“A camera is like a gun,” says filmmaker Colin Low of the National Film Board of Canada in the upcoming P.O.V documentary Stranger With a Camera. The program investigates the 1967 killing of Canadian filmmaker Hugh O’Connor, who was shot while documenting poverty in the Kentucky coalfields. Director Elizabeth Barret looks at the death of O’Connor and the motivations of Hobart Ison, the irate property owner who shot him. Through her exploration of the tragic incident and its aftermath, Barret reflects on the power of media representations.
O’Connor was the “stranger” when he and his film crew stopped at a bend in the road at Jeremiah, Kentucky. They were working on a film about the United States that was commissioned by the American government. Like many writers, photographers, and filmmakers in those years, O’Connor came to Appalachia to document the poverty persisting there in the midst of the nation’s general prosperity. As recounted by New Yorker magazine writer Calvin Trillin, “O’Connor went up to three of the shacks and asked the head of each household for permission to take pictures. When each one agreed, O’Connor gave him a token payment of ten dollars–a token that, in this case, happened to represent a month’s rent.”
Hassie Breeding Helton being interviewed
For O’Connor and his crew, the dilapidated houses and their inhabitants dramatized what had gone wrong with the “American Dream.” They focused their lens on the image of one man just returned from work, still streaked with coal dust, cradling his baby in his arms.
But Hobart Ison saw a different reality. An eccentric but respected member of the community, Ison resented the pervasive media depictions of poor Appalachian people on national television that accompanied the War on Poverty. That such “do-gooders” and “outside agitators” were now taking pictures of the rental houses on his property threw Ison into a rage.
“I came to see there was a complex relationship between social action and social embarrassment, says filmmaker Elizabeth Barret.” Can filmmakers show poverty without shaming the people portrayed? Barret combines eyewitness accounts of the incident, interviews with area residents and family members, and excerpts of news and documentary footage of the period to reconstruct the deadly encounter between a man with a camera and a man with a gun. Footage of the lush, mountainous landscape evokes both the reality of Appalachia and its iconic place in the American imagination. For Barret, a native of the Kentucky hills, the story of the shooting becomes an interrogation of the media itself and of the media’s relationship to public knowledge and private dignity.
“The killing of Hugh O’Connor was a piece of local history that had significance for me as a filmmaker and as a member of the community. I knew what had happened but I wanted to go beneath the surface and find out why. In doing so, the film becomes a story both about the intrusion of cameras and the importance of cameras in our lives. The murder became a vehicle for exploring questions of media representation that resonate today with people in many locales.”