Friday, April 24, 2015

How are the cameras changing us?

     After more than a century, the photograph still shocks.
     There is New York Mayor William Jay Gaynor, natty in his bowler hat and shiny shoes, the right lapel of his wool suit sprayed with blood. Urban planner Benjamin C. Marsh clutches his left arm and stares, in something like reproach, at the photographer, William Warnecke of the New York World, who snapped the shutter for what he thought would be an ordinary photo of a politician about to set sail for Europe and ended up with a picture of a man who had just been shot in the throat.
     The date was Aug. 9, 1910.
     Photography was past its infancy, but cameras were still bulky affairs often made of brass and wood and usually perched on tripods. News events such as this assassination — technically, though Gaynor lived three years until the bullet lodged in his throat killed him — were caught only by the merest happenstance. When the Hindenburg blew up before the newsreel cameras and radio microphones at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, the tragedy took on an epic scale and was seared into memory. Not because it was particularly deadly (36 people died in the zeppelin explosion — 13 passengers, 22 crew and a worker on the ground) but because it was so dramatic.
      Now we live in an era of cheap, high-quality, omnipresent video technology in the form of the camera built into every blessed cellphone. This permits us to see somebody shot every day, nearly, and another big fiery disaster or epic crash every, what, week or two? We are immediately moved by these images’ drama, only later puzzling over the true meaning of what we just saw.
     We’re also so busy processing each new crime and drama as it occurs, we never step back and wonder how having so much more life recorded is affecting us.
     Where are we going with this?
     Maybe it isn’t affecting us much. People still rob banks, still inadequately disguise themselves and get a bag of cash ready to explode into red dye despite seeing photos of the guy who tried it last week. Cops commit the most heinous over-reactions, not only caught by passersby, but in front of their own dashboard cameras that they know are there.
     Maybe they just don’t think. There’s a lot of that going around. You get the sense when a police officer puts 16 bullets into a suspect, he’s reacting to the situation in a way that, at that moment, feels right. It’s only later that they realize — and the world realizes, thanks to the damning video — what they’ve done.
      Or they don’t realize, lacking a video. One of the most worrisome risks from this spate of captured crimes is that, without damning images, the perpetrator easily walks as we saw this week with cop Dante Servin, a jaw-dropping case of justice shrugged away.
      Change comes fast and slow. For a long time, anyone who whipped out a phone and made a call in a public place was by definition a pretentious jerk. Now any given group of 7-year-olds furiously consult their phones and it’s strange to see one who isn’t. In some realms, the cellphone videos should affect our thinking but don’t. People still believe in UFOs, for instance, based on those blurry black-and-white photographs of pie pans, never for a moment wondering where are the phone videos we should have if these things were really here.
      Video cameras were an Orwellian intrusion that would be used by totalitarian regimes to restrict our rights. I’m sure some people still worry about that, failing to notice that, in practice, it is the evidence shot by cellphones that provides a bulwark against abused authority, security that we’ve lacked and obviously need. Maybe asking the police to wear body cameras is, again, giving them too much faith, putting too much responsibility into their hands. Maybe it’s us citizens who should wear the body cameras. For our own safety.


  1. And you thought cellphones were a passing fad?! Someday there will be technology to capture video of whole lives...every second of every day. And then there will be technology to record all of our thoughts. One continuous selfie with nowhere to hide. That is if our world is not destroyed by nuclear war or wiped out by the effects of global warming. Have a nice day!

  2. Barry you are too gloom and doom. As to the column today. Ms. Mitchell will like it too.

  3. After a police officer told a bald face lie in traffic court, I installed a dashcam in my car. Knowing it's there has improved my driving, when there are incidents, reviewing it can show what mistakes were made, and driving techniques can be improved. A video can be an unimpeachable witness, but haven't witnessed an accident yet. Road rage is a thing of the past, replaced with passive aggressive posting of youtube videos is a sweet substitute. Many people google their name periodically, to see what info about them is out there. Don't forget to google your vehicle plate on youtube, have a nice day.

  4. Yes, everyone should record their whole life. And then there should be some people to serve as film critics who sit in a theater their whole life, watching the recording and writing their review. Once we all become immortal, of course, the whole system will break down.

  5. Congrats, Neil- You are on the front page today.

  6. Now that we made that first hesitant step into the world of ever present video, we should be on the lookout for the next phenomenon: fraudulent videos, erased, faked or fiddled with. Fiction today, fact tomorrow.


  7. "Unlooked for good betides us still,
    And unanticipated ill." Peacock

    Like everything else new, a mixed blessing. We can only hope for the best.

    Speaking of photos, did anyone notice the striking color photo of a couple hovering over the Cardinal's bier on the Sun-Times front page a couple of days ago? It had the look of an Old Master.

    Tom Evans

  8. I wish the mayor wasn't stopped by Card. George a few yrs back to have to pay full water bill. Ridic that some places of religion get a water break and fed. tax breaks. What a racket even if they do some good works.

  9. Not every bank robber is insensible of video cameras:

    Police in some Southern state arrested a guy who had robbed several banks. He was easy to identify, because not only did he have a distinctive physique (5'5" and 300 lbs. or something like that), he made no effort to obscure his face, even staring directly into the banks' cameras.

    When the cops asked him about this, he said he didn't have to worry about cameras because of the lemon juice.

    The cops asked him what the heck he was talking about, and it turns out that this fellow had picked up, God knows where, the notion that rubbing lemon juice on your face renders you invisible to cameras. He tested this with selfies at home before embarking on his career as a highwayman. The cops later determined that when he took those selfies, he'd left on the lens cap.

  10. Just think, it wasn't too long ago a state law prevented the recording of any member of law enforcement (overturned by a judge). Now, the rush to have police wear body cameras is sweeping the nation. This has come about faster than the acceptance of gay marriage. What will be the slap back by the supporters and protectors of law enforcement?

    1. Police will try to destroy evidence with reckless abandon, but with people recording people recording police, it becomes problematic.

    2. Looks like the unedited video got taken down. Here is a CNN report on the incident.

  11. Amazing photo and little known historical fact.


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