Will the cameras change us?


A photograph of New York Mayor William Jay Gaynor just after he was wounded in an assassination attempt.

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.

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