Zapruder, Holliday and Neda’s Witness
One of the winners of the latest George Polk Awards is the anonymous Iranian bystander who filmed and shared video of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan after she was shot during a June protest in Tehran. “This video footage was seen by millions and became an iconic image of the Iranian resistance,” said John Darnton, the awards’ curator. “We don’t know who took it or who uploaded it, but we know it has news value. This award celebrates the fact that, in today’s world, a brave bystander with a cellphone camera can use video-sharing and social-networking sites to deliver news.”
My immediate reaction was that the Polk judges had made a good choice. But then I started thinking about the fact that the Neda footage isn’t the first time something filmed by a bystander has shaken the world and led us to think that something fundamental has changed.
This kind of user-generated content (yet another of the awful phrases digital journalism seems to be stuck with) isn’t new — Abraham Zapruder and George Holliday bore witness in similar ways, with similarly huge effects. Given that Zapruder shot his film in 1963 and Holliday shot his in 1991, user-generated content predates digital journalism itself considerably. So is what the Neda videographer did really different than what Zapruder and Holliday did?
I think it is, for a couple of reasons:
- The Neda videographer required no special equipment.
- There didn’t need to be someone in the right place at the right time.
- There was no gatekeeper required for dissemination of the material.
The third point is the biggest change, but the first two are also important.
Let’s start with Abraham Zapruder. Zapruder made his film of the assassination of President Kennedy using a state-of-the-art movie camera. He was in the right place at the right time — at the perfect angle to capture the fatal shot. (There are other photos and other film footage from Dealey Plaza, all of it understandably of great interest to assassination researchers, but the Zapruder film stands alone in terms of importance.)
I was surprised to discover how quickly the Zapruder film was shared. Zapruder told a newspaper reporter what he had soon after the shooting, and was determined to get copies of the film into the hands of the Secret Service. The film was developed (as a custom order) by Eastman Kodak that same day, print and film rights were sold to Life magazine within two days, and black-and-white frames from the movie were published by Life within the week.
However, the movie itself was not disseminated beyond Life and government agencies. (This was partially at Zapruder’s insistence — he was horrified by the nightmarish scene he’d recorded and didn’t want it publicly shown.) In 1966, an assassination researcher engaged in a prolonged legal tussle with Time Inc. over the right to print frames from the Zapruder film in a book. The movie wasn’t shown in public at all until 1969, when it was shown in Jim Garrison’s New Orleans courtroom. Despite the Zapruder film’s status as a terrifying cultural icon — we all have the sequence ingrained in our brains, from the president lifting his arms to the horrible, inevitable fatal impact — it wasn’t shown on network television until 1975, 11 1/2 years after the assassination.
In 1991, George Holliday used his new Sony videocamera to film the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. Like Zapruder, Holliday had a fairly specialized piece of equipment at the ready. And like Zapruder, Holliday was by chance in an excellent position from which to record what was happening.
Holliday’s film was also quickly shared — it was soon in the hands of Los Angeles TV station KTLA. Unlike the Zapruder film, it was very quickly disseminated world-wide. What’s interesting is that Holliday had trouble getting his movie shared. His first call was to the Los Angeles police (a detail that now leads us all to add our own string of amazed question marks and exclamation points); after they showed no interest, Holliday phoned CNN but couldn’t get anyone to take the call. KTLA was his third choice.
So how is the Neda footage different? First of all, it required no specialized gear, no hobbyist trying out a new piece of equipment. Digital cameras and cellphones that can shoot video are now very common and on their way to ubiquity. Because of that, for Neda’s death to be witnessed required no person in the right place at the right time — the numbers make it likely (and soon will make it inevitable) that someone will be in position to record what is happening.
There is other footage from Dealey Plaza, but apparently nothing from an angle similar to Zapruder’s. In 1991 as many as 20 other people were reportedly out on the balconies of Holliday’s apartment building, some of them yelling at the Los Angeles police — but it seems only Holliday had a camera. There is another known video of Neda’s death; I would be surprised if there aren’t others that haven’t been shared.
Neda’s death is already different than what happened with Zapruder and Holliday in the sense that (in Clay Shirky’s words) “more is different.” If Dealey Plaza happened today, many videos would be quickly available and minutely scrutinized for evidence. In 1991 the LAPD ignored 20 people screaming at them because they had no reason to suspect one of those people would be filming; today, they would anticipate such scrutiny. Those facts would already be enough to change how news is found and made.
But there is another difference: dissemination. Zapruder needed to negotiate with a gatekeeper to share his movie — in fact, he wanted one. Holliday needed a gatekeeper to do the same and had trouble finding one. Neda’s videographer needed no gatekeeper — in fact, he or she would have been taking a potentially life-threatening risk finding a means of sharing that footage in 1963 or 1991.
That’s radically different — it changes not just how news is found and made, but how it is shared and therefore defined. We have barely begun to understand what it will mean.
Update: The New York Times’s Brian Stelter interviews the still-anonymous man who took the Neda video, and provides more information about how the video was disseminated. Interesting stuff.
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