In discussing the terms “cinema of attractions” and “social amelioration,” in the context of documentary film (and its precursor, documentary photography), one refers to the primary motivations of the medium. The “cinema of attractions,” a term coined by professor Tom Gunning of the University of Chicago, refers to moving pictures as spectacle. Rather than a straightforward educational purpose, or an outright entertainment purpose, a film may seek to reel its viewer in by offering him something different: the chance to take a journey somewhere else-a place to which he will likely never physically travel. Thus, as Gunning explains, many early documentary films sought to transport the viewer through space and time, rather than to simply tell a story. The term “social amelioration” refers to the betterment of society as a primary motivation of a documentary film or photograph. Thus, through its storytelling and imagery, a film may bring to light certain issues for its audience. It may also seek to advance scientific or social studies through the use of pictures.
In the 1855 photograph “Seated Woman with Bird,” by Doctor Hugh Welch Diamond, a female insane asylum patient sits in a chair, cradling a dead bird in her hands. She looks directly at the camera with a slightly surprised expression on her face. Dr. Diamond’s stated purpose in taking this and other photographs like it was to study the individuals with mental illness in order to help diagnose and treat them. Thus, the photograph at hand is an example of the early use of documentary photography for social amelioration. Looking beyond the obvious purpose of the photograph, that of documenting the illness of a patient, one can see other possible motivations lurking. The woman in the photograph is likely very different from the doctor who took her picture. She is “insane,” and thus “other” when compared to the voyeur. Thus, she is the object of spectacle. Whether intended or not, “Seated Woman with Bird” falls under the rubric of the cinema of attractions.
The terms “cinema of attractions” and “social amelioration” are critically useful to the scholar of documentary films. The idea of the cinema of attractions is an important one in no small part because it can be applied to so many different types of documentary. The early “actuality” documentary films, such as Moscow Clad in Snow, demonstrate a literal use of the term. The audience is transported to another country through images. The term also applies to the idea of spectacle in a less literal sense. Thus, in studying images such as those taken of deformed or naked persons, knowledge of the concept of the cinema of attractions allows the viewer to take a more critical eye to the media. Perhaps the images carry not only socially ameliorative qualities, but some level of freakishness or spectacle as well. Similarly, the concept of social amelioration puts the viewer on alert that there may be something more going on beyond the image itself. Perhaps a man leaning against a wall, looking downtrodden and defeated, with small children surrounding him, is in itself a beautiful if sad image. It is the idea of social amelioration in documentary work, however, that assists us in thinking past the moment in the image, to the rest of the man’s life. It allows us to wonder what can be done to solve the larger issue of poverty, and perhaps even to take action in that regard.
Terminology in and of itself is useful to the student of documentary filmmaking in that it gives her a language with which to express her observations. Further, it allows her to organize concepts without which her observation and analysis might seem muddled. Every image, whether still or moving, can be analyzed from numerous points of view. Each photographer had his purpose in capturing the image, and each viewer gazes upon the image with her unique eye.
Diamond, H.W. (c.1855). Seated woman with bird. Retrieved January 30, 2007 from
Gunning, T. (n.d.). Tom Gunning. Retrieved January 30, 2007 from