Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998


McGettigan, T. (1998) 'Reflections in an Unblinking Eye: Negotiating Identity in the Production of a Documentary'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 1, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 13/1/98      Accepted: 17/3/98      Published: 31/3/98


The presence of a motion picture documentary team during a Green Tortoise adventure trip created a variety of unique opportunities to evaluate the construction of identity in a postmodern, 'cinematic society' (Denzin, 1995). While, the 'gaze' (Nichols, 1991) of cameras often participated directly in the production of 'spectacular' events, the 'simulating' (Baudrillard, 1988, 1994) gaze of the cameras also served as a 'reflexive mechanism' through which to expose cinematic influences that construct contemporary reality.

Documentary; Ethnography; Reactivity; Simulation; Visual Sociology

Field Research on the Green Tortoise

In July of 1994, as part of a research project in which I examined the evolving frameworks of power in contemporary society, I took an eleven-day, New York City to San Francisco, adventure trip on the Green Tortoise. The Green Tortoise is a bus travel company, based in San Francisco, that emerged from the rebellious youth countercultures of the 1960's. The philosophy of the Green Tortoise (eg. 'Arrive inspired, not dog tired') is to transform traveling from a misery into an adventure. This goal is achieved in part by converting their bus interiors into an unrestricted lounging space filled with cushioned benches, tables and platforms. Also, whereas conventional travel may often be characterized as 'being alone in a crowd' (Riesman, 1950), the open arrangement of the Tortoise's interior space practically compels one to associate with others as one travels. Last but not least, the Tortoise also carries its own food and kitchen. Thus, although its amenities may be a bit rustic, the Green Tortoise attends assiduously to a wide variety of desirable creature comforts.

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I chose to do a series of field research projects on the Green Tortoise because I wished to explore the structure of a particular type of counterculture. Since the 1960's a variety of businesses have attempted to strike a tenuous compromise between a philosophical rejection of mainstream culture and organizational viability (Rothschild-Whitt, 1979). The Green Tortoise is an excellent example of just such a countercultural organization. Travel on the Green Tortoise is based on a commune-like atmosphere (ie. communal sitting, sleeping, and eating arrangements), but Tortoise-travel is also conventional due to its inescapable reliance upon fossil fuel-guzzling buses that are driven on asphalt roads by licensed drivers, etc. Thus, the Green Tortoise is clearly dependent upon contemporary society, but its orientation towards the unconventional also typifies a compromised rejection of the mainstream. I wanted to get 'inside of the shell' of this type of organization because I wished to observe the dynamic processes involved in incorporating countercultural philosophical practices into conventional organizational settings. I wanted to see if these organizations were able to generate internal 'spaces' that were any different than the conventional world they had, in part, disavowed. Could such conventionally-viable organizations actually originate realistic countercultural challenges to mainstream society?

A New Twist on a Familiar Adventure

Shortly after I had made travel arrangements for my second cross-country adventure trip on the Green Tortoise,[1] I received a letter from a film producer, named Debra,[2] who was in charge of Diem Productions, a New York-based, independent film company. In the letter, Debra explained that she had made arrangements to shoot a documentary on the July, 1994 westbound Green Tortoise cross-country trip. Debra acknowledged that while she intended for her documentary to capture the 'natural' events on the Tortoise trip, she was also aware that she and her crew were going to comprise an unusual intrusion. Nevertheless, she believed that her filming of the documentary could actually enhance the spirit of adventure on this Green Tortoise journey.

I would like to say at the outset that we are not going to be invasive and if you do not want to participate, we will not force you. ... We hope that our filming of this trip will make it an experience above and beyond what you expected when you first signed up. (Excerpt from Debra's introductory letter)

Indeed, I felt confident that Debra's optimistic forecast would prove to be prophetic. I could imagine that the presence of the documentary team would precipitate an interesting range of 'reactive' effects (Becker, 1986; Denzin, 1989a; Smith et al, 1975) in the passengers. In addition, I also sensed that my interactions with the camera crew would produce a fascinating reflexive puzzle: in the course of my own 'voyeuristic' (Denzin, 1995) observation project, I would be observing 'voyeuristically' the activities of other voyeurs as they were engaged in the process of observing the people that I was observing - and, of course, numbering amongst the 'observed' would be myself. Thus, much as one's visible reflections are multiplied by positioning mirrors closely together, the presence of the camera crew's 'gaze' would augment substantially the number of reflective 'angles' through which the events of our adventure trip might be analyzed. Therefore, while I resolved to remain acutely aware of the reactive effects that the camera crew's gaze had upon the westbound adventure, I was also determined to monitor closely the impact of the camera's gaze upon my own thoughts and actions.

My second cross-country adventure trip on the Green Tortoise began in New York City on Sunday, July 17, 1994. I was accompanied by my wife, Susan, who was embarking on her first Green Tortoise trip. We rendezvoused with the bus in upper Manhattan next to the George Washington Street Bus Station. The Green Tortoise and its passengers appeared out of place in the dense, urban environment: in the glowing haze at the end of a hot summer day a disorganized crowd of people - with camera operators in their midst - lingered on the sidewalk next to a travel-weary, green bus.

There was a small, white van parked behind the Tortoise. The film crew needed to bring along too much equipment (eg. cameras, sound recorders, film, etc.) to carry it on the bus. In total, there were five members of the film crew: Debra and her co-producer, Amy, two camera operators, named Ken and James, and one camera operator/van driver, named Chuck. As we were being filmed by squinting men with portable cameras on their shoulders, I almost forgot the routine of getting loaded onto the bus. One of the drivers, the 'lead' driver named Jeff, was preoccupied with the task of getting off the streets of New York. Thus, before Susan and I had even paid for our tickets, Jeff asked us to board the bus to speed our escape from the city. When he had driven about ten miles south, Jeff stopped at a roadside pullout and, there, finally calmed down. As we sat in the grass eating freshly baked Italian cookies, Jeff explained his philosophy as a Tortoise driver.

Jeff's attitude towards running the bus was different than that of other drivers. First of all, Jeff did not allow drinking on the bus when he was driving - this is not the usual policy on Tortoise adventure trips.[3] Jeff also enumerated a number of policies that appeared to be geared towards making his passengers' transition to life on the Tortoise relatively gentle (e.g., he would stop for restroom breaks any time[4] and, incredibly, he would try to maintain an itinerary). Jeff acknowledged that some of his policies were different than the norm for Tortoise drivers. Thus, he added that he would need the film crew - who were filming at the time - to edit some of the things that he had said in order to protect his job. I thought this was a curious 'problem' for Jeff to have. Whereas it was against the law for people to drink alcohol on the bus, the documentary could provide the kind of evidence that might get Jeff in trouble with his employer for having overly 'uptight' policies. At the same time, another thought entered my mind. Although Jeff did not appear out of place on the Tortoise, I could imagine that his law-abiding policies and his accommodating attitude might project the kind of image that would minimize negative publicity for the Tortoise.

After our orientation, we got back on the bus. Jeff wanted to drive further that evening before performing 'the miracle'. 'The miracle' is the process through which Tortoise buses are transformed into sleeper- coaches. There is nothing especially 'miraculous' about these transformations, however, it does require an enormous amount of reorganization to create enough space for everyone's sleeping bags. Jeff stopped the bus to perform the miracle at a truck stop on I-80 in Pennsylvania. Once again, Jeff threw himself into this labor with vigor - practically accomplishing the entire task by himself. When the transformation was completed, we packed into the bus like sardines and then jostled through the night in a haze of semi-sleep.

The Influences of Different Gazes

The morning dawned bright and early. It is difficult to sleep late on the Tortoise because the breaking sunlight sears through the bus's side windows. Soon after crossing into Indiana Jeff exited the freeway and found a state park where we could make breakfast. At the park, Jeff set to work immediately on the production of breakfast, whereas just about everyone else went for a swim in a nearby lake. It was a cool morning, so most of the swimmers were out of the water quickly. Since, for me, the worst part of swimming in cold water is the initial shock, once I was in the water I decided to linger. My extended swim provided an opportunity to become acquainted with the other two remaining swimmers, Daniel and Mark. Mark was a vacationing arts columnist and Daniel was in the midst of a 'pause' in his life during which he was traveling to California to find out where he was. I was puzzled to find that neither Mark nor Daniel registered any alarm when I told them that I was engaged in a research project.

On previous Green Tortoise trips, when I had explained to other passengers that I was conducting a research project, they generally responded with wide-eyed amazement and said things like: 'You mean you're doing research right now? On this? On us? On me?!' Thus, I had anticipated that Daniel and Mark would be startled when I exposed the 'voyeuristic' nature of my presence on the Tortoise. Although, I was caught off-guard by their unruffled acknowledgment of my project, it was clear that Daniel and Mark's 'unusual' response had much to do with the presence of the camera crew. The passengers on this trip had been prepared in advance to be observed by the documentary team. As such, even though I was not working with the camera crew, I simply numbered as one more of the already many 'voyeurs' on this journey. In addition, the documentary teams' use of cameras made their observational activities comparatively more noticeable and intrusive than mine. Thus, my more low-key observational techniques constituted less of a threat to the passengers.

Still, while my observational techniques were somewhat different than those of the documentary team, I had to admit that my observational techniques were not necessarily any 'better'. Despite the fact that I routinely informed other passengers that I was engaged in a field research project, because my observation techniques were less overt than those of the camera crew, the people that I observed were often less aware of my 'scientific gaze' (Denzin, 1995). While 'modernist' researchers might consider this to be a strength of my observational strategy, this form of 'uncontaminated' observation tends to obscure, rather than eliminate, the influences of the observer upon the observed (Denzin, 1994b; Harman, 1996; Schwandt, 1994). Thus, the documentary team's form of observation was a bit more 'honest' than mine because the gaze of cameras alerted their subjects without ambiguity to the fact that they were being observed. Consequently, by utilizing overt observational techniques the camera crew created more 'honest' opportunities for the passengers to exercise some control over the way that their 'selves' were documented. However, simply because the overt use of cameras may be a somewhat more 'honest' documentary technique, this does not imply that such techniques necessarily capture the 'real' or 'true' essence of their subjects. The presentation of the passengers' selves was indeed problematized by the cameras. The 'collaboration' in self presentation (Goffman, 1959) that was facilitated by the cameras could also generate 'simulated' (Baudrillard, 1988, 1994) departures from subjects' 'normal' self presentations.

Reactivity and Negotiating the Representation of Self

After breakfast Jeff announced that he had a full slate of activities planned for the rest of the day. We were going to drive directly across the state to Indiana Dunes State Park. There we could have a swim in Lake Michigan and then make supper in the beach's parking lot. As we drove across Indiana in the muggy, mid-day heat, Jerry, one of the youngest male passengers, got out a pair of drum sticks and started clattering them on a variety of surfaces (eg. the inner wall of the bus, wood paneling, plastic water bottles, etc.) to produce an interesting combination of sounds. He quickly drew the attention of a circle of nearby passengers as well as that of James, one of the film crew members.

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It occurred to me as I observed this scene that the point of making a documentary on the Green Tortoise - or conducting a field research project, for that matter - was because it was an unusual or 'weird', and therefore intriguing, setting. Thus, the interest that the documentary had for its potential viewers lay in capturing that 'weirdness' on film; for the crew to make a film that would be interesting to people who were curious about the 'weird' travel experience that the Green Tortoise offers, the film crew would have to make an effort to capture all of the unusual activities that developed during the course of our trip. However, the instantaneous and conspicuous attention of a camera had an effect that modified events. In a sense, because of the 'simultaneity' of the recording procedure, the cameras could not help but convert the events they were filming into 'performances'. By gazing upon the activities of particular individuals, the cameras had a tendency to create a 'center of attention.' As the camera gazed at Jerry, his drumming became the focus of interest for a widening circle of people who then related to Jerry's drumming much as an audience would to a performer (eg. cheering, clapping, etc). Thus, the cameras had the effect of creating 'performer-audience' relationships between the subjects of their gaze and those people who directed their gaze towards the 'center' that had been created by the camera.

As the 'performance-making' power of the cameras had a propensity to restructure the activities upon which they gazed, this process also had the result of heightening the interest and enthusiasm that the passengers had for those activities. That is, the gaze of the cameras had a doubly stimulating effect upon the passengers: the gaze of cameras not only created performances - and, thus, sources of entertainment - but they also conferred significance upon those performances (ie. the gaze of the cameras implied that activities were 'important enough' to warrant documentation). Visual media have a great deal of 'power' in that this technology has the capacity to confer significance on people, objects and events merely by gazing upon them. That is, mundane objects and events can achieve an elevation in their perceived significance simply by becoming 'objects of attention'. This phenomenon is similar in nature to Baudrillard's (1996) distinction between seduction and meaning, '... I believe that, by also describing the sites of fascination, where meaning is supposed to implode with great flourish, you bestow beauty on that void and give meaning to what shouldn't have any' (1996, p. 35). More than merely contributing to the structure of identity in the postmodern social experience, visual media technology also define the boundary between the 'real' world of the ordinary and the simulated sphere of the 'extraordinary'. Baudrillard (1988) argues that in the contemporary world of visual media imagery, the relationship between simulations and the phenomena that have been simulated becomes resynthesized:

The cinema has absorbed everything - Indians, mesas, canyons, skies. And yet it is the most striking spectacle in the world. Should we prefer 'authentic' deserts and deep oases? For us moderns, and ultramoderns, as for Baudelaire, who knew that the secret of true modernity was to be found in artifice, the only natural spectacle that is really gripping is the one which offers both the most moving profundity and at the same time the total simulacrum of that profundity. (Baudrillard, 1988, pp. 69 - 70, emphasis in original).

Thus, in a postmodern, visual age, what is 'real' is accessible with the greatest profundity through images. 'Video, everywhere, serves only this end: it is a screen of ecstatic refraction' (Baudrillard, 1988, p. 37). Consequently, in producing 'simulated' images of individuals, objects and events, visual media technology transform the status of these phenomena with respect to the sphere of 'meaningful' cultural constructs. Via their simulations, the individuals, objects and events that have been simulated are inducted into the world wherein media products are 'preserved': 'Everything can have a second birth, the eternal birth of the simulacrum ... which is, as we know, a repeat performance of the first, but its repetition as something more real' (Baudrillard, 1988, p. 41, emphasis in original). Whereas unsimulated events wallow in eternal obscurity, in becoming simulated recorded images become 'larger than life'. Simulations exist in a state of preservation wherein they may be distributed to, and consumed by, potentially unlimited numbers of people who, in turn, may each exalt in the profound significance of the otherwise mundane phenomena that have been aggrandized in their simulation. Consequently, not only did the cameras generate a source of entertainment for the passengers, but the cameras elevated the degree to which the passengers tended to be stimulated by the profusion of simulacra that were created by the cameras gaze. The gaze of the cameras made a 'spectacle' of the unusual events that drew the attention of the cameras and, therefore, stimulated passengers to indulge and glory in the 'weirdness' that was associated with our Tortoise adventure.

Indeed, it was impossible to avoid sensing the palpable energy that emanated from Jerry's drumming performance. However, even as real and potent as the enthusiasm that surrounded the drumming performance happened to be, I could not avoid being disgruntled by the fact that Jerry's performance was a 'simulation'. Much as the performance may have been a spontaneous product of the unique environment that inhered within our well- documented Tortoise adventure, nevertheless, it had not been 'real'. In other words, the drumming 'spectacle' had been driven and structured by the presence of the cameras. Without the gaze of the cameras the centrality of focus, the structure of the performance and, thus, the 'significance' and the intensity of energy surrounding the event would not have existed. Although I had seen an abundance of weird and wacky events on the other Green Tortoise trips, at no time had any of those events taken on the structure of the drumming performance - nor had they exhibited such a self-indulgent celebration of 'weirdness'. As such, due to its departure from 'reality', I felt more repulsed by Jerry's performance than drawn to it. Still, 'simulated' as the drumming spectacle had been, it had been a very 'real' and compelling event for many of the passengers on our bus; whether I liked it or not, the simulating presence of the cameras made such performances an integral and 'real' component of the 'simulated' journey in which we were taking part.

Beginning the 'Formal' Interviews

While the cameras offered a unique source of entertainment for the passengers, challenges did remain for passengers as they struggled to manage their presentations of self under the camera's gaze. After having supper in Indiana we woke the next morning in Wisconsin to find Jeff searching for a breakfast site along the banks of the Mississippi River. Following breakfast and a swim in the river, we loaded onto the bus and settled in for another long day of driving. Over the next twenty-four hours Jeff was hoping to traverse across much of the Midwest in order to arrive at Badlands National Park, on the west side of South Dakota, in time for a pre-dawn hike. Thus, this long day of driving provided the film crew with an opportunity to conduct brief interviews with each of the people on the bus.

This process created a stir throughout the bus because of the novelty that being interviewed created for many of the passengers. The camera crew conducted their interviews by having Ken train his camera on one interviewee after another, while Amy handled a boom microphone and Debra kept an eye on the audio recording levels. The brief interviews were comprised of questions about the interviewees' names, occupations and their reasons for being on the Tortoise. Slowly, Ken worked his way over to Greg, a kind and friendly German man, who was sitting next to me. Greg got a bit flustered under the glare of the camera. Greg explained, while the crew took a break after his interview, that he had not been able to understand Ken's questions clearly and, thus, he had been forced to fumble for answers. I tried to reassure Greg that he had done a good job in his interview. I also gave him some offhand advice about responding in German whenever he could not understand an interviewer's English. Greg laughed a bit uncertainly at my advice, and I soon understood why. In the midst of my chat with Greg I found that Ken was training his camera on me.

It is a very strange feeling to be on camera. There are various ways of dealing with the stress-related energy one may encounter while being 'gazed' upon. Whenever Flaherty (1976) began filming 'Nanook', he became overcome with laughter (Massot and Regnier, 1994). Also, in several instances, Inuit children who were being filmed by Massot and Regnier (1994) ran for hiding places when they came under the gaze of cameras. No matter how one compensates for the nervous energy that being on camera can produce (eg. laughing, running away, acting like a nervous wreck, or creating a 'performance'), in each case one's behavior is affected by the camera.

The process of being interviewed added a radical twist to my voyeuristic project. Whereas, in gazing upon the interactions between the film crew and passengers, I had been fascinated by the effects that I had perceived the film crew to be having upon the other passengers, in being interviewed my outward gaze suddenly was reflected backwards. That is, beyond feeling as though my voyeuristic activities had become exposed (Denzin, 1995, p. 49), as the gaze of those whom I had been observing fell upon me, the scientific gaze - by virtue of which I had scrutinized the influences of the documentary team on the passengers - was suddenly reversed and became synthesized with the gaze of the camera into an intense gaze of 'double scrutiny'. In being doubly scrutinized (ie. gazing upon myself in, through, and as a response to the gaze of others), I became preoccupied excessively with my presentation of self. Having been identified as 'the resident sociologist' (quotation from the narration in Songs of the Open Road), I felt as though I needed to maintain 'face' (Goffman, 1967) on a number of different levels. As a 'professional sociologist' I felt responsible for creating the impression that I could analyze the challenges of identity construction in an age of 'simulations' (Baudrillard, 1988; Denzin, 1995) without suffering from those difficulties - even while my own self image was undergoing simulation. In addition, I also felt responsible for offering samples of the kind of penetrating sociological insights that 'could only come from someone with an advanced academic degree'. And I wanted to do all of this while I avoided creating the impression that, due to my awareness of the various responsibilities under which I needed to bear up, my performance was not actually 'a performance'. Consequently, in this brief interview, I had a powerful introduction to the difficulties involved in sustaining a carefully crafted presentation of self before the unblinking stare of the camera.

In my on-camera interview, I came to appreciate better the feeling that the subjects of the voyeur's gaze must endure. Under the gaze of voyeurs, engaging in even the most 'normal' of activities becomes a struggle due to the self-conscious turmoil one must surmount in order to remain in command of one's self presentation. Thus, in coming under the gaze of other voyeurs, I obtained a sense for the distortion of reality that can precipitate from encounters with voyeurs. I also developed an awareness of the importance of restructuring and reorienting one's voyeuristic relationship with 'others' (Chaplin, 1994). Indeed, in their own effort to capture the 'real' experiences of Green Tortoise passengers, the documentary team also adopted measures to restructure their 'documentary gaze' and, thereby, assisted passengers in the deconstruction of the film crew's voyeuristic influences.

Restructuring the Voyeur's Gaze

After our long day of driving across Minnesota, we stopped in a small city park to make dinner. Throughout the course of our meal teenagers from the town drove by to gape at our Tortoise bus. While we ate dinner, Jeff gave us a preview of the next major stop on our trip, Badlands National Park. One reason that Jeff was excited about getting to the Badlands was that he was planning to stop there for the first overnight camp out of the trip. Therefore, Jeff could look forward to having a rare night of uninterrupted sleep. Another noteworthy element of our stop in the Badlands was that we were going to rendezvous with another Tortoise bus.

The Green Tortoise often operates two cross-country buses concurrently: one eastbound and the other westbound. Thus, it sometimes happens that Tortoise buses are able to coordinate meetings in the middle of the country. Rendezvousing with the other bus sounded like it could make for an entertaining evening. Jeff explained that it was not unusual for big parties to result from encounters with other buses. Furthermore, I thought that it would be interesting to compare the progress of our trip with another group of Tortoise travelers who had not been exposed to the gaze of a documentary team's cameras.

It was well after dawn before we arrived at Badlands National Park - Jeff seemed to have a knack for making 'gross miscalculations of time and distance' (quote from an interview with a male passenger, named Dennis). We began our day by hiking along the Castle Rock trailhead that traced a line between the grassy plains of the Dakotas and the eroded contours of the Badlands. After our hike we took a tour of the park - including stops at the visitor center and the 'company' town of Scenic. From Scenic we drove to a remote spot where we could go swimming.

When he had parked the bus, Jeff explained that we had arrived at the first place where it would be okay to swim nude and do 'mud yoga'. Jeff also explained that the camera crew was going to be hanging around. Thus, he thought it would be natural for some people to feel uncomfortable about swimming in the nude with the cameras running and, therefore, he insisted that anyone who felt the least bit uncomfortable about swimming in the nude should not be pressured to do so. 'If you don't want to be caught in the nude, then wear a suit. If you don't care, you don't care.' However, Jeff also added, 'I, personally, am looking forward being nude and on film' (dialogue transcription from Songs of the Open Road).

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Good to his word, Jeff was one of the first people to have his clothes off and to plunge into the mud on the bank of a nearby stream. Despite the presence of the cameras, quite a few of the passengers cast aside their clothing and inhibitions, and joined Jeff in the mud. However, I was particularly surprised to find that some of the most enthusiastic mud-bathers were the members of the documentary team. Amy shot footage of people rolling around in the mud for a while, but then she turned the camera over to Loni, a female passenger from the Netherlands. Loni then reversed her relationship to the gaze of camera by filming the documentary team, who had suddenly become the subjects of their own documentary.

The simple act of transferring their equipment into the hands of passengers modified the structure of the documentary team's voyeuristic project profoundly. This ceding of control over the camera equipment and documentation process enabled the passengers to participate more fully in the construction of the video. By putting the cameras in the hands of the passengers, they were able to shoot footage that contributed to the construction of the tale of their own experiences (Issari and Paul, 1979; Mamber, 1974; Stoller, 1992). Also, the ability of the camera crew to take an active part in events made it possible for their project to become more deeply embedded in the events that they were filming. As the film crew themselves became active participants in the 'weirdness' of the Tortoise adventure, the documentation of events fell increasingly under the influence of 'real' participants on the trip (ie. passengers who had taken an interest in shooting footage and the camera crew who became absorbed into the 'unusual' environment that is created on the Tortoise). Nevertheless, the presence of the documentary team and their equipment could not help but continue to add an unusual 'spin' to the structure of the trip. The principal source of this influence came from the proclivity of the cameras to generate their own source of excitement. Still, captivating as the attention of the cameras may have been, not everyone shared an equal passion for the excitement, 'significance' or 'reality' of events as they unfolded on our adventure trip.

An Instructive Encounter

When it became too cool and breezy to swim in the mud any longer, we sat on the flat, dusty grass around the bus and bathed in the sun. Jeff wanted to proceed to the restaurant where he had arranged to meet the other bus, but he was voted down by all of the people who wanted to drink beer and listen to music. Happy hour carried on until Jeff spotted the other Tortoise bus. As familiar as our own bus had become, it was still odd to see another big, green bus rolling along the hillside on the opposite side of the river. Rather than dawdling by the river any longer, Jeff got everyone loaded onto the bus and we set off for our rendezvous.

We were going to meet the eastbound bus at a nearby restaurant that was run by Native Americans. Shortly after we arrived at the restaurant the other bus appeared. The documentary team set to work immediately filming and collecting release forms from their new subjects. The restaurant was little more than a hut with a small counter and a few tables. Three women, who were behind the counter, were serving 'Indian Tacos': fried bread with beans, salad, free-range beef and a selection of hot sauces. We remained at the restaurant while Jeff went on reconnaissance with the restaurant's owner to search for a suitable campsite. As night was beginning to fall, Jeff returned with the news that he had found a great campsite. We loaded into our respective buses and then drove a few miles from the restaurant to a dirt trail. Jeff turned onto the trail and then crept into the midst of an open field. Following a bit of indecisiveness, Jeff parked our bus next to a sunken pit that was about forty feet across and ten feet deep. This pit served admirably as a meeting place and a fire circle.

Soon after a crackling bonfire had been set ablaze in the center of the pit, a loud call was raised for Jerry to play the drums. As Jerry began playing drums it became evident that the activities of the passengers on our bus were being influenced by the nature of the film crew's overt recording technique. The bonfire had transformed the pit into a blazing orange arena. The drummers, the firelight and the boisterous members of our bus created the kind of fantastic spectacle that made for great documentary footage. As the camera crew gazed attentively upon the drummers, the activities in the fire pit took on the structure of a staged performance. Jerry and several other people, who had joined him in the drumming, had become the centers of attention; they were 'the performers', and as such they were distinguishable from the other people in the pit due to their being the focal points of attention - both of the documentary team as well as of the audience of passengers who cheered and responded with encouragement to their efforts.

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The avid attention of the documentary team added to the excitement of this particular spectacle. That is, because the camera crew was so attentive to this event, the 'significance' of the event became elevated correspondingly. As drummers and their audience began to feel that they were indeed involved in a 'spectacular' event, their enthusiasm increased and so did the value of the spectacle for the documentary team. Indeed, these dynamics combined to generate a truly spontaneous and spectacular event. However, not everyone who was present was equally impressed by the fireside performance.

We did not hit it off very well with the people from the other bus. As the performance in the pit advanced, the people from the other bus slowly disappeared. As the people from our bus became more involved in the performance by the fire, the people from the other bus lost interest. Daniel told me that a few people from the other bus went so far as to suggest that the passengers on our bus were 'a bunch of posers. ... You know, [like] we're just putting this on as an act' (Interview transcription). It was easy to understand how the performance in the fire pit could appear to be a 'simulation' - because it certainly was. The fireside drumming performance was a consequence of the evolving integration of the documentary simulation into our Tortoise trip. However, the people from the eastbound Tortoise witnessed the fireside performance merely as the 'artificial' conduct of people who were doing whatever they could to get their faces on camera. Because the people on the other Tortoise bus had not been exposed extensively to the cameras, they did not share the same motivation or appreciation for 'celebrations of weirdness' as did the passengers on our bus.

Later in the evening, while the drumming in the pit was still going strong, Susan and I stumbled across a small group of people who were almost undetectable outside the noise and the bright firelight in the pit. They were people from the other bus who were trying to enjoy the fire, but who were also trying to avoid being participants in the drumming spectacle. I was struck by the contrast between the activities of the people inside versus those outside the fire pit: the people from the other bus were sitting a short distance from the rim of the pit, talking quietly, sipping beer and paying vague attention to someone in their midst who was strumming a guitar. Since their activities were not influenced by the focus of cameras, they were not stimulated to create a spectacle or to structure their entertainment. I could not help feeling a little envious of their calmer, more dignified presence at the fire. Early the next morning the eastbound Tortoise bus packed up and left without ceremony. Our meeting with the other Tortoise bus provided ample evidence that our adventure trips were indeed proceeding in much different directions.

Transforming the Adventure

As we drove away from Badlands National Park during the next afternoon, Beth borrowed the camera crew's walkie talkie and sent goofy messages to James who was driving the van. The camera crew had become very permissive of the passengers who wished to use their equipment: Jerry and two other male passengers, Stanley and Don, had each spent time shooting footage that day. In fact, Daniel had begun working so closely with the documentary team that he achieved the honorary status of 'sixth member of the camera crew' (eg. on one occasion Daniel drove the camera crew's van through the night because Chuck had become so starved for sleep that he had begun hallucinating while driving).

Over the next couple of days we drove through many of the scenic wonders and National Parks of Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. [Video Clip #5] Jeff arranged for our second camp out of the trip to be in Moab, Utah. Our day in Moab began with a raft trip on the Green River. After the raft trip, we returned to Moab, got some supplies and then drove to a riverside campsite that was set amidst giant slabs of red rocks. During dinner that evening Debra announced that she wanted to share a case of champagne that she had purchased as a way of thanking everyone for being so cooperative with her documentary. The champagne celebration was, in fact, only the beginning of the entertainment that evening. As we sipped champagne a number of people began beating on plastic buckets that they had taken into a large culvert that ran beneath a set of nearby train tracks. The tunnel added extra reverberation to the drum beats and provided an environment in which the most spectacular group event of the trip could take place.

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Spectacular group events are common to Tortoise trips and this one was similar in many ways to others that I have witnessed (McGettigan, 1997; unpublished). That is, the unconventional atmosphere on the Tortoise (eg. tight living quarters, a lack of privacy, communal sleeping and eating arrangements, etc.) can cause its passengers to cling firmly to their conventional inhibitions. These tensions serve to expose and advance the critique of a number of the invisible constraints that conventional social environments exercise over the behavior of individuals. Generally, the tension between the passengers and the unconventional environment on the Tortoise builds until group events evolve that serve to 'explode' - or 'deconstruct' (Denzin, 1989b, 1994a) - the influences of conventional social constraints over the structure of the passengers' thoughts and behaviors. These are usually very energetic events due to the fact that they are fueled by a release of built- up tension that accompanies adventure travel on the Tortoise. As a result of these 'deconstructive', tension-relieving events, passengers often feel more comfortable about flouting conventional social constraints for the balance of time that they are passengers on the Tortoise. On this trip, due to the influences of the documentary team, such tension-relieving events tended to be organized around visual spectacles. This night's performance was an even more fantastic visual spectacle than the drumming performance in the Badlands. [Video Clip #6] The dancers added to the booming resonance of the drumming by waving their flashlights as they wriggled in their makeshift discotheque. The people in the culvert danced and drummed for a couple of hours until they emerged as a worn out, sweaty mass, and then took a skinny-dip in the nearby river.

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As much as such visual spectacles may have been perceived by 'critics' (eg. the passengers on the eastbound bus and myself) to have been an 'artificial' contrivance, in a discussion related to this topic, Daniel suggested that the presence of the cameras had enabled he and others to 'reflect' upon their identities in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. While, his initial reaction to the cameras had been to create an 'epic' representation of himself, this impulse had faded as he developed a more insightful analysis of his 'real self':

... I will admit that at first I thought, 'Wow, you know, I really would like them to get pictures of me, you know, climbing a mountain.' You know, the 'epic', forever me. Immortal on film. But then I realized, you know, that's basically the uh ... video version of making a face at a camera. (Interview transcription)

As a result, while the documentary team captured images of passengers whose level of enthusiasm about participating in this Tortoise adventure had been intensified - much as Debra had predicted - the 'indexicality' (Nichols, 1991) of the documentary simulation was not utterly compromised as a result. While long term exposure to the gaze of cameras had a tendency to stimulate and structure 'performances', at the same time, being gazed upon for an extended period time also enabled some passengers to progress towards a deeper understanding, and more 'verisimilar' (Lincoln and Denzin, 1994) presentation, of their identities.

The Self-Perpetuating Significance of the Simulacrum

During the next day we traveled from Bryce Canyon to Zion National Park. After a very late dinner in Zion we settled in for the last stage of the trip. Jeff was planning to drive throughout the night so that we could spend the last evening of our journey camping on the California coast. In the middle of the night - from 2:00 to 3:00 AM - we made a brief, nightmarish stop in Las Vegas. The lights of Las Vegas exploded out of the desert in such a shimmering conflagration that, combined with the stifling desert heat, it was not hard to imagine that we had arrived in Hell.

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When dawn broke we had almost emerged from the Nevada desert. Upon arriving in California Jeff piloted the bus towards Bakersfield in order to drop off Andie, the first passenger to depart from our adventure trip. Andie had made arrangements to meet a friend at the Greyhound station in Bakersfield. Because our arrival in Bakersfield coincided roughly with the lunch hour, Jeff announced that we should make use of this stop to find refreshments. Most of the bus's compliment grabbed their noon meal at a deli that stood a stone's throw from the Greyhound station. After devouring a quick sandwich in the frigid deli, Susan and I returned to warm afternoon air and then joined the crowd that had gathered on the shady sidewalk next to the bus. While we were waiting to get moving again, a reporter from a local TV news station arrived with a camera on his shoulder. He was interested in interviewing passengers and shooting some footage of the Green Tortoise for the evening news. The presence of the reporter activated the documentary team, who, in a flash, had their cameras rolling as well.

Video Clip 8 Video Clip #8    Quicktime (5.1 Mb)    Real Audio (1.0 Mb)    Help

The ensuing scene characterized many of the unique aspects of the motion picture documentation medium, while it also offered a demonstration of the manner in which the 'significant' components of postmodern reality have become caught up in endless cycles of visual simulation (Baudrillard, 1988; Denzin, 1995). As much as motion picture cameras can be the seekers of spectacle, they can also be the sources of it. That is, the TV news reporter was interested in documenting a story about the Green Tortoise, but he became even more interested in the Tortoise when he discovered the presence of the documentary team. Thus, an important element of the reporter's 'story' was that there was a film crew at work on the Tortoise. As a result, we were treated to a somewhat surreal spectacle of documentation: the local TV reporter had come to film the people on the Tortoise, but then he had found another film crew filming us; thus, he filmed the crew that was in the process of filming us, and he did this while the film crew that was filming us, filmed him as he filmed them. And to complicate matters further, as the camera crews filmed each other, the Tortoise passengers - whose experience the camera operators were intent upon documenting - gazed upon the spectacle created by the camera operators' simulation of each other, and wondered. In the end, it was difficult to decide where the simulation of our Tortoise adventure began and ended - or, as Baudrillard (1988, 1994) points out, if in fact reality was in any final way distinguishable from its simulation.

After this orgy of documentation we got on the bus and headed for the coast. We spent much of the day making a long, hot drive across California. Although Jeff had hoped to travel as far as Big Sur, we made it no further north than San Simeon State Park - still, a strikingly beautiful beachfront location. [Video Clip #9] While we cooked and ate dinner, anticipation grew for the final drumming party that was being organized on the beach. The sparsely populated coast offered an ideal location to build another roaring bonfire. As Jerry, his brother, Sean and a woman, named Mannie, drummed on plastic buckets, a few passersby accompanied them on driftwood logs. The passersby remained in the shadows outside the firelight and, when they were encouraged to join in the 'performance', they shrugged off the opportunity. It remained the case that kindred spirits still chose to remain outside the glow of the firelight and well beyond the gaze of the cameras. Ours had been a unique adventure that, while following a course that was similar to that of other Tortoise trips, had blurred the boundary between simulation and reality in the postmodern world.

Video Clip 9 Video Clip #9    Quicktime (3.3 Mb)    Real Audio (0.7 Mb)    Help


The conception of self in contemporary culture has come to be influenced increasingly by, and defined through - but is not yet well-examined in relation to - various forms of visual media and simulations: '[Americans] are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it, since they themselves are the model' (Baudrillard, 1988, pp. 28 - 29). Despite being influenced extensively by the world of visual simulations, it remains for most people an unusual, exciting - and, indeed, anxiety-provoking - experience to be gazed upon by motion picture cameras. Yet, it was through the novelty of being exposed to the motion picture documentation process that Green Tortoise passengers were able to deconstruct (Denzin, 1989b, 1994a) the 'power' that visual media exercises over their definition of self. In other words, the gaze of the cameras made it possible for myself and the other subjects of the documentary 'to visualize not only theory and culture as products of a complex visual cinematic apparatus, but to show how that apparatus entangles itself within the very tellings we tell' (Denzin, 1995, p. 200).

Therefore, in generating a 'simulated' experience for the passengers on the Tortoise, the documentary team collaborated in the production of the transformative cultural critique that is the 'real' substance of the Green Tortoise travel experience - and which, as it turns out, also happens to be the crucial subject matter that it was the goal of the documentary team to capture. In the end, the documentary team captured the 'journey' into the identities of the passengers that they set out to record. In exposing themselves to the gaze of their cameras, the documentary team emphasized the fact that 'truth' is not to be found merely in gazing upon others. Although it may not be possible to gaze upon truth no matter where one's camera is focused, it is through the unblinking eye of the camera that 'a new form of self-awareness is produced, an understanding that moves to the core of the other's self' (Denzin, 1995, p. 218). Thus, the filming techniques of the camera crew emphasized that the virtue of gazing upon others - either in visceral or simulated form - is not to locate truth, but, rather to employ a 'reflexive mechanism' through which we can come to be more aware of the contemporary 'cinematic' influences that structure our own voyeuristic gazes.


1 This was my third trip on the Green Tortoise. The first was a week long round trip on the north/south commuter that runs between Seattle and Los Angeles. The second trip was an eastbound cross-country adventure trip in October of 1993 from San Francisco to New York.

2 Except for mine and my wife's, I have substituted pseudonyms for all personal names in this article.

3 Later, a male passenger, named Harvey, told me that on a previous Tortoise trip-an adventure during which he claimed to have consumed 'a twenty-four pack of beer a day for seven days straight' - he had heard about one Tortoise driver who did not allow drinking on his bus. He added jokingly, 'Wouldn't it be my bloody luck to end up on this bus!'

4 Tortoise buses have no onboard toilet facilities.


Video Footage exerpted from Songs of the Open Road has been made available courtesy of Genex Film Partnership. For more information, please contact Dyan Diemer at: The author would like to thank 'Giz' Womack and Donna Godzisz at Wake Forest University for their help in preparing the video clips for publication. Comments on this paper may be enailed to the author at


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