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When Strangers Bring Cameras: The Poetics and Politics of Othered Places / Ardis Cameron

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

It is not down in any map; True places never are.
—Herman Melville

LIKE ALL NARRATIVES OF IDENTITY, STORIES OF PLACE TAKE SHAPE AND DERIVE meaning in and through a system of differences. This is who we are, and more importantly perhaps, this is who and what we are not. "True places," where authenticity and realness are said to dwell, find expression in the discursive imaginary topographies of Otherness and so come down, not in maps, but in stories of alterity that mark home from away. A place without a story is really nowhere at all.

It comes as no surprise then that highly storied regions like northern New England and Appalachia enter into the national imaginary as worlds apart. Bounded by images of rugged coastlines, pristine lighthouses, and lobster boats, the conceptual borders of Maine take shape in opposition to the desolate "hollers," rusty cars, and soot-encrusted miners of eastern Kentucky. But if places like these are conceived and translated through a prism of differences, modern practices of image-making and the kinds of looking relations they help shape underscore the degree to which northern New England and Appalachia share a common past as deeply othered places. Rural, poor, and historically dominated by outside interests, they have been shaped less by their geographical location in America's hinterlands than by the weight of visual excess that has historically bounded them as separate and apart [End Page 411] from stories of "America." Topographies of strangeness overstuffed with desire and dread, othered places like these have long defined a particular kind of rupture in American narratives of modernity and progress: a breech that anthropologist Kathleen Stewart describes as "a space on the side of the road." 1 If stories of place accentuate regional differences, the poetics of othered places underscore the shared legacy of America's unassimilated regions whose unquiet images hang like phantasmagoric dream spaces over American narratives of self and other, center and margin, "in here" and "out there." 2

Two recent documentary films provide a useful way to explore such spaces and investigate the kinds of poetics they perform. Belfast, Maine, a four-hour film by Fred Wiseman that inchworms its way through a blue-collar New England town, and Stranger with a Camera, a self-reflective look by Kentucky filmmaker Elizabeth Barret at documentary film practices in her home state, are at once stories of place and problematic performances of otherness. Given the history of northern New England and Appalachia, they could hardly be otherwise. Both regions emerged in the voyeuristic practices of cosmopolitan storytellers who found in the "hidden pockets" of turn-of-the-century America places of authenticity and cultural intensity seemingly absent from the home they called "America." Increasingly fetishized as a zone of difference—a particular place and a peculiar people—each entered the cultural imaginary in terms long familiar to students of regional fiction: as ethnographically colorful, pre-modern, and temporally frozen so as to fix in place old world dialects, gestures, and customs. Marketable as stories to a new class of readers, both regions afforded as well an array of consumerist possibilities as tourists sought relief from "over-civilization" and as new professions emerged to document and distribute images of "out there" to those tied down by "here." In the process both places became important staging grounds where would-be image-makers could find more accessible routes into creative careers than were ordinarily available to them. Not unlike the genre of regional fiction (studied so perceptively by Richard Brodhead) which extended authorship to those "traditionally distanced from literary lives," the commodification of othered places produced in the twentieth century "the opportunity it offered." 3 As early as the 1930s the two regions fostered a thriving culture industry that catered to consumerist desires for non-modern cultural experiences and vernacular authenticity. 4 New subjects of representation emerged and new categories of artistic self-fashioning,

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