Truth is variable. It can be seen in different tints, different shades, even with different textures. Something can be true in one context, and false in another. Sometimes part of the truth is better than the whole truth, and vice versa. Regardless, truth is a tricky thing to seek– solely by seeking it you may alter what you find.
Agee and Coles give the reader two very different impressions of how to handle bringing honesty to the face of a documentary. Agee believes that by recording everything, every fleeting impression you have of something, you can capture its true essence. We see examples of this throughout his work– fragmented notions of grander ideas caught up in minute detail of daily life. He is so caught up in the truth of things, that to him, documenting lives is an anxiety-inducing ordeal.
Coles chills on the other end of the extreme. He tells his readers to embrace their selves, the parts of themselves that choose which photograph to show for a certain effect, or decide to crop a picture of a man in a car in order to make a point. Truth, he reasons, sometimes does not lend to human actuality. If we had seen the fur coat of the woman in the car, would we truly have seen the man in the car, as he is? Or would his circumstances have caused us to ignore the haunted look in his eyes, the tense clench of his jaw? According to Coles, showing the fur coat only took away from the true impact of the Great Depression, and so Lange had to make a choice– to keep the truth of a moment or truth of a time. It is Lange’s job, Coles reasons, to steer the reader past petty distractions, to point them in the direction of human actuality.
Although I do enjoy writing in Agee’s style, I will keep the image of a guide in my mind as I work on my own documentary. I will remember that is my job to capture the truth by editing out the petty distractions, and I will know that because it is ultimately my last judgment, I need to trust my self.