Body Publics: A Reflection

By Lou Baron, March 30, 2021
One blogger's takeaways from the We Tell: Body Publics talkback.

Blog posting by Lou Baron, Culture and Communication '23, minors in Spanish and Honors Interdisciplinary Studies.

Judy Hoffman adjusted her turquoise glasses and hoisted the Portapak onto the screen.

I, and many other participants in the We Tell: Body Publics talkback, laughed. Could that bulky rectangular box with a long cylindrical tube on one end really be a camera?

That bulky box was entirely foreign to me and my Generation Z peers.

It is the camera Judy Hoffman used to shoot HSA Strike ‘75. The work documents the strike of medical professionals and interns at Cook County Hospital, the only public hospital in Chicago. 

At the time, the hospital lacked the basic necessities to serve their patients, almost all poor and without health insurance.

No X-Ray machines.

No timely test results.

No translators. 

Leaders of the strike asked Hoffman to document it, telling her which meetings to attend and people to follow. To film, Hoffman needed a camera that could be carried and operated by one person. 

The Portapak was the very first. 

While we take portable cameras for granted today, the accessibility of the Portapak was radical in 1967. 

HSA Strike is an early work of participatory community media, one of many found and curated for the We Tell program. 

During the Q&A session, one brave soul asked the question on all of our minds. What exactly is community participatory media? 

Panelist Carmel Curtis, archivist and co-curator of We Tell, clarified for us.

Although participatory community media falls under the umbrella of documentary, it couldn’t be further from Tiger King

There is no voiceover telling you what to think. No experts consulted in a studio lit room. The entire 20 minutes of HSA Strike centers the unfiltered experiences and perspectives of hospital doctors, staff, organizers, and patients.

According to public health expert and panelist Stewart Auyash, this strike was different than any other of its time. 

The issue at the center of previous hospital strikes were the wages of the doctors. At the Cook County Hospital, people from the medical establishment and the public health sector, usually in separate corners of the room, came together. 

Everyone from doctors to staff left their own self-interest at the door and fought to improve the quality of their patients' care. 

Letting the camera show the way these people fought for progressive social change is at the heart of what participatory community media sets out to do.

From the Portapak to the phones in our pockets, Hoffman urged us all to take our cameras, and our stories, into our own hands. 

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There’s still time to engage with the We Tell catalog! Be sure to stream We Tell: Environments of Race and Place  FOR FREE from TODAY through April 4th and attend the talkback on April 4th at 4pm! 

Want even more We Tell? The third installment, We Tell: Wages of Work will stream from April 5th through April 11th. 

Don’t miss it!