Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thoughts on Cameras and History

When the USS Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor, no camera recorded it.  When the Spanish capitulated to forces of the United States, it was recorded on paper via first hand accounts.  When Pearl Harbor was attacked, we have recorded photographs and personal accounts, and a little motion picture footage.  When The Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri, it was well recorded with photographs and motion pictures and on audio.  When the World Trade Center was attacked, every person with a view and a camera was recording the scene.  Now, at the time, I don’t know what they thought, other than “this needs to be on camera.”  Were they thinking of it for personal use or were they thinking this needs to be recorded for future generations or were they considering that some news organization might buy their photos?  I know when I take photos,I want to share what I am seeing.  That is why I take those photos, but would I think on a wider scope if there were a disaster? 

In this day and age, nearly every person has at their disposal a camera or two.  Most phones have a camera and many people carry around a small digital camera on top of that.  This is in contrast to an age when having a camera was a sign of prestige and their expense precluded them from being carried everywhere.  Not to mention the state of the technology, which relied on the operator to know something of the process to get decent photos.  Now, digital cameras are ubiquitous and self-contained.  They do all the calculations for exposure and you don’t have to worry about running out of film.  Digital cameras nine years ago were not as wide spread as they are now.  We still had film and tape.  However, as part of the trend of being more likely to have a camera than not, the date of 9-11-01 in history seems well placed.

The advantages, though that seems like a poorly chosen word, of the attack on the World Trade Center, is that it was in a highly populated city where every person and their dog were likely to have access to a camera.  Today, nine years and one day after those horrifying events, this seems to be a good thing.  Whether it was so they could show their friends the pictures or they thought the photos might be historically important (I rather doubt the forethought required by the latter at a desperate time such as that), these recordings offer historians the capability to rebuild and relive the events that took place that morning.  This is something many scholars may wish to have had for other events in history.   

We watched a special last night that recalled that terrible day.  It used video footage taken by many different non-news photographers.  This was footage taken from all around New York City.  It included views up close and personal to city-scape views that showed the towers in comparison to their neighbors.  The one that really seemed to hit home for me was the view from a second or third story window of people running, fleeing the dust cloud of the collapse of Tower #2.  It was clear they were running from something.  To a first time observer it may simply have been a charging bear somewhere behind them, but out of sight.  As the final stragglers cleared the screen to the right the dust cloud moved in from the left with an oppressive bearing and frightening speed.  It was a moment of realization that something horrible had just happened.  You could not see the tower burning from that window, you could only see the people running.  But that simple view created an overall feeling of helplessness.*  It fostered a realization of what this moment in time must have been to a witness/participant. 

Can you honestly say that you were not a participant that day?  Perhaps you were geographically distant, but that event held such meaning and promise that each an every one of us that saw the news that day (and how could you not?) was a participant.  You held in yourself those feelings of anguish and fear and disbelief just as those observing from a few block away did.  You knew this meant something bad had just happened.  You were not sure of what else might happen. 

Can we say the same of people hearing of the explosion aboard the USS Maine?  Or Pearl Harbor?  Or the day that Kennedy was shot?  or the day that Challenger exploded?  Perhaps.  What is the difference, though?  Because, I think there IS a difference between these prior events and 9/11. 

There are at least two, and possibly three differences.  Geographical placement, cameras, and visibilty.  The explosion aboard the USS Maine in 1898, though observed by many was not recorded by any medium but the human brain, and it was far removed from the men and women of the nation it affected (the US).  The attack on Pearl Harbor was much better recorded, but still geographically removed from huge populations.  AND these recordings took time to be developed, duplicated, and spread, so when you heard about it on the radio you could not visualize instantly the loss of life.  You could not see the ships burning.  You had to wait until the photos came in the next day’s paper or that evening’s edition.  Camera’s were present at Pearl Harbor, both on the ground and in the air, however, not every person had access to a camera, and film being a finite resource, it was rarely wasted on anything but the very exciting subjects, such as battleships exploding.  We see very few photos of the angst of those witnessing and participating.  The destruction at Pearl Harbor was visible for miles, so more people in the general area experienced it, but still, it was a less densely populated area than New York City. 

I am sure those of you who were alive when Kennedy was shot remember that day clearly.  You surely saw some clips of the ghastly assassination on television that day.  Those that were IN the very localized area where it happened did not immediately know what happened, or how many people had been shot.  There were many cameras available, as this was something camera-worthy (how often does the president of the US come to town anyway? NOT OFTEN in our neck of the woods).  There are many photos and much movie footage available, but did you feel you were a participant?  Or were you an observer?  As I was not alive at that time, I have little ability to compare it, but I will take a shot (forgive that particular word choice, I couldn’t help it).  It happened in the heart of a large city, however, it was over in minutes and was not visible for miles.  ONLY direct participants were able to witness the horror of that November day. 

I remember the day that Challenger exploded.  I was in sixth grade.  I DID NOT feel like a participant.  It did not make me feel like the space shuttle would come down in my state.  I was an observer, though an interested one, nonetheless an observer.  It was highly publicized and well recorded.  Many people turn out to view rockets taking off.  It was ON US soil (well, above it and visible for miles), but it was something a finite number of people can say they participated in.

I argue that because of its geographical placement within a city of hundreds of thousands and on American soil, the availability of cameras, and it’s visibility (to hundreds of thousands from miles around), and it’s far-reaching affects (all flights cancelled for a week, instant intense public fear of more targets being hit and outrage, WAR) that all of us who watched it on TV were participants, albeit further removed than New Yorkers. 

What IF every crew member of the Missouri had a cell phone camera that day?  What if there had been a dockyard video camera that caught the explosion of the Maine on film?  What if we could have seen the fear, hatred, and pain in the faces of the men who stood and fought at Pearl Harbor that day instantly?  Would we have been observers or participants?


* Can I honestly say this scene alone without the prior scenes in the television special leading up to it would have meant as much?  Yes and no.  I think it was a powerful scene, no matter what.  However, the knowledge of what had preceded it made it stronger.  So film editors obviously have much more power over viewers than we may wish to acknowledge.

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