Ken Burns, “All story is manipulation”

Ken Burns, “All story is manipulation”

Ken Burns: On Story from Redglass Pictures on Vimeo.

This is a short, but challenging film with Ken Burns, one of the premier documentary film maker of today. In it Burns says, “All story is manipulation”. As a visual storyteller is this something I can buy into? Do I believe this? When it comes down to it and I am honest with myself, I think I agree with him. We all have been manipulating from the first stories we’ve told to the last. We use the pitch of our voice to set the mood. We pause for dramatic tension. It is all manipulation. How do we do it in our photography? One way we do it is by deciding what is in the frame and what is left out. The photographer makes that choice. We also manipulate by deciding when to bring an element into the story. Even by the choice of what music bed we use or what ambient sound. The question then needs to be asked, are we benign storytellers? Like the benign dictator that rules with his peoples best interest are we benign storytellers that manipulate to make sure our viewers see the trueth. But who defines the truth? It’s a can of worms. What are your thoughts? I like this line when he says,”We tell stories to continue ourselves.”

I am off to Kenya tomorrow for two weeks. I may or may not have time to post. But I will try to respond to your thoughts here, and hopefully without much manipulation. 😉

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. DaveT


    How true. To stimulate interest the photographer/film maker/writer introduces elements to engage the person viewing the outcome. In fact, the very use of the word ‘manipulation’ engages the reader as, particularly in this age of post digital capture, the mere mention of the word invokes thoughts of having been duped or misled.

    Yet, without some sort of engagement, the final product can be lifeless.


  2. Chase

    I really appreciate his broad understanding of “manipulation”. This is helpful to his cause, as manipulation can be negative, or positive. An orthopedist manipulated my shoulder a year and a half ago during surgery and I am still trying to figure out whether that was positive or negative manipulation. I also think he helpfully mentions that we coalesce around transcendent stories.

    With this said, if the statement was “most” I think I would have no issue at all. However, with the use of the word “all” I think he assumes that motive (manipulation, whether positive, or negative) on every storyteller and hijacks the word in a sense. I do not think every story ever told has manipulated, or will manipulate. I really appreciate your questions/thoughts concerning the defining of truth. I am a believer that their is objective truth, I think the problem comes in when people begin to declare that they know the truth objectively. Distinct from science, where conclusions may be arrived at empirically, historical/worldview conclusions and understandings of the stories we come to embrace are best embraced when a web of evidence is gathered. Sometimes manipulation, of a positive or negative nature occurs as we form beliefs about the stories we embrace. For instance, I believe a genocide occurred in Rwanda in 1994. That story can manipulate people in both negative and positive ways, and I think the Great Majority of the time it does. However I am not convinced that it is, Every time it is told, a story that manipulates. My 2 cents.

    • Matt

      Chase, Andy and others,

      I wonder if we are trying too hard with this. Let’s look at it simply.

      Any good story has a plot arc. We have to show the listener or viewer things to build the tension and then we do the “reveal” where the resolution of that tension starts and runs through to the conclusion. I look at Ken’s use of the word “manipulation” more like paint brushes. The artist chooses what colors and strokes to use to give a feeling or emotion. Blue = cool and calm. Red = Hot or passion etc.. The fact is manipulation can even be unintentional. As I said, some times it is done with the intent to communicate a truth. The director or photographer or editor chooses the elements with an intent. This is a manipulation. Just as a worship leader on Sunday morning goes from one type of song to another to keep the mood.

      Chase, I think you said it. There can be positive manipulation and negative. What is the intent? I think most of us today have a negative connotation of the word and think any kind of manipulation is evil. I am not so sure if we are defining it right, so I looked up the word:

      manipulate (məˈnɪpjʊˌleɪt)

      — vb
      1. ( tr ) to handle or use, esp with some skill, in a process or action: to manipulate a pair of scissors
      2. to negotiate, control, or influence (something or someone) cleverly, skilfully, or deviously
      3. to falsify (a bill, accounts, etc) for one’s own advantage
      4. (in physiotherapy) to examine or treat manually, as in loosening a joint

      Number 4 is obviously Chase’s orthopedist. But number 1 and 2 seem a little more blurry. I think a good storyteller definitely handles the elements of a story with skill (number 1) to control or influence (number 2). But not necessarily to be devious or to falsify. I think they can, but we’re talking about generalizations. A broad scope use of the word with relation to storytelling.

      I wonder if the reason people are so adverse to the idea of a storyteller manipulating the audience is because none of us want to feel we been duped. We don’t want to believe that someone can paint a picture and manipulate us through visuals or verbal imagery. We don’t mind the magician manipulating reality through sleight-of-hand. But we don’t like to think a storyteller can do it. I find that interesting.

      We have been taught the journalist is supposed to be telling a story based on facts and would never intentionally manipulates. However, I think we all know that isn’t always the case. Whether it’s Fox news or CNN, the New York Times or the Huffington Post there have been plenty of journalistic endeavors that we look at and clearly believe we are being manipulated. But in general, I think we want to believe a journalist will be true to the story. But that goes back to my original question, in a story that may be full of gray and not so black and white whose truth is it?

  3. Andy Wilson

    Thanks for raising this Matt. I have spent some time wondering about the issue.

    Communication is the passing of a message from a sender to a recipient. Manipulation can be used to describe how the sender shapes the message to get his or her point across verbally or visually. I think this is hard to avoid. But manipulation can be used in a way of somehow duping someone into a situation that they may not want or might be detrimental to them of others in order to meet the senders goals. Can this be avoided? I think so, or at least I feel there may be a way to reduce the danger.

    I believe the key may be in the idea of an invitation. If in my communication as sender I make it plain that this is what I believe to be of value (and why), and if I offer it in the form of an invitation, as a vision of a better future. That leaves choice.

    The question of an appropriate emotional element is worth considering as this is what is probably most likely to be or appear manipulative. I think we have discussed this before but that’s why many NGOs have moved away from playing on guilt to showing the joy that is a ‘possible future’. This becomes much more like an invitation to be part of the story than emotional arm twisting. The recipients can chose to get involved and the way that they want to get involved or to not get involved or to perhaps get more actively involved in another worthy story or perhaps to change their own story.

    I think that was what Ken was getting at when he talked about the racist face with an african american baseball player. He has options – you invite him to choose wisely and muster your arguments to help him but you don’t manipulate. I remember hearing a quote from a documentary maker (though I forget who) saying that when someone has finished watching one of his documentaries there is only one way they will think and feel – the way he wants them to. That’s different. That is manipulation! And with me being a rebel who is aware of what is happening, and probably a little bit over-cynical in my attitude to mass media, it is also ineffective!

    Anyway those are my current thoughts and I invite dialogue 🙂 !!

  4. karlgrobl

    Matt, Thanks for posting this though provoking piece by Ken!
    Have a great time in Kenya, and if you can, please post some images. I always enjoy following your work.

    • Matt

      Thanks Karl, I’ll try to post.

  5. Peter de Rooij

    I think we may be looking at it the wrong way.

    I think “the truth” is too complex for us to know completely. It is unknowable. And as a result, it impossible to describe it fully, whatever the medium. So the best we can do is approximate it, biased as we are, from our own particular perspectives. If we try really hard, our bias will be weaker, and our perspective a bit wider. And we may even be able to inform (warn) the viewer of some of our biases and limitations – transparency is good. We should strive for that.

    But I the real problem lies with the viewer. We all like perspectives and stories that match our own just a little bit too much. So we tend to get a one-sided monoculture of similarly limited and biased stories. Creating our own little feedback loops. If it weren’t for that, we might actually be able to build a fairly complete picture, combining opposing perspectives and biases into a more multi-faceted picture.

    OK, enough philosophy already – do post some stuff from Kenya!


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