Scholar Pooja Rangan and filmmaker-scholars Brett Story and Paige Sarlin engage in a conversation about documentary theory and practice emerging from the questions posed by Rangan’s book Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary (published by Duke University Press in 2017 as part of Camera Obscura’s relaunched book series). Rangan introduces “immediations,” the concept she uses for documentary tropes that generate a sensation of urgency and immediacy around endangered humanity, which distracts from the consensus they produce around particular meanings of humanity. Popular among contemporary participatory documentary interventions aiming to empower dehumanized subjects such as impoverished children, disaster victims, disabled individuals, and endangered animals, immediations include tropes such as the photographic aesthetic of innocence, the live amateur eyewitness, and first-person conventions of “coming to voice.” Story takes up Rangan’s question, “What do immediations do?” in relation to the tropes of the prison documentary genre, which she attempts to move past in her film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (US, 2016). Story argues that the urgent, devastating, and nonetheless conventional images of confined black bodies that circulate in prison documentaries consolidate the racialized consensus around innocence and criminality. Drawing these perspectives into conversation, moderator and commentator Paige Sarlin differentiates between a documentary ethic of emergency (which draws on material forms like immediations that are ready at hand but obscure the path to social change) and a documentary politics of urgency and necessity (which maps the social structures, forces, and institutions that perpetuate structural inequality).

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