The Handicam world
By GAYLE MACDONALD
Thursday, September 13, 2001
Television images of the terrorist attack on the United States are destined to become indelibly stamped on our consciousness. As indelible, perhaps, as that grainy footage from 1963, of President John F. Kennedy's convertible threading its way through the streets of Dallas toward its tragic end.
The classic Zapruder footage of the JFK assassination became the most famous home movie of all time. In 2001, the most vivid images were captured by the pedestrians with hand-held cameras who found themselves playing bit parts in this unfathomable tragedy. TV coverage of important events is now almost unthinkable without the input of amateurs.
By 10:30 Tuesday morning, the terror was just beginning to sink into the global consciousness as video was broadcast from the major networks of the planes slamming into concrete and the buildings beginning to tumble.
As the day progressed, the footage that proved to be some of the most riveting was that supplied by the likes of Dr. Mark Heath, who videotaped and dictated a verbal diary into his camera as he turned to face the avalanche of mangled steal and debris as it whizzed by, and then over him, as he sought refuge behind a car.
"I hope I live. I hope I live," the witness said as the carnage billowed around him. "It's coming down on me. Here it comes. I'm getting behind a car. It's incredible. Okay. I have to go find people who need help, because I don't think I'm one of them."
As the hours ticked by, other amateurs with cameras provided reams of surreal tape. A female tourist on a boat on the Hudson River recorded the second plane blasting in and partially out the other side of the second World Trade tower. Late Tuesday night, another amateur videographer supplied footage of the first plane that crashed into the Manhattan skyscraper, something none of the major networks had documented live.
Now that every event -- from the Concorde air disaster in France, to the TWA crash off Long Island, to the wedding reception cave-in in Jerusalem -- is recorded by an amateur with a camera in his or her pocket, the preponderance of this pocket-sized technology is radically changing the way the world views things.
CTV News vice-president Kirk LaPointe said it's accepted, almost expected, for networks to use home video to supplement their newscasts. "In this day and age, with video cameras so ubiquitous for people almost anywhere in the world to have them, it's not unusual.
For instance, we carried exclusive footage on Sunday night of someone on an Air Transat flight who had taken pictures of its engines leaking heavily.
"People carry [cameras] around like a purse or wallet. They're so portable now . . . they're everywhere."
The ubiquity of digital cameras, home-movie cameras and cell phones have served to democratize the news-gathering process. No longer is it something done by the pros at CBS, CBC or BBC.
"Just aim and shoot" used to be the modus operandi of the professional news gatherer, who had to lug around big, clumsy view cameras. Now it's the push-a-button philosophy of everyone who has something to behold and a tiny camera in their pocket.
The seminal moment in this trend among amateurs to newsgather was the Rodney King affair in 1991, when the beating by Los Angeles police officers of a black motorist was videotaped by a passerby. The event sparked riots across Los Angeles.
But countless examples have followed, including the amateur video of a gunman lunging from the shadows in late 1995 and shooting Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin point blank.
Vince Carlin, chair of Ryerson University's School of Journalism, said if you work in television today "you are not only finding out where your people and photographers are, but the next question is who out there might have better pictures of this?
"Unfortunately in some events, it becomes rather awful, people chasing individuals with footage and offering vast sums of money. But it is a fact of life," added Carlin. "And more and more people, because of the ease of it, see themselves as observers as well as just being citizens."
LaPointe agrees that the preponderance of these fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants documentarians has had an extraordinary impact on audiences. "It's just multiplied, exponentially, the number of people out there who can be eyes and ears on acts of terrorism, extraordinary news events, and even the mundane curiosities of life."
The CTV News executive added, however, that journalists, civilians and news organizations have come together this week to share footage of the atrocity committed against Americans in a way never seen before.
"Where usually it's vicious competition for who has rights for what footage, with people paying exorbitant fees to get it, this time all the video was shared," said LaPointe. "There were a few exclusives on CNN and ABC but pretty well all of it was pooled. There was an unprecedented agreement to share it so no one had any kind of strategic advantage on the type of video."
Up until the late 1880s, photography was a gentleman's profession. When George Eastman put the first Kodak on the market around 1900, photography was finally within the reach of the masses. Modern technology has just ramped that up.
The New York intellectual Susan Sontag has written famously about photography, talking about the privileged place that the image has in our society. Today because so many people can document horror willy-nilly, many pundits believe the "privileged place" of photography is threatened. They worry that too many people believe that anything that can appear before a camera should be shot, should be made into images, and should be disseminated widely.
Carlin, for one, is not convinced that everything needs to be memorialized in videos or photographs. He recognizes amateur photography as an accepted form of journalism, however, he cautions that news agencies have a greater responsibility than ever before to make sure that it is what it purports to be.
"I've seen the same footage, of the same people celebrating in the Middle East, mostly young kids, shouting with glee as the tragedy unfolds in the States," muses Carlin. "And it reminds me we see a very narrow frame of a few people. People are using this, saying the Palestinians are celebrating. Well, we need to ask ourselves who shot these pictures? What do they really show?"
And in this digital era, where footage can so easily be doctored, Carlin adds it is crucial that professional news organizations "be wary" in their use of amateur videography. "Agencies have to be careful about where footage comes from, and why it comes to them.
"Just looking down the road, and knowing how these things can be used, it will benefit everyone to be cautious," said Carlin.
Heath's footage was a glimpse in the black hole of an ugly truth. But he was one of the good guys. And we know from the macabre reality of the past few days that things are often not what they seem.