[The image] cannot be born of a comparison, but from drawing together two distant realities. The more the ties between these two realities are distant and right, the stronger the image will be. Two realities with no ties cannot be usefully drawn together.
—JLG/JLG Self-Portrait in December
The vlog, and particularly the non-viral, unpopular vlog, offers a distorted vision of documentary. The accessibility of video technology and the inclusion of webcams in most laptop computers has determined that self-videotaping and, by extension, vlogging has become a staple of Internet video culture. But only a select few YouTube videos can have 1 million or even 100,000 views. What about those YouTube personalities that have uploaded 680 or 1400 videos, each with fewer than 500 views? In the deepest recesses of YouTube, faced with the visceral, the strange, and the bleak, in videos with little-to-no view count, I question: “Who is this person? “Who are their videos for?”
YouTube lacks a detailed index. There is a gap between highly viewed and little known videos. The basic ‘Browse’ feature disappeared in 2011, making YouTube’s interface difficult to navigate. What we were left with was the ability to search, to recommend videos on YouTube’s site, and to access a video through a link (email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). Stumbling upon videos is hard if you don’t know what you’re looking for. When I have really uncovered something strange it can seem as if YouTube would rather I not have discovered it.
In “Sad, However… Thankful Thanksgiving”, Connie Lynne offers a video that reveals an aspect of her life that is uniquely awful. Witness a woman’s eulogy to her just deceased daughter. She relates a detailed description of their last moments together, the story of her daughter’s death, and a final outpouring of emotion juxtaposed against the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. The ‘reality’ here is bleak and uncompromising, while providing documentation of a sustained emotional state that is rarely made accessible to a generic public. Even if the video is three years old and hovering around 5000 views, Connie Lynne purposely chose to share her grief with the internet. The strange song-poem concluding the video only stresses the weirdness. We can watch a mother grieve over her daughter and then celebrate her memory through a kitschy poem read over strummed acoustic guitar.
John Berger asks: ‘Why does a man paint himself?’ The self-portrait attempts to convey the artist’s essence. ‘Among many motives,’ Berger writes, ‘one is the same as that which prompts any man to have his portrait painted. It is to produce evidence…that he once existed. His look will remain, and the double meaning of the word ‘look’—signifying both his appearance and his gaze—suggests the mystery or enigma which is contained in that thought.’
Hunter Valintine is a middle-aged man with health problems. He’s also a Juggalo and a committed vlogger. His videos, like Connie Lynne’s, offer a specific kind of portraiture, an emphasis on documenting the self due to boredom and loneliness. Some of the topics include living with illness, loneliness, and poverty. At the same time, he fashions himself as part of two communities: the community that engages with his videos and the Juggalo community.
Valintine places his life entirely on display. He wants the viewer to be aware of his complete transparency. Many of his videos follow YouTube trends: ingesting large quantities of food (‘1 Gallon & 1 Quart of Chocolate Milk Drunk on Cam‘) and reviewing mass produced/pop-culture products (‘Curse of Chucky (2013) Movie Review,’ ‘Eggnog Shake for Mc Donald’s Review‘). Some, like the video below, delve deeper into his personal life. Valintine calls a friend, ‘The BoyBlue’ aka Frank, and proceeds to videotape their conversation. This very private moment becomes a public one. “Were you popping pills and drinking at the same time?” Valintine asks. The video continues, Valintine interrogates Frank, and we witness the entirety of this conversation in real time.
Valintine’s Facebook page asserts he is an ‘Entertainer.’ His videos, though, cannot be initially described as entertaining, at least for a mass audience. They can be slight and depressing, often morbid, occasionally humorous; they are not ready to be viral. Yet by documenting his existence, day by day, his life takes on an added importance, at least for himself. Valintine lives for the camera. His self-documentation provides a space for expression that, undocumented, would surely be far more harmful to his psychological state than his YouTube videos are to the few people who watch them.
Watching his videos may be a waste of time. They lack the noteworthy or exceptional. They do, however, act as a window on a man, his worldview, and his physical environment. His reality.
I’m not sure exactly what Valintine wants the viewer to get from his videos; that may be more readily apparent to him than it is to the viewer. On one level, his vlogs are a self-interested endeavor: he documents himself and, due to the medium in which he has chosen to engage, uploads it to the web. Who or how many see it does not ultimately matter. It exists.
Dawn Obrien’s channel, also known as ‘Dawn’s Heartfelt Corner’, is, like Valintine’s, mind bogglingly prolific. Obrien posts at least one video per day, with most being at minimum 15 minutes in length. With titles like ‘There is power in that name ‘Jesus’‘ and ‘Michael Brown Allegedly Attacked Officer Before Fatal Shooting‘ appearing equally, Obrien ensures that her videos provide commentary on news events while also exuding strong religious fervor.
OBrien’s video, ‘Oscar-winning Comedian Robin Williams Dies at 63‘, is a decent summation of her output. It currently has 31 views. “He was a comedian”, OBrien slurs, “and everybody loved to watch him.” Inevitably after several somewhat heartfelt words, Obrien proclaims that if you are not following Christ’s message, “you are living in vain.” Obrien’s single-mindedness is creepy. Her channel functions as a warped reflection of Fox News’ right-wing ideology filtered through an unchecked religious dogmatism. Obrien provides some clarity for her manic, disturbed persona in her ‘About’ page. She writes,
In 2000…I had a severe skull fracture and neurological damage to the brain. Now, I reach out to others sharing my testimony of how I survived…We will bring support & encouragement to the disabled, hurting, lonely, neglected, poverty-stricken, troubled teens, men, women, & children of every race.
The ‘we’ mentioned above is used constantly in her videos. Yet, time and again, the only person appearing onscreen is Obrien, alone, in what looks to be a laundry room or office, an American flag draped over some drawers.
Obrien’s neurological damage leaves the viewer uneasy. I do not believe her videos are exploitative: they have not been produced and disseminated by an individual with power over his subject. Obrien creates and uploads her own videos. Whether I consciously ask myself if I should be viewing these videos and finding them interesting or entertaining is another matter. Obrien seeks proselytes; her videos exist for the world to view.
For me to become interested in a Hunter Valintine or a Dawn Obrien implies that I seek to displace the reality of their existence in favor of ‘experiencing’ that reality, through their own perpetuation of their image. What becomes fascinating, then, is their presentation of themselves, their self-portraiture. The cool, objective lens of the documentarian is irrelevant here. What a vlogger has chosen to document, namely his or herself according to what he or she believes should be shared, alters part of the documentary’s espoused objectivity. Vlogs are energetically subjective, clearly created out of the headspace of a particular individual.
These vlogs augment the self-portrait’s definition. While a self-portrait attempts to capture an aspect of the artist’s personality within the confines of a frozen moment, the blogger’s self-description is perpetual. It builds on itself, both within a video and within a collection of videos, until the moment the vlogger ceases to create another. Time warps and disturbs the subject.
As much as these videos are documents, they express some seriously earnest personalities. After being entertained by the singularity of these people’s lives, maybe I can become conscientious. If these are twenty first century self-portraits, I should strive to be aware enough to witness the self, as it presents itself. The vlog’s viewer has the ability to reconfigure realities, simply by rearranging contexts and linking overlapping personalities. My agency implies a specific kind of self-reflection. In her novel, Nightwood, Djuna Barnes writes, ‘an image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties.’ How I choose to view and make sense of these materials underlines my ability to genuinely connect with them. How the viewer proceeds is amorphous. I hope to bend my viewing accordingly.