Every time you point your camcorder and push the record button, you’re recording history.
Seriously. Even though you may think it’s just another birthday video full of screaming children, there’s more to it than that. You are (perhaps unwittingly) helping to document the age in which we live. In just a few decades, if those tiny magnetic particles on the tape manage to hold their charge, the stuff that’s on that birthday video could make a social historian search through a dozen archives just for the chance to take a look.
If you don’t believe me, watch some home movies shot a mere twenty or thirty years ago. Look at the hair styles, the clothing, the knick-knacks on the coffee table; notice the books on the shelves, the car in the driveway, the style of the curtains. That’s history, every bit as much as the building of the pyramids in Egypt or the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Of course, there’s always the chance that you’ll find yourself in the right place at the right time and capture one of these greater historical events on tape. It happened to a guy named Zapruder (though he was using film, not videotape); chances are, with the growing number of camcorders in the world, it’ll continue to happen in the future.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the camcorder and its role in the course of human history. But before we do this, we’ll take a little philosophical journey and attempt to shed some light on the power of the moving image (something we tend to take for granted in this day and age). We’ll also try to look into the future and see what effect the camcorder will have upon the course of human events.
So whether you’re out shooting a presidential motorcade on some grassy knoll, or you’re just at home taping the kids, be sure to keep it steady and in focus–you could be making more than video. You could be making history.
The Power of the Image–Moving or Still
Images have power. No, I don’t mean the mumbo-jumbo, mystical kind of power that the local palmist or tarot reader sells; I mean something more like the power that makes you buy a certain brand of soft drink or shampoo after you’ve seen their ads a few times.
History is full of examples of the power of the image. In ancient times, rival factions fought and died over the power of painted religious images, or "icons." Some felt that paintings of saints and religious figures held mystical power; they called themselves "iconodules" or image-lovers. Their enemies, who stood behind the commandment forbidding the making of graven images, were "iconoclasts," or image-smashers. And that’s precisely what the iconoclasts did: they broke into the monasteries where monks diligently painted icons, and smashed everything in sight, monks included.
If the simple, static image of a painted religious figure held so much power, how much more so the moving image of film and video? You might think that those days of mystery and superstition are in the past, and that we "modern" people are beyond such things. But are we really? Think of the amount of money and time we spend watching movies and television. (For that matter, think of how much we spend on popcorn, candy and soda at the movie theater. Now that’s what I call power.)
The newness of this power has worn off a bit. When one early filmmaker showed footage of a train approaching the camera, the audience ran from the theater in fright. We no longer respond in this way; we’ve seen so many movies and television shows, we’ve become de-sensitized. That doesn’t mean the power is gone. It’s still there, but we’ve become accustomed to it.
The essence of that power is the ability to capture a memory. Your camcorder does what our minds do every day: it grabs a slice of time and records it with light and sound. In some ways, it does a better job at this than our own minds. Will you remember what color shirt you wore at your son’s tenth birthday? A videotape will. It will also tell you things you may not want to know, like how much weight you’ve gained since then, how much grey has appeared in your hair, how much your son has grown. A sobering device, no doubt; one that not only shows us the past, but makes us reflect on our own growth, and ultimately, our own mortality.
On second thought, maybe the power of video is the same as tarot and palmistry.
A Place Where Memory Resides
Most people buy camcorders for the same reason they buy cameras: to remember. They want a device that will help them mark their passage in time. (See this month’s "Viewfinder" for more on this.)
Sure, many people do more with their camcorders than just tape family members and holiday events; they make artistic or dramatic statements, or even produce videos that illustrate a process or train someone in a skill or craft. Even so, the main function of the camcorder in all of its applications is memory, whether it be a memory of your family, a memory of an artistic vision or a memory of how to perform a certain task.
Again, video cameras aren’t the first devices ever invented that allow us to do this–nor are they necessarily the best. Writing (which developed from tiny pictographic images) has long been the best way to pass along memories from person to person and generation to generation. Sculpture, painting, architecture, music–every one of the fine arts has the power to transmit memory in some form or another.
But videotaped images have some qualities that other works of art lack. To begin with, these images are very concrete, like photographs. When you videotape something, you have less control over the interpretation of the final product than with other art forms; what you see is usually what was there. Sure, you can decide how to frame the shot, adjust the depth of field, add special effects and filters and such. But unless you tweak the image in post production (as the special effects wizards did in Forrest Gump), you can’t edit reality with the same wild abandon that Picasso or James Joyce could.
Videotaped images don’t (usually) make mistakes or lie. Consider this example: a woman is taping her children with the family camcorder. Suddenly, someone shouts, "stop, thief!" and a hurried-looking man runs across her camcorder’s field of view, stolen merchandise in hand. When it’s time for the police to take a report, which do you think they’ll be most interested in–her written and spoken testimony, or the images on her videotape?
King, Denney and Kennedy
When someone captures a moving image of a powerful historical event, it usually doesn’t take long for this image to enter all our living rooms. Then something strange happens: we all have that image burned into our memories, making a collective cultural reference that all of us can point to and recognize.
Can anyone who saw them forget the brutal beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denney? How about the Kennedy assassination? These images have become part of our visual culture, yet they were shot by amateurs who just happened to be on the scene with the right gear at the right moment.
More than just becoming a part of our visual culture, these images have helped to shape the course of history. The shots of the King beating eventually brought about the L.A. riots, and the Zapruder film has spawned dozens of conspiracy theories about who was behind the assassination of JFK (the most recent version being Oliver Stone’s film of the same name).
It seems inevitable that more and more footage of historical events will make its way from the amateur’s camcorder to the national airwaves. Since there are more camcorders in the world than ever before, and the price of new camcorders is at its lowest point ever, amateur videomakers will continue to show up from time to time when important things happen.
What will be the ultimate effect of this? One possibility is that, like the invention of cheap printing, the advent of the camcorder will help to democratize the world. Videomakers will capture abuses of power on tape and broadcast them to the world; there will be greater diversity of viewpoints, and the world will be a better place for everyone. Right?
Some organizations have tried to hasten this process. Last year, one group suggested handing out camcorders to worldwide members of the homosexual community in order to document incidents of gay bashing on videotape. And a group of college students in Isla Vista, California decided to carry camcorders to their spring break parties so they could get some shots of police brutality when the inevitable problems occured.
Problem was, the images they captured showed the students acting like drunken idiots, and the policemen merely carrying out their duties in a polite and professional manner.
And then there’s the Rodney King beating–ostensibly, a prime example of abuse of power captured on videotape for everyone to see. What was the result? All officers acquitted, and riots in cities around the world. And then, more videotape–this time, of people on the streets beating one another, of Reginald Denney–an innocent man, in the wrong place at the wrong time–getting his head smashed in by a gang of thugs.
Camcorders have power, to be sure. They can motivate us, train us and show us a good time. But like most powers that come to us through technology, the power that camcorders give us is a two-edged sword.
A New Era?
So where’s it all headed? What future are we making for ourselves when we practice the art of videomaking?
Let’s not be too alarmist, here. After all, we’re just making video. And the answer to any question about the future ultimately must be, we just won’t know until we get there.
Nonetheless, we said we’d think about where the democratization of video is taking us, so let’s pull out our crystal ball and tarot cards and take a peek:
I see a bright, promising future…many places for everyday people to show their videos…five hundred channels…internet video…the MBONE…cheap satellite access…diversity of opinion…more video…the free flow of ideas…great powers unleashed…interesting times….
As for what this means for the future history of humanity, that will be up to those who make the video.
In other words, it’s up to you.
Video as a Historical Source
Which would interest the historian more–a written eyewitness account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, or a videotape of the event shot on a three-chip camcorder?
Believe it or not, it’s a tough call. I guess most historians would want to see the video, but that’s probably because we already have a written eyewitness account of the event (penned by the younger Pliny, if you’re curious). But in a case where there’s a choice, many historians would go for the written record. Here’s why:
Traditionally, the study of history has made use of writings above and beyond all other records. Though historians will use artworks, public monuments, videotapes and other data in their quest to understand the past, their main concern is the written word. (People who focus their studies on the mute artifacts are archaeologists–you know, those guys with whips and fedoras.)
The reason for this lies partly in the origin of the word history. It comes from the Greek word historia, which means "inquiry." (If anybody tries to tell you the word history has anything to do with the fact that men have dominated the profession for two thousand years, you can just set them straight.) So the job of the historian is to inquire, or to ask questions about past events.
Videotaped images leave less room for interpretation than written works. To fully know an event, historians must look at it from many sides, if possible. Using our Mount Vesuvius example, we have the view of Pliny, an educated man sitting at a safe distance from the cloud of ash and river of molten lava. In his work, we have more than just a description of what happened; we have his thoughts on the matter, which are much easier to describe in words than in moving pictures.
Ideally, we’d like to have other views as well–the thoughts of the vacationing Roman farmer who lost his land and his family, or of the local politician who had to sort through the mess. If each of these people had camcorders, they’d surely come up with different views of the same event, with different choices for camera angles, framing and subject matter–but each view would still be a concrete image of the event itself, leaving much of the interpretation up to the viewer.
Let’s not forget that a videotape can contain both the power of the image and the power of the word–both written and spoken. A titler or graphics program can add textual content to a video, just as a narrator can add spoken comments to a documentary. But that’s not the point, is it? When we talk about the power of the camcorder in this context, we mean the power to record events as they happened, not the ability to record text. So if Pliny made his tape of the death of Pompeii and added narration in post production, his words would still be the focus of the historian’s inquiry. The medium used to convey the words wouldn’t make much difference either way, and the moving images would be more like the illustrations in a history book–helpful, but not always essential.
But let’s recall that we’re talking about historians here, and they have their own way of looking at things (from up there in their ivory towers). The TV viewing public would see it all in a different light, wouldn’t they? Judging by the content we see on television every night, they’d rather see the video, complete with the burning bodies and the screams of the dying.