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HEADSHOTS : Aesthetics & Meaning

As we all watch tonight's historic debate and listen to the words of the two candidates we should also pay attention to how each candidate is framed and what the “image” is of them projected onto our living room screens. As a public we do not discuss this much. But understanding visual framing is important. It has meaning that subtly registers in our subconscious. Humans' visual perception is the most developed of all our senses. Now more than ever, we are bombarded with a cacophony of imagery daily from our TVs to the internet, pop-ups galore of every fashion and persuasion. We need tools, analytical tools, to decipher through the vastness of the images we see. And do not see. What images are shot, yet withheld? What images of people's actions are never recorded? What does it mean when Western cameramen/producers cover war-torn Libera and find the women demonstrating for peace to be “too pitiful” to film, but the young boys terrorized into becoming soldiers laden with AK-47 fill hundreds of hours of news footage? How does such an enculturated perception creep, or maybe I should say storm, into the U.S. so that police with the slightest of provocation shoot to kill so many Black men?

In April I screened at Experiments in Cinema two films I shot in the early 1970s, the WOMEN'S HAPPY TIME COMMUNE and SWEET BANANAS. Several audience members referred to the very tight head shots I liked, and still like, to use. I have always seen such tight shots for me as a kind of loving cradling of the person I record. (see: Hannah Wilke footage in !WOMEN ART REVOLUTION!) So, some months later when I saw a rerun of the 1960 Presidential Debate I was intrigued to re-discover how tight the framing was around both Kennedy (I missed capturing a screen shot of this) and Nixon. This was the very first televised presidential debate in the U.S. There were not hard and fast TV shot rules handed out to the cameramen. Television news at the time was only 15 minutes on each of the networks. And there were only the three networks. By no means am I saying that these camera operators of 1960, and their directors in the control booths, were going after “loving cradling” shots. They went with their instincts, for they were capturing something novel and exciting. This 1960 debate was the cusp of a new era in news making. (The film, PRIMARY has similar kinds of effects.) Fifty six years later both the news media and the candidates and their respective parties have this kind of debate event down pat. Today's news media standard headshot demands a certain amount of space above the head and also includes the shoulders. Given the rectangular frame of the shot this also provides a degree of space both to the left and the right of the head. What is in that space?

An enterprising set of Dalit women in India who were taught film skills, and had made over 100 films by 2005, based on their collective media practices devised their own analysis and terminology for their aesthetics of filmmaking. “We call an eye-level shot a sangham shot," where they are face to face with their subjects and have equal footing. ( ) What is the public's footing with the networks airing these debates?

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