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Page1of 1 The Citizen Video Revisited
by Wendy Richmond

In a televised address to the American people last September, President Obama made his case for a missile strike against the Assad regime in Syria. Twice in his short speech, he referred to the “thousands of videos, cell phone pictures and social media accounts” that showed evidence of chemical attacks on the Syrian people ordered by Assad. Obama asked “every member of Congress, and those of you watching at home tonight, to view those videos of the attack.…”

I was not surprised by the emphasis the president placed on these cell phone movies. Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increasing influence of Citizen Videos—short movies shot with cell phones by civilians. It is a phenomenon, in the United States and around the world, whose power is unique to the twenty-first century.

Or is it?

The more immersed we are in our current technology, the more difficult it is to recognize similarities to its precedents. We tend to concentrate on what is radical and new. But if we reflect on older versions of media, we can gain insight into the present.

As I write this column, it is a month before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the filming of that tragic event by Abraham Zapruder on his Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series camera. That film, and the context surrounding it, provides a wealth of material for examination. What do we find when we compare the Citizen Video of 1963 with the Citizen Video of today?

The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, Texas, chronicles the Kennedy assassination and its legacy. Its website includes a detailed timeline of the Zapruder film, beginning on November 22, 1963, at 12:25 p.m., as “tens of thousands of people greeted President Kennedy.” At 12:50 p.m., a reporter from the Dallas Times Herald interviewed Zapruder and tried (unsuccessfully) to get publication rights to the film for the newspaper. By November 27, Life magazine had negotiated television and movie rights (for a price that eventually reached $150,000 plus royalties), and UPI and the Associated Press obtained rights from Life to distribute seven frames of the Zapruder film to subscriber newspapers and magazines around the world.

My first reaction to the events on the timeline was, “How different from our current free-for-all mindset!” People post videos immediately, making them available for use by anyone with Internet access. But that view is naïve. We, as Internet users, have become more savvy and inventive than ever in figuring out ways to monetize or capitalize on the content we post. Many videos on YouTube, for example, are preceded by short advertisements; videos that are popular enough get a percentage of the ad’s revenue. And the rest of us have learned a multitude of ways to promote ourselves and our causes, or, at the very least, to get a lot of “likes.”

The Citizen Video is often powerful because of its shock value, and there is often an ethical tug-of-war when considering whether or not to broadcast sensational material. Zapruder sold the rights to his footage with the condition that frame 313 be withheld. According to an article in Smithsonian magazine (October 2013), “Frame 313 gave him nightmares and he didn’t want to be the one to inflict them on the rest of America.”

Fifty years later, Obama urged us to watch the videos because of their ghastliness. Both men were considering our sense of humanity. Zapruder wanted to protect the nation by not showing horrific footage. Conversely, President Obama wanted to protect the nation by showing it.

Ironically, Zapruder’s requested omission fostered a more frenzied and laser-like public focus. Where was the missing frame? What else had been doctored? Conspiracy theories sprouted like fertilized weeds, and the film has since been scrutinized with every type of technology available.

During and after Obama’s speech, there was a deluge of discussion online and in the media analyzing the veracity and source of the videos. Were they authentic? Who was really responsible for the attack? On The Rachel Maddow Show (August 21, 2013) Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, declared, “You can’t fake that, you can’t convince children to play dead for long periods of time.…” But Google a bit further and you will find posts that insist that the videos were staged.

As we were 50 years ago, we continue to be believers and doubters. It is human nature to want to believe, and at the same time to counter belief with cynicism.

By the time you read this column, you will have already seen a bar-rage of renditions and analyses of the Zapruder film occasioned by its anniversary. Many will be in the form of Citizen Videos themselves, highlighting the similarities and differences between the world we knew 50 years ago, and the world we occupy now. ca

© 2013 W. Richmond Richmond
Wendy Richmond ( is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.