[In response to the Editor’s question, “What do you think of the essay?]
I think A Rounder’s Lament: A Video Essay of Masculine Identity and Meth Use in the Rural South by Heith Copes and Jared Ragland, is a provocative and promising start to a fuller project. As it is made up of a video portion and a written portion, I will address these separately.
With regards to the video portion, it is important that any work employing visual methodologies is visually effective. This piece certainly is; it is gorgeously and effectively photographed. Its high-contrast black-and-white adds drama and gravity to the scenes being shown, and it works particularly well when we are shown the flickering of the television or the overexposure from the streetlight. The viewer is drawn into the scene through the compelling cinematography.
My major issue with the video is its brevity. If JC’s story was one of several similar narratives the viewer was introduced to, the sum total would be a stronger illustration of the themes discussed in the accompanying writeup. As it currently stands, the video portion reads as a single data point in a project that necessitates a larger corpus of visual data.
With regards to the written portion, it did give important background information to help the viewer contextualize the material presented in the video. However, the contextualization was incomplete. The authors did not acknowledge the previous work on the specific issues they are discussing, as one would in a traditional journal article. The written portion also lacked a specific explanation of what JC’s story adds to the extant body of work on these topics. I believe that adding in these elements would make the piece more academic and improve it as a whole.
Finally, and most importantly, the writeup did not include any indication of self-reflexivity, which is vital in order to present this type of research in an ethical manner. When treating subjects of poverty and crime, and especially when spotlighting the lived experience of individuals who are immersed in poverty and crime, it is all too easy for the viewer to engage in a harmful and voyeuristic type of “poverty tourism.” This is not to say that such academic work should not be performed due to this possibility. However, it is the responsibility of researchers to prompt their readers/viewers to think about the ways they are mentally and emotionally engaging with such research. With regards to Rounder’s Lament specifically, the reader/viewer needs to be cautioned about the ways that visual work like that done by Copes & Ragland has the potential to reproduce problematic assumptions about drug users and criminality.
All in all, video essays are certainly underutilized in criminology, and we need more work like this pioneering piece. I believe that with some tweaks, Rounder’s Lament can be a valuable addition to the bodies of work currently being published in visual and narrative criminology.
[In response to the Editor’s question, “How do you think such essays should be evaluated?”]
If we are to consider video essays as academic works, they need to be assessed using similarly rigorous standards as those we would use for traditional written articles. Obviously these sets of requirements will not be identical, but they do need to be comparable. The work of developing these standards has not yet been performed within criminology specifically, but we can turn to other disciplines for assistance. There are three academic journals— [in]Transition, Screenworks, and Audiovisual Thinking—that have focused on video essays as their major object of study. Audiovisual Thinking, a Danish journal specializing in audiovisuality, communication, media, and design, was founded by Thommy Eriksson and Inge Ejbye Sørenson in 2010.
In their 2012 piece “Reflections on Academic Video,” Eriksson & Sørenson developed a “manifesto” detailing their suggested guidelines for evaluating academic video essays, which I have found to be particularly helpful in thinking through these questions. The authors provide four major requirements for “ensuring the academic merits” of this type of work. According to Eriksson & Sørenson, a high-quality academic video essay will “disseminate new observations, knowledge, insights or theories, thereby adding to the existing body of knowledge,” will “acknowledge previous knowledge, insights or theirs, and build upon the existing body of knowledge,” will “credit all sources and references, be they visual, written or oral,” and will “be self-critical and self-reflective.” I find this an excellent place to start when evaluating video essays within criminology, and I have utilized this evaluative framework in my comments above.
[In response to the Editor’s question, “How does the broader genre fit into the wider landscape of criminological inquiry?”]
Video essays have a rich academic lineage, primarily centered in cinema studies. Within the social sciences, however, this lineage begins with the early use of ethnographic film, employed to capture the daily lives of ethnic populations far removed from those studying them. More contemporarily, many disciplines within the social sciences have also begun to focus on and build out visual studies within their fields. The subfield of visual sociology, for example, has been greatly developed by scholars such as Douglas Harper, and visual criminology by Michelle Brown, Eamonn Carrabine, Jeff Ferrell, and others. Visual criminology specifically has been established in order to begin theorizing the relationship between crime representations and power.
Given these advances, there is fertile ground within criminology to expand traditional methodology into the realm of the visual, and indeed this work (though still nascent) has already begun. Theorizing and utilizing the image within criminological research has the potential to tell us much about the dynamics of crime and punishment, particularly when we focus on the ways in which visual representations of crime have come to take on their own form of reality.
As this particular piece by Copes & Ragland suggests, the genre of video essay is also a potentially valuable methodology for another subfield—narrative criminology. Narrative criminology, pioneered by Lois Presser, is similar to visual criminology in that it is primarily interested in representations. Narrative criminology takes a more positivistic approach, orienting to the impacts of crime-related stories. Methodologically, it tends to focus on the stories that those related to crime (whether offenders, victims, or criminal justice practitioners) tell about their own behavior and the behavior of others. In more traditional journal articles, these stories are often gathered by interview and presented to the reader in written form. Video essays such as the one by Ragland & Copes can present these pieces of data to their audiences in a new and powerful way, using the unique qualities of the audiovisual medium.
[In response to the Editor’s question, “How does this particular essay fit into the wider landscape of criminological inquiry?”]
This particular essay fits neatly within the recent traditions of visual and narrative criminology discussed above. The essay tells a story about a particular person involved with crime, utilizing images and first-person narration to punctuate the points discussed in its written portion. It seeks to connect JC’s identity and behavior to his environment, as the authors argue these are all intimately related. Clearly, both visual and narrative criminological approaches are utilized here.