The following article was written for and first published on

Camcorders in Activists' Hands: Tools for Change

by Sara Stuart, Communication for Change

Activists often do not have the resources nor the time to produce polished, "finished" documentaries or other kinds of broadcast programs. Still, they choose to use video cameras in their struggles for change. Some times they are trying to influence behavior and keep their adversaries on their toes. On other occasions they want to demonstrate that they have the power to reach a larger audience with believable evidence. Still, other groups consider a camera a form of protection or shield. Activist groups use media as tools for advancing campaigns and building their movements. In this context, a video camera can be a valuable, non-violent weapon.

The examples below illustrate the strategies and experiences of groups around the country and the world:

Cameras Protect Buffalo

Buffalo Field Campaign is an activist organization dedicated to the preservation of Americas last herd of wild Buffalo. They send video cameras out with activists on all of their actions. They find that the cameras help keep the law enforcement officials on their best behavior. Some times protesters put themselves in vulnerable situations, like locking themselves on cattle catchers as a way of impeding law enforcement efforts to capture or kill buffalo. Pete Leusch of BFC says, "Cameras help to protect our protesters."

Now, he finds that camera persons are targets for arrest and their tapes are often seized without grounds during these arrests. To deal with this problem they have someone serve as a runner. Once something valuable has been recorded. The tape is given to a runner in order to get it out of the area quickly and avoid confiscation. Pete believes that officials had hoped to find incriminating evidence on the tapes. However, their tapes showed nothing of the kind.

Video Gives Leverage to Victims of Violence

Aklima Begum lives in a village in Western Bangladesh. She is a member of Bantche Shekha, a community development organization that provides training, access to credit and health services. Aklima learned to operate a video camera and document cases of domestic violence and dowry abuse. Her tapes are used to educate and to press for just settlements in traditional village hearings. Recently, the threat of making a video tape about a women's case was enough to motivate her husband to negotiate a settlement. He did not want to be embarrassed in front of his neighbors. Banchte Shekha leaders believe that the video activities are serving as a deterrent to abuse and violence.

Video Prevents Police Brutality

Across the country groups are monitoring the police activities in their communities. Often they bring video cameras on these patrols. At Cop Watch a project of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in Central Brooklyn they believe that having a camcorder along enhances their ability to prevent and document cases of police abuse. They patrol weekly on foot always with a camera. There are lots of police stops that do not lead to arrest in this neighborhood. This is viewed as a form of abuse. Monifa Bandale of Cop Watch says, "Typically, once we start taping, the police leave. One time the police told Cop Watch to stop shooting because we didn't have permit. I said, 'We aren't making a movie so we don't need a permit.' "

The police watch groups and other human rights groups around the U.S. and the world are linked to Witness which provides them with media tools, training materials and help with distribution. Their recent manual compiles practical experience and simple explanations of technical issues.

Undercover or hidden cameras

Since 1990 when Sam LaBudde recorded images of dolphins caught and dying in the fishing nets, activists have been going undercover with camcorders. This is a risky and controversial strategy. Understandably activists are reluctant to speak "on the record about it." These approaches are not to be taken lightly. You need very good background information on the situation that you are entering as well as a strong organization supporting you with lots of backup. While activists commonly face danger, these risks are particularly grave. Still, hidden cameras are being used to expose sweatshops; to document neofacists and other extreme groups as well as to shed light on many environmental wrongs.

So much of our thinking about video is shaped by mass media. Activist media strategies often turn mainstream advertising thinking on its head. We do not need to measure the success of our work by audience size or production values. For activists there are times when access to a powerful media tool is enough to reach the objective. In Bangladesh, village women described themselves as bolder because they were part of an organization that is so important it has a video camera. With no finished program and even no audience there can, still, be valuable pressure exerted. Working outside the mass media box offers simple, low cost strategies to people who are working for change.