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The power of photographs in a national tragedy

The power of photographs in a national tragedy

How to think about the fact that everything is photographed now

Author: Reilly Capps/Friday, April 19, 2013/Categories: photography

By Reilly Capps



In the midst of a very big news day, it seems right that we here on a photography website should comment about the role of photography in news.


News feels different now. It’s not like things happen and later we find out about it. We watch things unfold in real time.


The number of cameras in America has multiplied by a factor of 10 or 20 over the past 20 years, because there are high-quality cameras on the cell phones in most of our pockets.


There is also a qualitative difference between these new cameras and the cameras of old. Now, it takes seconds for a relevant photo or video to be uploaded to the web, where it’s available for everyone to see.


In this Boston bombing, we’ve now watched multiple videos of the bomb itself, then seen the rush to help the wounded, then seen photos and surveillance videos of the Tsarnaev brothers, then seen video of a firefight, and now comes video of a lockdown of a major American city. You don’t have to live anywhere near a tragedy, or have any connection to it, to feel as though you are a part of it, that you are living it, too. Our connected world gives us the feeling that no place is particularly distant, no place is any farther than our screens.


These photos and videos came from various sources, from news organizations, regular people, and surveillance cameras. But as important as the effect that all these cameras have had on us, the viewing public, is the role they have played in the apparent capture of a bad guy.


The brothers apparently didn’t realize they were being watched. There are reports that the brothers went about their lives earlier this week, after they allegedly blew up Boston, doing such mundane things as picking up a car from a repair shop and Tweeting.


The fact that these brothers didn’t leave Boston right after the bombing suggests that they thought they could hide in plain sight. (This is a different tactic from similar domestic terrorists: Tim McVeigh fled Oklahoma City by car; Eric Rudolph disappeared from Atlanta -- and stayed disappeared for years.) 


In the past, this would have been rational criminal behavior. A century ago, the Boston Marathon bombers might have been able to have set the bombs and then disappeared into Boston. There would have been only one or two pictures of the entire marathon, and certainly no photo detailed enough to see a face. Even 17 years ago, at a similar bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, which was, like the Boston Marathon, one of the most photographed events in the world at the time, there wasn’t a single photo of the perpetrator, Rudolph. And the lack of photographs probably prevented an innocent man, Richard Jewell, from being swiftly exonerated. 


In contrast, thousands and thousands of pictures and video frames were shot near the finish line of the marathon Monday. By poring over these pictures, officials isolated shots of these two brothers.


But in this day and age, it’s hard to hide. There are pictures of you being taken all the time.


Perhaps seeing pictures of themselves all over TV and the Internet sent these brothers fleeing -- robbing, shooting, carjacking, firefighting, sprinting. (As of this moment, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, is on the run. UPDATE: He is now in custody.) Perhaps the photos flushed them out.


What this shows me is the power of photographs and videos to affect reality. It shows the good that photos and videos can do.


I didn’t always feel this way.


When governments first started installing surveillance cameras on light poles and street corners, everyone, including me, worried about their privacy.


A surveillance state is terrifying. It recalls real-life examples like Stalinist Russia and Kim’s North Korea, and fictional dystopias like “1984.”


But don’t cameras help us see what actually happened, rather than rumors or reports?


A society with a lot of cameras, a watchful society in which we all participate, can have benefits. Here at SWP Media, we tend to be interested in the ways in which photos can document changes in the natural world, and perhaps spur action.


But the situation in Boston shows how photos can bring about justice, peace and tranquility.


In general, it seems that cameras have results in more justice and more truth, and it’s difficult to point to examples in which more cameras produced more injustices.


The initial discussion about security cameras missed a crucial discussion about who will see the footage that’s produced. If only the government sees the footage, then it seems ripe for abuse. But if we can all see the footage, the hive mind seems likely to eventually arrive at a correct judgment of the situation. 


Philosophers say that if you’re doing something that you wouldn’t want other people to see, you shouldn’t be doing it.*


The philosopher Peter Singer argues that all of these cameras have resulted in the de facto construction of the famous Panopticon, a prison in which every cell is visible to a guard tower. He says that we virtually find ourselves in that position now, only it’s constructed by social media.


It strikes me that cameras are OK as long as large numbers of people can see the footage they produce. Then we can all make a collective judgment about how illicit behavior ought to be handled. When only a few see the footage, then abuses are bound to happen. To take two examples wildly divergent in seriousness: for a while, the president of Rutgers was one of very few people to see footage of the school basketball coach abusing his players, and so no action was taken until large numbers of people saw the tape; only a few members of the national security apparatus saw footage of the torture our government inflicted on terror suspects, and those tapes were destroyed, and so there was no public outcry about torture until we saw photos from Abu Ghraib (some of the less shameful behavior our military engaged in). 


If there are a lot of photos, and a large part of the public can see them, we’ll be able to make better decisions about how to run our lives, how to run our society, and what is true and untrue. 


More cameras then, and better distribution.


Here's a good discussion of this very thing, in Slate



*There are two main exceptions to this general rule. The first involves the body. The second exception involves unjust laws. If you’re doing something that you wouldn’t want other people to see, but you don’t want them to see it not because it’s wrong but because it’s illegal, then you probably ought to fight to change the law. Drugs are the best example; doing drugs, in most cases, isn’t wrong, only illegal. And if there were more footage of what actually happens when people do drugs, say, smoke pot -- couch sitting, laughing, playing Frisbee -- then we could make a better decision as a society about whether pot, for example, ought to be illegal. Bad laws tend to persist because of misinformation about the activity that they outlaw.
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