the ‘Reality’ regime; the Video Diaries format is an obvious example of this voyeuristic tendency within its documentary form.

Video Diaries have dealt with adolescent traumas, living with anorexia, coping with cancer, watching your child die. Here is a voyeuristic loop, private pain becoming public pleasure in the viewer’s private living room. It would be unfair to characterise all uses of this format as unremittingly mawkish, though: all kinds of subject matters have been dealt with, on a global and a local scale.

This use of the camcorder cannot be isolated from the trend in recent documentary film-making to use reflexive techniques in which the film-makers themselves are made part of the story. I am thinking here of films like Ross McElwee’s Sherman's March or Time Indefinite, of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, of Nick Broomfield’s films, Driving Me Crazy, The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife, and The Selling of Aileen Wuornos. These films mark the end of the ‘Direct Cinema’ tradition as the dominant form of documentary practice and the revival of the cine vérité idea. The film-makers deliberately construct narrative personae for themselves which work to mobilise the audience’s sympathy with the film-maker’s point of view. This is often the film-maker as klutz, the film-maker who makes mistakes, forgets things, retraces his steps, who can’t get the essential interview. If we are not terminally irritated by this refusal to assume the traditional authoritative point of view, then we will be recruited to the construction of the film-maker’s subjective vision. Michael Moore’s recent TV Nation series represents the TV ‘domestication’ of the genre.

Video Diaries extend all these tendencies. The diarist becomes the subject, the story, of the film, whatever other issues may be under discussion. The engagements on offer within this format are not the engagements of traditional factual programming – no balance, objectivity, or sense of arguments unfolding or research submitted in evidence; here is experience as evidence – testimony – raw and ‘authentic’.

The sense of audience construction is different from conventional documentary or even ‘Reality TV’ programming. TV documentaries construct a normative idea of an audience – safe, middle-class and secure – by foregrounding ‘stories’ that are extraordinary, dangerous and from a world other than your own. They invite us to confirm what we are by looking at that which we are not.

Watching a Video Diary we are not asked to distance ourselves from the subject, but to identify. We are offered a sense of intimate engagement with the otherness portrayed. The subjective camera point of view and the first person voice-over permit us to view the world through someone else’s eyes. At the end, we still step out of their world, with a ‘there but for the grace of God’ flick of the remote control.

Subjects & subjectivity

One of the implications of the above is a new aesthetic of documentary truth. It is badly lit, subjective, handheld, but it should not be seen as a development of the ‘Direct Cinema’ style, which sought to efface the presence of the film crew, to present unmediated reality. The new video gains its sense of authenticity from the presence of the individual, from the fact that it is personal, subjective, mediated. The video camcorder image is the mark of someone, a subject, having been there, an inscription of presence.

This constitutes a major shift and one of the most interesting effects of video technologies. However it has little to do with the so-called ‘democratisation’ of TV. The structures of power relations in the mass-media industries remain unaltered by the challenge of democratic, accessible video media. On the contrary, every new stylistic development has been seized upon and recycled to further increase profit margins.

Continuing globalisation and centralisation of media power has been accompanied by a fragmentation of cultures and political systems. This fragmentation is reflected by a subjective form such as camcorder video, which appears to undermine the citadel of objective realism. The traditional Left critique of the TV documentary for the bias which lurks under the cloak of objectivity now gets its reply – video-based forms that are anything but objective but which serve the needs of the market.

The spread of camcorder culture reflects, rather than drives, wider cultural developments. Subjectivity – the personal, the intimate – is the only remaining response to a chaotic, senseless, out-of-control world in which the kind of objectivity demanded by the Enlighten­ment is no longer possible; a world where radical politics and critical theory are constantly defining and refining identity politics, the politics of the subject; a world in which the grand narratives are exhausted and we’re left with the politics of the self to keep us ideologically warm. Video is playing its part in a wider process in which objective realism is slowly evolving into a different regime of truth.

Jon Dovey is a writer, producer and Media Arts lecturer at the University of Plymouth.

This article is based on work for ‘The Revelation of Unguessed Worlds’, to be published in the collection Fractual Dreams – New Media in Social Context, ed. Jon Dovey (Lawrence & Wishart, 1995).