Stranger With a Camera

During the research for a new essay I’m writing on the role of identity in Appalachia, I revisited Calvin Trillin’s 1969 New Yorker piece on the death of Canadian filmmaker Hugh O’Connor  at the hands of Hobart Ison. The case of O’Connor represents an extreme example of the public’s distrust of the media:

In Sept., 1967, a 5-man film crew working in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky stopped to take pictures of some people near a place called Jeremiah. The leader of the film crew was a Canadian, Hugh O’Connor. He was hired by Francis Thompson, an American filmmaker, to work on a film Thompson was producing for the American pavilion at HemisFair in San Antonio. The poor people being photographed in their squalid shacks cooperated, but the man who owned the property, Hobart Ison, came to chase the filmmakers away. Even though they were leaving, he shot at them, and O’Connor was killed. Eastern Kentucky mountain people have a fierce instinct to protect their property and a distrust of strangers. Sympathy for Ison was so great that he had to be tried in nearby Harlan County, where sympathy for him was also considerable. The commonwealth’s attorney of Harlan County, Daniel Boone Smith, prepared such a convincing case that the jury was 11 to 1 for conviction, but the one held out. After some delay, Ison came to trial again – this was on Mar. 24, 1969. His lawyers indicated that their client, now 70, would be willing to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and they finally met Smith’s insistence on a ten-year sentence.

In Elizabeth Barret’s Stranger With a Camera, a 2000 documentary about the death of Hugh O’Connor, she examines the historical significance of the incident from an insider’s perspective. Barret, a native of Kentucky, grew up hearing the story of Ison killing O’Connor. “I came to see there was a complex relationship between social action and social embarrassment,” she said in an interview with PBS. “Can filmmakers show poverty without shaming the people portrayed?” Barret’s question is valid, and worthy of both deeper consideration and debate. Included below is a full-length version of Stranger With a Camera.

(Photograph: Elizabeth Barret. Caption: Hassie Breeding Helton being interviewed for ‘Stranger With a Camera.’)