Author: Jihoon Kim (Chung-ang University)
How to Cite: Kim, J. (2021) “Data Visualizations, Vlogs, Drone Imagery: Expanded Documentary Forms in the COVID-19 Emergency”, Film Criticism. 45(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.1060
Cultural practices and the culture industry were suspended by the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and its resulting lockdown, as were major film industries, independent film productions, film festivals, and global cinephile culture: movie theatres were closed; film festivals were delayed; and shooting in studios or on location was postponed. However, this unprecedented crisis propelled film professionals to harness online forms and platforms that could retrieve and renew, if compromised, the cinematic mode of production and the cinematic experience. These endeavours include Thessaloniki Film Festival’s ‘Spaces’, a project aimed to commission filmmakers, including Jia Zhangke and Denis Côté, to create films at home or in outdoor living spaces, WE ARE ONE: A Global Film Festival (29 May–7 June, 2020), a YouTube-based virtual film festival initiated by a consortium of international film festivals (Cannes, Sundance, etc.) that aims to transpose the collective viewing experience onto a streaming platform, and curated online platforms that allow remote access to moving image artworks originally displayed in avant-garde film festivals or inside gallery walls. Taking these into account, Francesco Casetti and Carolyn Condon Jacobs argue that ‘the pandemic ultimately elicits a panfilmic existence.’1 Digital technologies, including social media and streaming platforms, have profoundly dislocated cinematic forms and viewing from their original material and social spaces—specifically, movie theatres—and relocated them into new physical and virtual environments.2 As Casetti and Jacobs suggest, cinema has survived and renewed itself through these technologies, and the pandemic has become a crisis as well as an opportunity for inviting and reflecting on its new forms and conventions.
This doubled aspect of the pandemic has undoubtedly propelled many scholars around the globe to ponder about what cinema and its neighboring media have been, as well as about emerging forms and practices aimed to produce records and information, arguments, affects, and sociality despite the suspension or hiatus of standardized media operations and experiences. More that the structural transformations in the production, distribution, and exhibition of film, the spread of COVID-19 has had far more sweeping and profound impacts on the time and space that hitherto grounded forms and experience of existing media, dismantling and restructuring their normative locations and temporality. It is in this context that scholars have developed the idea of ‘pandemic media,’ namely, a set of various media forms and practices geared toward conditioning the mode of a crisis and making the existing modes of culture and communication operated at any rate—albeit in vicarious ways. What the scholars who engaged in the edited collection Pandemic Media (2020) do to conceptualize the idea, for instance, are not only to address the forms and practices, such as film and video streaming, pervasive uses of Zoom for screenings and meetings, the proliferation of charts, curves, and tables depicting infection and death rates, and drone cinematography for portraying cities under lockdown, but also the ways in which they have reordered the space and time of the existing media: the popularity of streaming platforms, Zoom, and social media services has transformed the private space into one filled with a panoply of screens and windows operated to continue everyday activities in the public space and to be connected to the external world and communities; similarly, the suspension of the normative media operations, such as the shutdown of movie theaters and museums, has elicited the nostalgia of what they were before the crisis, while also introducing the temporal senses of acceleration and urgency marked by the constant updates of the information related to the spread of the disease and to the governmental and scientific control of its medical, social, and economic effects. Associating these transformations of space and time with the idea of ‘pandemic media’ that has makes the pandemic “a highly mediated event,” the authors of the introduction to Pandemic Media ask about their modes of production, circulation, and consumption as follows: “How do media render an invisible virus and its threats visible? What form and format do graphs take to inform policy makers and the public about the crisis? How and why do amateur media get distributed transnationally and win transnational popularity?”3
What these questions suggest, in my view, is that several artifacts and practices that pertain to the ‘pandemic media,’ including drone imagery, graphs, curves, and charts, and the online videos produced and circulated by ordinary citizens, demand a renewed understanding of nonfiction media forms, including documentary cinema, inasmuch as they engage and document the unstable and devastating reality of the world under the crisis. Lisa Parks’ and Janet Walker’s timely and rich conceptualization of ‘disaster media,’ too, raises this demand. Thinking about satellite images, the graphs and charts, and people’s massive production and dissemination of posts, GIFs, and videos in response to the COVID-19 crisis and other disastrous realities, in the words of Parks and Walker, “has led us to ask all over again what “media” are and to contend with how, especially during harmful events, media in various modalities proliferate, transform, translate, and inevitably sculpt the environment.”4 The notion of disaster media, in this sense, aims to recognize and analyze the ways in which media forms and technologies construct natural and human-made disasters, document their reality, convert the records into knowledge and argumentation, and communicate their affective, social, and cultural consequences. Not only does it enable one to think of documentary in the situation of disasters as embracing a wider variety of media artifacts and technologies than a limited set of audiovisual representations organized by the orchestration of people, proflimic reality, and a expository or persuasive discourse, but it also suggests that the disasters have been transforming documentary forms and media, much more their definition and boundary.
While concurring with the rationales for the ideas of ‘pandemic media’ or ‘disaster media’ and their implications of the ways in which documentary forms and media need to be rethought in the current situation of the crisis, I also point out that what the ideas suggest as para-documentary artifacts or practices, such as data visualizations, amateur online videos, and drone imagery, are never unprecedented: rather, the three forms—and, more broadly, certain instances of pandemic or disaster media—should be framed within the larger transformations of documentary objects and media that have occurred with the advance and proliferations of digital technologies in the 21st century. This resonates with a series of the discourses in the 2010s on the demand for redefining documentary in ways that address the various yet interconnected experiments with digital and computational technologies and incorporate their corresponding non-standardized media forms and artifacts of preserving, interrogating, expressing the real. The MIT’s Open Documentary Lab founded in 2012, a research initiative aimed to explore the potentials of emerging digital technologies and platforms to cultivate collaborative, interactive, and immersive forms of documentary, contextualizes its mission within the popularization of video-equipped devices which “have the capacity to transform the ‘great mass’ of spectators into makers of the image” and at the same time are “part of a larger dispositif that include networked connectivity, aggregation sites for live uploads, accessible and user-friendly editing systems and popular distribution portals.”5 Here, it becomes obvious that the users’ new behaviors in the networked environment as a key motivation of the Lab’s research call for reworking the traditional assumptions of documentary’s media, artifact, authorship, spectatorship, and authority. Peter Wintonick coins the term ‘docmedia’ to indicate a variety of nonfiction media practices proffered by new digital platforms: “I would showcase and celebrate transplatform digital documentary in all its docmedia incarnations: cyber-docs, digidocs, transmedia docs, cross-docs, cross-media, 360 degree docs, netcast docs, interactive docs, 3D-docs, [and] made-for- mobile docs.”6 Wintonick’s proposition to replace the film-based term ‘documentary’ with ‘docmedia’ that encompass such diverse practices and artifacts, too, is allied with rethinking documentary’s object and audience within a new ‘ecosystem,’ a complex media environment in which digitally enabled interactivity, immersion, connectivity, and participation “[engage] with ‘old media’ in ways that are rich and multifaceted.”7 Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow’s “Beyond Story: An Online, Community-based Manifesto”(2019) asserts that “documentary is poised to liberate itself from its narrative moorings” in favor of the interactive non-linear platforms.8 The various forms of documentary that emerge within the digital environment, Juhasz and Lebow continue, “flow—often with little human effort—across and between platforms, places, and singular entities or systems,” becoming popular “when the world opens outward and destabilizes newly, in relation to climate, migration, authoritarianism, global corporate media, neo-capitalism and other impending catastrophe.”9 The two scholars’ proclamation of reconfiguring documentary practices beyond their story-based constraints and instead in open-ended manner is also reflected in Patricia R. Zimmerman and Helen De Michel’s recent dossier for the Journal Afterimage, in which they and other contributors view the new documentary landscapes across locations, platforms, and spaces in the light of ‘co-creation’: the term refers to the extent to which communities' and citizens’ involvement in the creation of nonfiction artifacts does more than overcome the single-authored model of documentary production, rendering documentary itself as “a process that is contextual and contingent on a wide spectrum of variables.”10
Building on this line of discourses, I propose the concept of ‘expanded documentary’ to indicate the emerging documentary practices and artifacts enabled by the new digital media and platforms of the 21st century, underlining its two implications: first, it reveals the ways in which these practices and artifacts inherit and alter the modes of traditional documentary cinema beyond its standardized form, place, and spectatorship through incorporating new consciousness, behaviors, and cultural or political climate affected by the digital technologies for production and postproduction of images and the non-theatrical experiential platforms, such as VR interfaces, interactive websites, and social media; and second, it also suggests that these practices and artifacts emerge on and spread across other places than those of traditional documentary, i.e., the movie theatre and television, dismantling a group of material and technical hierarchies that underlies it, and escaping the formal, aesthetic, and medial boundaries between what documentary is and what is not. A case in point is Philip Rosen’s canonical distinction between ‘document’ and ‘documentary,’ according to which documentary film produces knowledge and discourse “not just [with] re-presenting the real…but with constructing and organizing it,” so it is inseparable from “general meanings grounding the temporal organizing of shots as sequence.”11 With its two implications, my definition of expanded documentary goes hand in hand with Selmin Kara and Daniel Marcus’s characterization of contemporary documentary “as a type of connector or creative hub among vast fields of media activity” in tandem with the growing application of “the extra-cinematic (such as the data culture, social and locative media, immersive technologies, video games, animation, and graphic and experience design)”12 to what has traditionally been nonfiction-cinematic.
This article positions within the trend of expanded documentary three media forms which have become widespread in the early 21st century due to the popularization of digital technologies for recording, visualization, and dissemination and which have recently been harnessed to engage with the fundamental changes and impacts of COVID-19 on various scales, from a macroscopic to a microscopic perspective, and from domestic to empty urban spaces. Data visualizations (hereafter abbreviated as DV), vlogs, and drone imagery that I focus on are not constrained within the established aesthetic, technological, and institutional assumptions of documentary film to varying degrees: DV is devoid of camera-based moving images and sound that guarantee visual and sonic traces of reality; vlogs are considered a form of amateur online videos often exempt of skilful editing, commentary, and visual effects that accompany professional documentary films; and drone cinematography’s all-encompassing, non-human gaze defies the documentary camera as an anthropocentric extension of the human camera operator. In the emergency that has made it difficult to study and film physical reality and to transform its record into an organized audiovisual arfifact, these three media forms expand the boundaries of documentary cinema by continuing its functions to show us life in a crisis, to offer information, knowledge, and perspective on its reality, and to evoke people’s awareness and emotions regarding the crisis. Thanks to these functions, they attest to the ways in which what I am calling expanded documentary is also read as a remarkable case of ‘disaster media’ whose mediation of the crisis asks us to reconfigure what media have been and how they are constantly changing in broader sense.
DV, a representation of data with graphic elements, dates back to the age of modern visual culture despite its increased popularity in the early 21st century. The epistemological premise of turning ‘empirical observation into explanations and evidence’13 in physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, and demography in the early 19th century propelled the growth and maturation of various infographic methods to illustrate scientific findings and statistical data with such simplified visual shapes as graphs, charts, and maps, and variables like colour and scale. Along with photography and film, which offered visible evidence of the world with their capabilities of registering and preserving its optical impression, it served to document and reveal aspects of the world that elude the camera’s gaze. The objectivist and empirical episteme of 19th-century DV, coupled with the Griersonian impulse of establishing documentary film as a social apparatus for public opinion-making and education, laid the groundwork for the ‘expository mode’ of the 1930s and 1940s—a mode of documentary practice that aimed to convey information, propose a perspective, or advance an argument on reality and history.14 For example, expository documentaries produced in the contexts of the New Deal policy and World War II media propaganda employ maps, graphs, and numbers accompanied with graphic signs to illustratively support the informing or persuasive logic conveyed by the authoritative and objectivist voice-over. The advances of 2D and 3D computer graphics since the 1990s, computer technology’s enhanced capability to encode and process a vast amount of data, proliferation of Web 2.0 interactive platforms that are accessible with networked and mobile media, and the social drive to ‘Big Data’, all have propelled governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, scientific laboratories, and major news outlets to adopt various DVs. They often aim to represent complex realities of the world that transcend the grasp of naked or even camera-aided eyes, such as daily or annual flows and amounts of transportations in a metropolis, numbers of migratory workers across continents, impacts of climate change on human and natural ecosystems, and even ‘Big Data’ themselves (for instance, daily or annual traffic of postings, tweets, and uploads across all social media services).
The brief history of DV suggests that it can be considered as a documentary expression due to its potential for claiming knowledge and truth despite its absence of lens-based records that constitute photography and film. In turn, this allows one to notice its dual aspects shared by documentary film and photography. As Kris Fallon summarizes, “on one hand, visualizations offer the potential to pull together large swarths of information and reveal hidden dimensions of the world. On the other hand, they can be manipulated to misrepresent reality and mislead observers.”15 To expand on Fallon’s insight, it is possible to identify two ways in which certain DVs dealing with COVID-19, despite their power for helping to understand information and make decisions regarding the world afflicted by the virus, risk misleading viewers and diminishing its fidelity: namely, rhetorical bias and simplification, from which documentary filmmaking in general is not entirely free. ‘How the Virus Got Out (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/22/world/coronavirus-spread.html),’16 a data journalism article published in The New York Times on 20 March 2020, demonstrates how DVs concerned with COVID-19 shuffle between objectivity and subjectivity in a manner similar to documentary film. Based on the travel patterns across China extracted from mobile phone data, air travel patterns from Wuhan, and case reports from Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organization, the article visualizes an analysis of the movement of hundreds of millions of infected individuals, chronicling its initial outbreak in Wuhan, its spread across Asia and Europe, and its local spread across the US in early March. Starting with the map of Huanan Seafood Market—where the virus’ first cases were reported—the article succeeds in visualizing information on the vast size of the outbreak and its rapid contagiousness with increasing red and green dots (indicating the numbers of patients and people travelling across and out of China, respectively). The density and scale of the dots dramatically aestheticize how the local and international outbreaks were growing rapidly, and the transition from the map of China to a subway map populated with major cities in East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, rendered in 2D and 3D graphics, dynamically gives expression to the virus’ transnational traffic. The article’s informative power lies in those visual elements premised on modern visual culture’s longstanding correlation between seeing and believing, or between vision and thinking. However, when it comes to DV’s claim to truth and its persuasive effect, the article’s visual elements might be accused of promoting political bias regarding how to assess China’s responsibility for the pandemic. By positioning Wuhan at the centre of the subway map and rendering the movements of numerous green and red dots (representing Chinese travellers) on its routes, the article gives readers the impression that the Chinese government’s delayed testing and tracing of patients and its untimely exertion of travel restrictions could cause local outbreaks in other countries marked on the map. Although the article specifies the cause of the outbreak across the US as the Trump government’s lagged testing, the leap from the subway map to US territory reinforces the aforementioned impression without informing the readers of where the virus initially originated in the US.
The lack of certainty suggested by the NYT’s article is what many DV specialists concerned with COVID-19 have been grappling with: how to visualize the evolution and spread of the virus that in itself embodies uncertainty. This points to an underlying dilemma of DV, namely, visualizing the aspects of reality that are too vast, invisible, or unknown with its logics of abstraction, reduction, and simplification that guarantee viewers’ intuitive understanding of data. As Stephen Gossett emblematizes, ‘the tension between visualization readability and communicating uncertainty is long-standing in data viz, but COVID-19 has cast it into relief.’17 An article by Harry Stevens in The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/world/corona-simulator/)18 and Simulating an Epidemic (2020), a YouTube video by Grant Sanderson,19 employ curve charts and dot plots to demonstrate the effectivity of social distancing in ‘flattening the curve’ of the number of infected cases. By using simple shapes like bouncing balls or moving dots to indicate the movement of people in a given community, and by visualizing the changes in the numbers of the sick, the healthy, and the recovered in differential curves, both DVs present different simulations of the results from the control-free situation, attempted quarantine, moderate social distancing, and lockdown. In so doing, they raise collective awareness of the clandestine and rapid spread of COVID-19 through human networks. However, as Stevens acknowledges, such simulations derived from the play of charts and dots ‘vastly oversimplify the complexity of real life’, which includes, for instance, the economic, racial, and gender differences of people affected by the disease. In this sense, both DVs attest to what Tess Takahashi has termed the ‘murmur of digital magnitude.’ Calling upon us to understand contemporary DV as a gradually dominant rhetorical form that revivifies the epistemological mastery of objects and people articulated by the authoritative voice-over narrator in expository documentaries, Takahashi highlights the ways in which its power of abstraction leaves their bodies unobserved and their voices silenced.20 In DV’s pursuit of symbolic reduction and transparency to point to the objective evidence of the world perceived as vast, invisible, and unknowable, or to explain empirical knowledge about it, it unavoidably encounters its representational limits, such as leaving out details of reality.
What, then, is the documentary value of DVs dealing with the uncertainty of COVID-19? Can these visualizations be seen as representing the disease’s impacts in a manner that does not oblige us to choose either scientific empiricism or Takahashi’s distrust of their capacity to render the realities representable and knowable? In the early 21st century, Lev Manovich argued that a challenge faced by DVs is “how new media can represent the ambiguity, the otherness, the multi-dimensionality of our experience.”21 Considering the aesthetics of complexity in digitally rendered and processed DVs, Anthony McCoster and Rowan Wilken note that they serve not to merely reduce information or knowledge with their symbolic representability but also to introduce and highlight “intensive properties…such as tone, density and sparseness, speed and slowness [which] are not easily divisible and measurable.”22 By ‘intensive properties’ McCoster and Wilken refer to the expressive capacity of DVs to evoke the affective and embodied experience of the world facing a particular phenomenon whose scale and impact are too vast, invisible, and unfathomable. In this regard, DVs dealing with the uncertainty of COVID-19 seeks scientific revelation of its mutation and spreadability while triggering a range of intellectual and emotional responses in the face of its global impact. These potentials encourage the endorsement of DVs as a type of documentary practice aimed at representing the pandemic-affected world beyond the scope of the camera; figure 1, published by Nextstrain.org, an open-source project to utilize the scientific and public health potential of pathogen genome data, exemplifies this.23 The project has been tracking the spread of COVID-19 by sampling approximately 3,200 genomes from December 2019 to July 2020, and publishing visual data of its phylogeny and its multiple spreads across the globe. On one hand, a crowd of small circles that populate each phylogenic tree (rectangular, radial, unrooted, and clock views) provides scientific information on the virus’ nucleotide mutations that help scientists develop vaccines and assist decisionmakers with implementing relevant public health policies. On the other, their extreme density, coupled with the visualization of its exponential spread on a separate world map, undermines DV’s ideal for simplicity and transparency. Despite its threat of intuitive legibility, what makes Nextstrain’s project meaningful as a documentary arfifact is its embracement of the aesthetic of complexity that has the effect of our affective and embodied responses to COVID-19. The sheer number of circles that indicate genome samples, the lines that bind a group of countries that share similar mutations, and the geographic display of the pandemic are rendered to be too complex and intensive to grasp intuitively, and therefore increase our awareness of how uncontrollable the virus has remained, and the extent of its global influences.
Some might argue that the DVs of Nextstrain.org do not fit into the form of documentary cinema in the sense that they are just visual if dynamic presentations of genomic information primarily analysed by and available for medical scientists and virologists, unlike the New York Times’ “How the Virus Got Out” coupled with the captions that serve as a type of expository and argumentative voice-over in traditional documentary film. Bearing this obvious difference in mind, however, I would also argue that the former can also be viewed as an artifact of expanded documentary for two reasons: first, because it is open not only to the scientific and medical specialists but also to the general public who aspires to know about the spread and variations of the virus, becomes overwhelmed by them, and asks for personal and collective countermeasures to its impacts. This transition from knowledge to empathy to action, triggered by the scientific records and analytics of the virus, is indeed what a traditional documentary film has been doing—but in this case, by other means than the lens-based capture that has long defined its privileged aesthetic and epistemological component; and second, more significantly, the DVs run in parallel to so-called artistic visualizations capable of representing the world beyond the scope of the camera and giving expression to its magnitude. Seeking scientific revelation, yet also acknowledging its epistemological and aesthetic limits, these projects evoke the affective and embodied experience of the contemporary world marked by other natural or human-made disasters, such as the climate change, air pollution, and environmental crisis, whose profound or enormous impacts on human beings and their civilizations go beyond the grasp of optical observation or the cognitive scale of human comprehension. I am thinking of Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg’s Wind Map (2013), which displays the complex swirling lines of the wind flowing over the United States against a dark grey map that visualizes it, and Nerea Calvillo’s In the Air (2008, figure 2), a project that aims to make visible the microscopic agents of Madrid’s air with five three-dimensional grids overlaid with a two-dimensional, monochromatic aerial view of the city (an equivalent of the satellite imagery that has frequently been used to inscribe air pollution). In these two projects, which Fallon and Takahashi discuss in the light of documentary film’s informative and rhetorical functions,24 their digitally enabled visualizations, if dynamic, exert the explanatory power of the abstract patterns converted from the real-time, scientific data of the natural phenomenon or air pollutants, on one hand. At the same time, however, the patterns’ complexity and the density of the lines and curves common to both projects mitigate the objectivist epistemological ground of the 19th and 20th centuries’ visualizations marked by the aesthetics of reduction and simplicity, instead conveying the subjective impression on the invisible force of the wind or air pollutants, and rendering our world to be perceived as chaotic and precarious.
Due to their explanatory and expressive, or scientific and aesthetic potentials, the excessively complex curves and trees of the virus-infected genomes in Nexttrain.org, I further argue, are read as symptomatic of the two implications of the 21th-century digital DVs to contemporary documentary forms and disaster media respectively. First, the DVs coincide with the growing expansion of animated imagery in the aesthetic and thematic domains of documentary cinema and moving image arts during the last two decades that has dismantled the precedence of lens-based imagery as the privileged component of nonfiction filmic practice. Takahashi rightly observes that various experimentations with digital animation during this era could be read as responding to not merely the destabilization of the photographic image’s truth claim but also the shifting status of ‘documentary reference.’ “This ubiquity and variety of techniques, practices, and forms marks a widespread concern with the status of documentary reference in conjunction with rapidly shifting epistemological structures,” she writes, “Within this proliferation of documentary practice, digital animation has become a key tool for interrogating changes in the ways in which we understand the world.”25 Here, what Takahashi means by the ‘documentary reference’ of animated imagery is not only past events that it refers as the substitution for photographic images, or traumas, memories, and fantasies that await its evocative expressive power.26 It also suggests what the digitally graphic images in the current DV projects engage and document,: namely, the realities which require other visualities than the camera’s observation of the phenomenal world. The DVs such as those in Nexttrain.org and other COVID-19 related dashboards and newspaper articles, then, make us emotionally and intellectually aware that its reality is invisible, massive, fluid, or malleable, and that its changes and impacts originate from the complex intersections of technological and material, and human and nonhuman dimensions. Second, the DVs of COVID-19 can be contextualized within the larger trend that the curves, graphs, charts, and fractals of climate change have dominated our mediascape since the 21st century, as demonstrated by Wind Map and such documentary films as An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Under the Dome (2015). Positioning these two threads of DVs within an instance of disaster media, Parks and Walker observe: “scientific experts and publics must grapple with how these graphs make meaning, what datasets they rely upon, and how these media come to stand in for highly complex conditions.”27 Here, it becomes obvious that the DVs of global warming and the pandemic play a significant role in producing life and death, and crisis and its overcoming, both as an expanded form of documentary and an influential mediatic visuality of the turbulent times.
If an inherent pitfall of DV is its inability to preserve and show indexical records of reality, a variety of vlogs have responded to this demand that has traditionally been satisfied by documentary filmmaking. The vlog is arguably the most popular global form of documenting one’s self faced with COVID-19. A brief observation of vlogs from Wuhan to South Korea exhibits their common patterns of production, subject matter, and distribution. Ben Kavanagh, a British teacher in Wuhan, published a series of vlogs during the city’s lockdown and the self-quarantine after his return to the UK, in collaboration with Channel 4. Shot with his mobile phone and his laptop’s built-in webcam, they encompass filming his home and surroundings and everyday life under quarantine, and his direct-address confessions about changing situations and his resulting feelings. Some brave Chinese residents in Wuhan, too, have used social media platforms to record and share their experiences of the crisis under the Chinese government’s authoritarian control of media, as demonstrated by DW Documentary’s Coronavirus in China (2020) that includes video footage filmed, interviews, and direct-address videos.28 Those who have filmed and published their life under pandemic from the first-person perspective are not only ordinary citizens but also infected COVID-19 patients, and medical professionals who have treated them. A video report published by The New York Times on YouTube on March 26, 2020 offers a rare yet intimate look inside a hospital in Queens, New York, as it is composed of first-person footage shot by its emergency room doctor Coleen Smith, and her direct-address video report on its urgent situation.29 Lee Jeong-hwan, a 25-year-old Korean male student who returned from Istanbul and was hospitalized with the virus on April 5, 2020, started filming a series of vlogs in his hospital room from May 3 to explain its dangers and reveal the daily life of COVID-19 patients.30 Lee’s self-confessions, in the form of either direct address or voice-over commentary on his self-image, express his symptoms of the disease, the effects of clinical tests on his body and health, his depression about the positive results of the tests, and the process of how he overcame it (figure 3).
The vlogs produced by citizens—from hospitalized patients to residents in lockdown—are contemporary versions of diaristic videos that initially gained popularity thanks to the advent of custom video cameras and VHS players in the 1980s that allowed consumers to intimately record and circulate their bodies and speeches, mediate their self-therapy and analysis, and communicate with others. For Michael Renov, video confessions produced and exchanged in vernacular and nonhegemonic contexts not only update Michel Foucault’s formulation of the confessional discourse but are also “powerful tools for self-understanding, as well as for two-way communication, forging of human bonds, and emotional recovery.”31 It is for these aims that video confessions also paralleled the tradition of first-person documentary practices in which articulating an address in the first person entails not the autonomy of the Cartesian speaking subject but complicates and explores “other modes and models of subjectivity.”32 Numerous vlogs posted on social media or included in mainstream news reports present more than the filming subject’s perspective on his or her surrounding world. The attachment to her own recording device inscribes her subjectivity that is fleeting and unstable in response to her encounter with the changing situation of the world. A female Chinese vlogger featured in Channel 4’s news report Life in Lockdown Wuhan (2020),33 for instance, says she prepared for a special stick to use her camera ‘in all kinds of situations.’ The vlogger’s camera was then extended into filming herself roaming around a small garden in her apartment, her conversation with an elderly man in her neighbourhood, and her confession about how the government’s measurement to ask citizens to report their heath condition via a mobile application influenced her mentality. This decentralized self sensitive to its encounter with the public world is also the case with Lee’s video diaries aimed to communicate his stories of self-therapy and self-recovery. While Lee’s second video encourages other patients to thank medical staff for their effort and think optimistically, his third video expresses his involuntary stress caused by 10 positive results during 33 days of hospitalization. Here, viewers witness not only Lee’s floating subjectivity that characterizes video confession, but also the mutual enrichment of ‘self-understanding’ and ‘two-way communication’ that it promotes.
More than confirming vlogs’ connection to the traditions of video diary and first-person documentary, the exchange and negotiation between the private and the public that underlies them suggests why they have been established as a notable form of citizens’ vernacular online videos on social media platforms. The vlog is a form of what Manuel Castells calls ‘mass self-communication’, a new form of socialized communication that emerged in the early 21st century due to mobile and wireless technologies, that is “self-generated in content, self-directed in emission, and self-selected in reception by many that communicate with many.”34 Observing ordinary citizens’ uses of mobile-phone cameras and social network services to document and spread social movements across the globe, Castells ascribes to mass self-communication citizens’ capacity to challenge and change power relations in a given society, or what he calls ‘counter-power.’
It is due to their manifestation of counter-power that other direct precursors of the COVID-19 vlogs than the first-person documentaries are amateurish videos that covey videomakers’ subjective response to the public crisis from their first-person perspective manifested by POV shots or the direct address to the camera. I am thinking of LGBTQ video confessions during the AIDS crisis,35 and particularly, myriad first-person documentation videos produced and circulated to film citizens’ acts and voices of dissidence and the police or military brutality against them in the various protests across the globe since the late 2000s that encompass the Arab Spring, Hong Kong’s Anti-extradition Law Protests in 2019 and 2020, and the two Black Lives Matter rallies in 2014 and 2020, to name just a few.36 Based on the technical and aesthetic items of vlog, the first-person self-documentation videos convey the videomakers’ affective experience of the protests and their aftereffects, as well as their opinion related to the social and political conditions within which the protests were ignited. The first type of the videos is exemplified by a two-minute video of Syrian citizen journalist ‘aleppoRevolution.’37 Despite the absence of his body, the videographer guides viewers toward the remains of an archaeological site in the old city district of Aleppo after the militias of the president Bashar al-Assad burnt and destroyed it. While addressing the viewers as ‘you,’ the videographer inscribes the sound of his breathing in his handheld camera that preserves the authentic evidence of the military violence. Like first-person documentaries, the video aims at “speaking to and with much larger and indeed politically relevant and resonant collectivities”38 as it addresses a broader audience, and as it more appeals to general and universal points of identification than merely exhibit the videographer’s own particular feeling or situation. The second type is self-confession or testimony videos, amongst which Asmaa Mafhouz’s Facebook vlog made during the early days of the Egyptian Revolution is arguably the most famous.39 Despite the simplicity of the conventional vlog setting that shows only a close-up of her face, Mafhouz’s consistent frontal gaze toward distant audiences marks her political position, and her passionate voice articulates both her sense of urgency and her calling for her fellow Egyptians to join her in the protest. It is due to this affective power of this self-performance that the video quickly spread amongst Egypt’s youth, who were encouraged to use social media for both their political expression and their engagement in the protest amid the Egyptian government’s control of official news media.40 In this way, this type of self-documentation videos made and uploaded on social media by citizens faced with their social movements, although they are amateurish and not activists per se, demonstrates that they “use the camera as a tool for defining themselves as individuals or members of minority or political communities.”41
The vlogs produced and circulated during the lockdowns of major cities, including that of Wuhan, attest to their features of disaster media or crisis media. As illustrated by the video produced by the Chinese female vlogger, its limited locations and camera techniques not only demonstrate the digital media ecosystem in which ordinary citizens are capable of making their voice heard and their observation visible however non-professional they may be, but they also incorporate the spatial, temporal, and material conditions of the pandemic: shutdown of the public space, isolation in the domestic space, coexistence of the accelerated time and the time of waiting, and the facilities and infrastructures of living. As they foreground the videographer’s self-confession or testimony, the vlogs related to COVID-19 more explicitly exhibit their capacity to perform what Castells calls ‘counter-power,’ as male vlogger Fang Bing, featured in Coronavirus in China, filmed overflowing waiting rooms and dying patients in hospitals and shared his videos on social media to denounce the Chinese government’s inefficiency (figure 4). This suggests that the vlogs popularized by participatory digital media perform documentary cinema’s political functions to mirror social contradictions and injustices, convey marginalized voices, promote collaborations between, and serve as agents for social change.42 In this sense, the videos’ documentation of the self in the COVID-19 emergency plays the role of professional documentary filmmaking that it has suspended, as they create public opinion and awareness regarding the demand for social distancing, care, and intimacy. The requirements of organizing and contextualizing that mark Rosen’s distinction between ‘document’ and ‘documentary’ are undeniable. Nevertheless, the various vlogs of the pandemic, like those that responded to the global protests, suggest that the boundaries between documentary filmmaking and other nonfiction media practices, and between the professional and the amateur, have ostensibly become porous to the extent that these two practices have shared their performative claim to the real.
In this regard, I stress that the current media ecosystem that has operated to mediate the political, medical, or environmental crises of the 21st century is also where vernacular online videos and other media practices enabled by social media and digital affordances are given as much weight as traditional documentary film in terms of political and aesthetic effects. It is for this reason that the vlogs are read as a form of non-standardized expanded documentary which is distinct from and which has coevolved with and promoted political or activist documentaries made by media activists or professional filmmakers: the videos are used to fill the vacancy of professional documentary filmmaking in the times of urgency; they are used as a building block for its outputs; in this course, the practitioners incorporate the aesthetics, techniques, and platforms available for the videos while also making their films distinct with their ways of organizing and contextualizing. A very recent case that demonstrates the intersection of vlogs and professional political filmmaking is Ai Weiwei’s Coronation (2020, figure 5), which reveals the Chinese government’s militarized response to control the virus and its impact on ordinary citizens during the days of the Wuhan lockdown. Ai Weiwei directed the project remotely from Europe, and citizens living in the city filmed the various video materials that encompass the emergency room, the checkpoint, and a construction worker who was prevented from returning home. The citizens’ ways of filming shuffle between video self-documentation and the camera-witness of what they observed from the scenes of the city affected by the pandemic, and Ai Weiwei’s editing organizes them into a series of episodes that bear witness to the government’s biopolitical control and people’s counter-power against it.
The aspiration of documentary cinema to offer visible evidence of the pandemic-ridden world has been manifested not merely by views on the ground but also those from above. Throughout March and April, when major cities in China, Italy, Spain, and the US experienced lockdown, a series of drone-camera videos that capture their vacant landscapes, filmed by professional journalists and amateur citizens, were posted on social media and gained popular attention. Many such videos share several common technical, aesthetic and thematic tropes: they comprised images framed by the drone camera that smoothly glides over the surfaces of a city from various heights, flying over empty buildings and streets at low altitudes, and framing vertical bird-eye views on those built environments; roads and highways are also seen as vacant except for some vehicles running on them while others stand still; as illustrated by VICE’s Ghost Town (2020, figure 6), a video that compiles flyover footage of New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles during the COVID-19 lockdown.43 In the video, the imagery of inhuman emptiness captured by the drone camera evokes, as Kaplan neatly summarizes, ‘a haunting, melancholic nostalgia for what has been lost’44; this affect produced by visuals of vast voids is often heightened by elegiac music charged with a lyrical or eerie ambience at a slow or medium tempo; some drone videos are not accompanied by any sound—their silence attenuating the enigmatic or spectral atmosphere of the cities nearly stripped of outdoor populations.
At first glance, the COVID-19 drone footage performs at least two tendencies of documentary cinema outlined by Renov: first, “to record, reveal, or preserve,”45 which refers to documentary filmmaking’s function to register a fleeting moment of reality in images of duration and channel them into a shared viewing experience of the present and future; and “to express,” through which documentary film aestheticize documents of reality to “evoke emotional response or induce pleasure in the spectator by formal means [and] generate lyric power through shadings of sound and image.”46 The evidentiary value of COVID-19 drone imagery is by no means deniable, as long as it documents and preserves the trace of what was happening after humans and activities in major cities were evacuated from their material spaces. The claiming of evidence by the footage is also extended into its expressive tendency as it is built upon what Bill Nichols calls the ‘poetic mode’ of documentary practice as “a way of representing reality in terms of a series of fragments, subjective impressions, incoherent acts, and loose associations.”47 Rather than displaying knowledge or discourse about the cause of COVID-19 and developing persuasive argument on how to cope with it, the accumulative montage of the aerial views from the deserted cities stresses such affects as mourning (our civilization will never be the same as before) and post-apocalyptic gloominess. Despite their absence of expository voice-over commentaries or intertitles, the COVID-19-drone videos thus fit into Elizabeth Cowie’s characterization of documentary film as a work of encountering a range of emotions attached to past events and their losses, one of memory “that can become a process of mourning in which pastness is commemorated as the having been.”48 The drone camera’s distant gaze does this work on a much vaster scale and at a far greater distance than the camera on the ground, thereby evoking our embodied responses to how cities have dramatically changed since their lockdowns. In this sense, watching landscapes from above offers an aesthetic experience similar to browsing Nextstrain’s DV marked by the extreme density of the visual signs that bear witness to the uncontrollable mutability of the virus and its spread.
In an online section of Film Quarterly, Kaplan and Zimmerman characterize COVID-19 drone videos as testifying to an “emerging visual lexicon” and discuss their political and aesthetic implications with the recognition that “the swift-changing progression of COVID-19 and the cascading public health and economic disasters it has unleashed will require new ways to think about critical work on screens and machines.”49 While describing affects such as nostalgia and melancholy invoked by the drone footage, the scholars do not forget to alert two critical aspects on its increasing uses for the pandemic. First, they underline that the aerial imagery of cities with residents barely visible is a form of remote sensing that has already propagated contemporary battlefields and everyday urban environments. In this regard, the implementation of the drone gaze about the cities affected by the pandemic is an extension of the distant, detached, and vertical perspective that implies military-technological mastery over what it sees, the perspective that Derek Gregory, Hito Steyerl, and Grégoire Chamayou, to name just a few, have underscored.50 Second, Kaplan and Zimmermann call on us to notice what the drone gaze cannot show, despite its premise of panoptic omniscience. Kaplan, for instance, argues that ‘this “strange yet familiar” elegiac landscape masks the continuities of late capitalism’s inequalities’ in that it does not reveal people that “may have been homeless, unemployed, working too many jobs, uninsured, worried, sad, or lost’. Similarly, Zimmermann claims that the videos of this landscape ‘displace the profound social horror and hysteria of not seeing or knowing where the virus is.”
While consenting to the two scholars’ warning of its two limitations, I am also tempted to be in defense of drone imagery depicting cities in lockdown in two regards. First, in our networked mediascape in which a variety of technological affordances and platforms are intertwined, the imagery’s view from a distance does not stand alone but is produced, disseminated, and experienced in parallel to other nonfiction media practices aimed to intervene in the COVID-19 emergency. As COVID-19 vlogs have demonstrated, what records and shows us faces, bodies, and voices of subjects that grapple with the ‘late capitalism’s inequalities’ aggravated by the virus, and with the ‘horror and hysteria’ provoked by it, is the camera that they hold for and toward themselves. In this sense, the vlogs’ views on the ground and drone images’ scenes from above are seen as complementing each other. Viewers are able to interweave the two in favor of the double visions on the world under the pandemic, with DVs offering us information and knowledge about it in ways that neither of the two does.
Second, the drone’s unmanned mobility, its inhumanly smooth movement, and its automated vision dissociated from the naked eye, all operate to defamiliarize our habitual perception of urban reality. Such affective responses as melancholia, grief, and solitude evoked by drone footage are ascribed to its expressive capacity not simply to show us the reality of the pandemic in the present, but to also connect its now to its then. Moreover, the drone camera’s defamiliarizing effect allows a refreshed look at the cities’ inhabitants against the backdrop of their vacancy. Some vehicles moving on the road lay claim to the labour of human agents, for instance, food delivery and public health workers, that must have been continued to maintain the cities’ public health, security, and sustainability despite their administrative and economic malfunction. The small traces of animals that fill the vacancy of humans, such as several seagulls captured in the footage of San Francisco in Ghost Town, raise our awareness of the extent to which human and nature, and human and machine, are mutually interdependent agents that live on and affect the planet. As Zimmerman observes, the persistence of life forms in the unreal emptiness of the urban landscape reminds viewers “that the gaze at the environment is an entanglement of the built and the natural.”51
This second aspect, then, makes the imagery of the drone different from other drone footage that has already been used in other contemporary mediascape: not only images of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) adapted to warfare and surveillance but also the aerial shots “—steadily gliding images looking down at houses and cities and fields below—[that] have become epidemic in documentary, no matter the subject.”52 As Ada Ackerman perceptively observes, a peculiarity of drone images under the lockdown stems from “a puzzling correlation between the expelling of human presence and an increasing non-human agency in the production of visibility,” or, a striking coexistence of “two levels of unmanned-ness”: the usually crowded spaces now devoid of human beings, and the UAVs “equipped with a mechanical eye disentangled from a human body.”53 Seen from this perspective, the COVID-19 drone footage is a salient manifestation of the non-anthropomorphic gaze with which our contemporary spectators identify in other clichéd drone footage that reinforces the fantasy of their optical mastery over the earth, a gaze that has increasingly infiltrated and restructured our vision. The gaze, then, offers the viewers the opportunities to pay renewed attention not only to the cities before the pandemic but also to their material and environmental infrastructure that has sustained their metabolism, and to imagine the possible extinction of their lives in the future. In this regard, the COVID-19 drone imagery is read as part of the larger process by which the non-anthropomorphic vision has since the early 21st century expanded the idea of the documentary camera in ways that go beyond Nichols’ idea of it as the “anthropomorphic extension of human sensorium.”54 For this reason, the imagery is in line with several documentary films that employ drone cinematography to transform our visual experience of the world in disorienting and extraordinary ways, such as Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow (2017), Ouroboros (Basma Alsharif, 2017), and Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky, 2018, figure 7). The aerial views used in these films are based on the capacity of drone cinematography to see natural or built landscapes through its non-human eyes. For Sean Cubitt, global crises like climate changes “demand forms of representation that capture massive but slow change,” because they “do not occur in humanly perceptible scales or time-frames.”55 The aerial views in the three films, then, respond to this demand by allowing for the renewed perception of human migration, geopolitical conflict, and the enormous impact of human civilization on the planet. The COVID-19 drone imagery’s connection to those films makes it correlated to ‘disaster media.’
In her take on a plethora of coronavirus diaries and quarantine blogs, including the deceased whistle-blower Dr. Li Wenliang’s Weibo entries, Shiqi Lin argues for their underlying ‘documentary impulse’ to respond to the social illness, characterizing them as responding to a time ‘when official records and mainstream media have fallen short of speaking to the nuance of everyday lived experience,’ and as oriented towards ‘a promise of remembrance and justice rooted in the future.’56 Lin’s insight is applied to the three forms of media investigated in this essay. In addition to vlogs that are coterminous with diaries and vlogs, DV and drone imagery emerge as documentary lexicons from the ground and on the air, and from citizens’ cell phones and inside the computational environment for processing and visualizing data that articulate its knowledge and information, convey the fear and uncertainty of living in the crisis, and bridge the present and the past of ordinary lives and spaces. From vloggers’ individual YouTube channels to interactive platforms hosting statistics and timelines of the pandemic, all three forms are connected and dispersed across digital archives as our commons. In this manner, they form repositories of records, voices, and views which trigger public awareness, feelings, and solidarity and which are reserved for future generations who will be faced with similar crises.
Further, I stress that the three forms reflect a new, expanded definition of documentary as a variety of nonfiction media practices that emerged in the 21st century thanks to digital technologies and platforms that enlarged the possibilities for engaging and documenting reality beyond the borders of standardized documentary filmmaking. These practices have also geared toward redrawing a set of binary oppositions that have long undergirded the conventional assumption of documentary cinema: with its animated graphic imagery, DV challenges lens-based imagery as documentary’s privileged medium; vlogs dissolve the binaries of professionals and amateurs, and of the private and the public; and drone cameras expand the documentary gaze into the eyes of non-human agents. In this regard, COVID-19 could be perceived as a crisis that has recently necessitated those emerging practices and thereby propelled this renewed definition of documentary to the forefront.
In the mid-1990s, Dirk Eitzen argued that any definition of documentary on the basis of textual elements or authorial intentions would always be nebulous and tricky, instead proposing to consider “how people make sense of those particular moments and elements of films that they frame as documentary—whenever that may be.”57 Eitzen’s suggestion to define documentary as a mode of reception was originally concerned with the distinction between documentary films and other forms of cinema that include nonfiction components. As Vinicius Navarro appropriately points out, however, Eitzen’s solution in response to the elusiveness of documentary could be assessed beyond the problem of distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction when we think of contemporary digital media. “Asking when is a documentary” in this context, he writes, “implies different kind of elusiveness: the elusiveness of the documentary artifact.”58 Seen in this light, the three expanded documentary forms that I have examined suggest that the pandemic and other similar disasters during the last two decades have propelled us to confront the elusiveness or fuzziness of documentary—not only its uses and forms but also its media and platforms. This, however, also lays the groundwork for rethinking what it has been and for renewing its definition in ways that resonate with the shifting reality that it engages.
Jihoon Kim is Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at Chung-ang University. He is the author of Documentary’s Expanded Fields: New Media and the Twenty-First-Century Documentary (forthcoming in Oxford University Press in February 2022) and Between Film, Video, and the Digital: Hybrid Moving Images in the Post-media age (Bloomsbury, 2016), and currently finalizing Post-verité Turns: Korean Documentary Cinema in the 21st Century, the first-ever English-written academic monograph on the forty-year history of South Korean nonfiction film and video in private and independent sectors