From photography to social media, communities and technologies have consistently evolved so that what begins as a professional mode of media creation moves into the hands of individuals who can create, co-opt, remix and re-imagine forms of documenting the world around them. And when these skills are shared, new communities of makers and participants are rallied by the excitements of new media forms, generating everything from creator collectives to single projects made by a global cast of characters.


Camera culture changed forever with the arrival of the Kodak Brownie, the first camera that claimed anyone could be a photographer.

Before 1900, photography was an elaborate and expensive practice carried out by professionals and a few intrepid amateurs. The Eastman Kodak Company turned that notion on its head with the Kodak Brownie camera.

The basic fixed-lens cardboard camera cost only $1, and was operated with the push of a single button. With the Brownie, anyone could take as many photographs as they pleased of anything that caught their eye. The Brownie craze popularized the use of the term “snapshot,” capturing the new attitude toward photography as casual, fun, and improvisational.

Unlike earlier cameras that were advertised only in trade publications, ads for the Brownie appeared in home goods catalogs and popular magazines. Above is a magazine advertisement from 1900 featuring the very first Brownie camera.



From the time of cartes de visite and formal studio portraits, to more recent collections of film and digital snapshots, the family photo album has thrived as a practice of curating and cherishing photographs of our nearest and dearest.

The fashionable cartes-de-visite of the mid-1800s, individual portrait photographs mounted on standard sized cards, spurred the rise of a collector culture. People sought out cards of the rich and famous of the day, and displayed their collections in books sold specifically for the purpose.

Family albums as we know them today began to emerge after 1900, as cameras became household items and people amassed huge numbers of family snapshots. Bindings changed from fixed book bindings like the album seen in the photograph above, to open, alterable styles that could grow along with a family’s collection. Albums were given new life as a means of memorializing whole family histories, from momentous occasions to everyday moments.

From handwritten notes and decorative drawings, unique layouts, and especially the selection of a cast of characters unique to each album maker, family photo albums document the lives of individuals as seen not just through the lens of a camera but through the eyes of the people they know best.

Mrs. Gottscho at the beach, c. 1912
 Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho
 Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


Dziga Vertov’s Kino Eye

To preserve what he saw as the unbiased view of the camera lens, Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov called on the masses to take up cameras and begin recording the world around them. Only in montages created from these recordings could film rise above individual authorship and give a picture of the world as it really was.

Dziga Vertov began his film work in 1918 as an editor for one of the first newsreels in Moscow. Witnessing the power of juxtaposed scenes of everyday life, he began to espouse a new doctrine, that of the “Kino Eye.”

For Vertov, the individual human eye was inherently tainted by biases, and the camera lens was a new tool capable of seeing reality. The only way to preserve that truth in film, however, was for a film to be authorless, created from the combined footage of ‘kinoks’, individuals who had taken up Vertov’s call and their cameras to record their own part of the world. In his 1925 work “The Essence of Kino-Eye,” Vertov wrote: 

“Our basic, programmatic objective is to aid each oppressed individual and the proletariat as a whole in their effort to understand the phenomena of life around them. The choice of facts recorded will suggest the necessary decision to the worker or peasant. In the area of vision: the facts culled by the kino-observers or cinema worker-correspondents (please do not confuse them with cinema worker-correspondents assigned to reviewing) are organized by film editors according to party instructions, distributed in the maximum possible numbers of prints and shown everywhere.”

It was only in the participation of the many that Kino-Eye could be realized. Vertov’s 1924 film Kino-Eye demonstrates the principle, but it is in his writings where the concept as a new world view are made most urgent and clear.



The tape recording clubs of the 1950s and ‘60s rallied around a newly available piece of technology and went directly into their communities to document the stories and sounds of their surroundings.

Reel-to-reel tape recorders were still heavy and slightly cumbersome machines when they became available to amateur users, but this didn’t stop nascent documentarians from seizing on their value for a new kind of storytelling.

In towns and cities in England and elsewhere, interested individuals banded together to record the sounds of their communities. Their free experimentation with the audio form led them to record community events, conduct interviews, and simply gather the ambient sounds of their environments.

Groups like the Leicester Tape Recording Club, pictured, worked together to create recordings, but also reached out to recording clubs in other cities and towns. A network emerged for swapping reels, exchanging tips, and even meeting in person to do joint recording projects.

London Tape Recording Club by opendoclab



With their long-running “Challenge for Change” project, the National Film Board of Canada put filmmaking in the hands of small communities to create a dialogue aimed at social change.

In 1967, the National Film Board of Canada began a progressive participatory film project with the goal of making filmmaking a tool for social change.

“Challenge for Change” put cameras directly in the hands of communities, driven by the belief that by telling their own stories, people would unearth the shared concerns and issues that could lead to lasting, community-generated solutions.

One of the most successful series of “Challenge for Change” is known as the Fogo Island Project, a set of 27 films that focused on a small island community in Newfoundland. The participatory practices tested in these films, such as resident interviews and community screenings, set the standard for “Challenge of Change” during its 13 year run.



Local community members moved into their own small television stations to produce original shows and program full schedules of content focused on community needs.

In the 1960s, people began experimenting with taking back access to the television broadcasting system by building community stations from the ground up. These centers for participatory media were staffed by members of the community, and content could be created by anyone who had any idea for a program and the dedication to see it through production.

At the same time that studio production equipment was becoming available at the local level, developments in portable video technology like the Porta-Pack were driving independent and activist video producers to go out into their communities and create content. The public access television stations provided these “indie” media groups with a means of putting their work on the air, where it could be seen by the communities they were striving to give a voice to.

One of the best-known examples of public access television in the United States is Downtown Community Television in New York City. Founded in 1972, DCTV has generated community-focused shows and short films for forty years, while also serving to educate the public in the use of technology and styles of storytelling, providing youth support programs, and encouraging community members to take advantage of an open platform to make their voices heard. New York City was also the home of Paper Tiger Television, an underground video collective that created programming for the city’s many public access stations.


One could argue that the recent discovery of participatory culture is a sign of amnesia. Humans have always been participatory.

Our languages, our religious traditions, our cities, stories and songs have emerged over the millennia thanks to the broad participation of countless anonymous producers. How did we ever forget? One answer might be to blame the heavy industry of media that appeared at the end of the 19th Century and dominated much of the 20th. In this period, cultural production was centralized, industrialized and iron-clad in copyright, relegating participatory culture to the new-found shadows of ‘folk’ and ‘amateur’ culture.

Industrial media have always had domestic counterparts: home letterpress sets, small format moving picture cameras, audio and video tape recorders… technologies eagerly embraced by great numbers of people who proceeded to tell their own stories and document their own lives. The mantle of amateurism that accompanied these efforts only receded when network culture enabled these producers to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the once-dominant industries, regaining a public sense of agency.

Although frequently cast as a stand-off between masterful (top-down) storytelling and ambient (bottom-up) play, the current re-balancing of cultural production might more productively be seen as both enabling a much broader spectrum of creative expression and of sharpening the literacies of producers on both sides of the divide.


Ricky Leacock, documentary filmmaker and one of the pioneers of  direct cinema and cinema verite, argued that filmmaking would be most valuable if it was adopted as a practice by people in all walks of life, not just a small class of professional filmmakers.

In 1973, documentary filmmaker Ricky Leacock wrote:

“Having spent most of my life as a professional filmmaker, I’ve come to the conclusion I’m not very interested in professional filmmakers.”

To Leacock, filmmaking should strive to capture a place or moment in time as closely to the reality as possible. At the time of the letter pictured, he had already made technological strides to allow film equipment to capture life as is – with the invention of synchronized sound that recorded alongside visual footage, requiring no artificial synching or voice-overs.

But this equipment was only as good as the people who sought to use it. What was needed, Leacock felt, were not professional filmmakers seeking unfamiliar territory to capture on film, but rather people from all walks of life who could record the essential elements of the lives they led.


Cell Phone Cameras

With the appearance of camera phone technology, a single tool for capturing and communicating suddenly fit in people’s pockets, allowing every cell phone owner to turn a documentary eye on the world around them.

In 1993, Daniel A. Henderson created a prototype product that would change the way the world thought about photography forever. The “Intellect” phone featured a monochrome screen capable of displaying image and video data received from a message center.

The 1990s saw major cell phone manufacturers exhibiting camera phone and PDA technologies at trade shows, but sharing photos and video was still slow. When cell phones began to utilize internet connectivity, the potential of camera phones blossomed into a revolution as sharing photo and video content became a part of everyday life.

The first commercially available camera phone models appeared in the early 2000s, and their massive success transformed the built-in camera from novel technology to cell phone standard almost immediately. For the first time, a documentary tool for capturing the world around us was bundled with the ability to share that content in real-time. With cell phone cameras, images and footage are now as much a part of everyday communication as voice and text – allowing cell phone users everywhere to follow the documentary instinct.


The Moth Radio Hour and Live Storytelling Projects

Old-school storytelling became new again with The Moth, a live performance storytelling event featuring amateur storytellers’ personal narratives.

In 2009, a project that had begun in New York in 1997 and had even deeper roots in a small town in Georgia seized the imagination of a larger audience. The Moth Radio Hour took a location-based storytelling event and brought it to a mass audience, setting off a slew of local storytelling events and story slam sessions around the United States.

George Dawes Green, the founder of the New York event in 1997 who led The Moth to national acclaim, recalled the sense of community and moral support that was generated when his friends in rural Georgia would gather around a friend’s kitchen table to share stories. The power of the raconteur, even the amateur who shared the tale of a personal moment, drew audiences into the performance “like moths to a flame.”

Storytellers are helped by members of the Moth team to refine the narrative arc of their story, and to deliver it without props or notes. In this simple format, the Moth and other live storytelling events demonstrate that it is still possible for anyone to take on the role of the raconteur.


Man with a Movie Camera Global Remake

Video artist Perry Bard initiated this participatory, global, shot-for-shot remake of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). The project invites its Internet audience to submit footage that corresponds to one of the 1,276 shots from the film’s 57 scenes.

The software on the site of Bard’s Man With a Movie Camera remake produces a new version of the film every day from user submitted material. The newly submitted footage is shown in split screen, alongside the original footage, to create both a new crowdsourced homage to Vertov’s beautifully constructed original and a real-time comparative study of the way people reinterpret each individual scene.

In the opening titles of the original version, Vertov describes his film as “An experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events without the aid of intertitles, without the aid of a scenario, without the aid of theater.”

In this remake, Bard removes even the single guiding influence of one single director. Bard also extrapolates Vertov’s meta-reflection on a filmic level. Vertov’s original edits are preserved frame-for-frame, but the shots themselves are all new: a typewriter becomes a digital keyboard and the complex analog film equipment becomes a cell phone camera. We see 1920s Russia transformed into other places and times.


One Day on Earth / Life in a Day

In 2010, two collaborative documentary projects pushed the limits of global crowdsourcing to a new level and created two narratives that are awe-inspiring in scope, but constructed entirely from scenes of people’s everyday lives around the globe.

Five years after the launch of YouTube, the number of people capable and willing to document their own lives and upload video to the web had grown exponentially. One of the new forms of documentary filmmaking emergent online in the space of this overwhelming access to content was the collaborative documentary.

The One Day on Earth and Life in One Day projects are two of the most ambitious examples of what is possible in collaborative storytelling when content creators come from nearly every place on the planet. Each film sought to paint a picture of nothing less than life on planet Earth. They are both time capsules and a celebration of the individual. One Day on Earth boasts participants from every country in the world, thanks in part to technical support from the United Nations Development Program, which sent digital cameras to disadvantaged areas. On October 10, 2010 (10/10/10), more than 8,000 people filmed and submitted something that was important to them. For Life in One Day, creators solicited 80,000 YouTube videos of simple moments in people’s lives, all gathered on July 24, 2010. With a collection amounting to 45,000 hours of footage, Life in One Day was crafted into a feature length documentary that gives its own take on the global community as told through their eyes.


The Johnny Cash Project

The Johnny Cash Project appealed to fans of Johnny Cash to submit their artistic rendering of a single image of the late singer, which were then strung together to create a music video for “Ain’t No Grave,” his final studio recording. The project was part art project, part memorial, and part collaborative storytelling project – it continues to evolve today.

After the death of Johnny Cash, creators Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin decided to provide a platform for the community of grieving fans who wanted an outlet to express their appreciation for Cash’s music. They created a website where viewers were invited to share their vision of Johnny Cash, by taking a single image as a template and crafting their own artistic rendering of the frame in a built-in drawing tool. The thousands of contributions were combined in a single thread and set as a music video to Cash’s final studio recording, “Ain’t No Grave.”

The out-pouring of deeply personal artistic tributes to the late singer, and the project’s approach of seizing that individual creativity while framing it within a cohesive aesthetic, proved a winning combination that made the project an instant success. And as a resource of the community of fans who still listen to and seek to appreciate Cash’s music, the project remains a process rather than a final product – users can still submit their images to the music video, making it a dynamic and continuous memorial to the man and his music.


Ze Frank’s Young Me/Now Me

A photo contest asks people to go back to their photo archives and compare images of their former selves to the person they are today.

In 2010, comedian Ze Frank sent another in a series of simple challenges to his growing audience of internet followers: send in an old photograph of yourself, along with a new photograph of yourself approximating the circumstances, pose, and details of the first one as closely as you can.

The result is Young Me/Now Me, a hodge-podge of funny and sometimes bittersweet images all demonstrating the inevitability of change over time.



18 Days in Egypt is a participatory crowd-sourced documentary about the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.

In 2011, journalist Jigar Mehta and developer Yasmin Elayat teamed up to create an online platform that captured the stories of the Egyptian Revolution as they happened. The pair saw history unfolding in the tweets, cell phone videos, and other media created by the people protesting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and watching around the globe. Mehta and Elayat realized that Egypt was living through one of the first “real-time” revolutions of the digital era.

Their project developed into #18DaysinEgypt, a collaboratively-created, crowd-sourced documentary built on the interactive storytelling platform GroupStream. Anyone can become a contributor to 18 Days in Egypt by creating a stream--a collection of images, videos, or text--focusing on a particular topic. Site visitors jump from stream to stream. In doing so, they engage with multiple perspectives on the revolution.

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