The changing duty to bear witness

I don’t know who “qbertplaya” is, but I am eternally thankful to him or her for this:

It’s Patti Smith closing CBGB, the last song played there, a moment in history captured by someone wise and generous enough to hold up some sort of mobile recording device. I was struck by that act when I first ran across the recording years ago – the difference between being in a moment and recording it for others.

It is a long and important tradition that includes the strange story of Abraham Zapruder. But like qbertplaya, we are all Abraham Zapruders now. In the now-famous picture of a University of California Davis police officer pepper-spraying peaceful seated demonstrators, I counted 15 people taking pictures, outnumbering those who were not filming.

There’s an odd sort of detachment in the act of bearing witness for posterity instead of simply being in the moment. I know it professionally. I’m not a photographer, but I’ve been rethinking this because I’ve started taking pictures in my newspaper work recently. That fundamentally changes what has always been, for me, the act of bearing witness. Being at a “thing” when I’m working is different, the way I try to see more, remember and annotate and prepare for the retelling even as I’m experiencing. Instead of just being there and enjoying.

I thought of this anew yesterday when I reread, on the news of his death, Tom Wicker’s remarkable first-day story on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As an example of tradecraft, it is a thing to behold – richly detailed yet unadorned, famously dictated from a pay phone “from notes scribbled on a White House itinerary sheet.” It is impossible as a practitioner for me to read the work of others without pondering the “how did they do that” question. It is impossible for me to watch Wicker bear witness that day and not be in awe:

Standing beside the new President as Mr. Johnson took the oath of office was Mrs. John F. Kennedy. Her stockings were spattered with her husband’s blood.


One Comment

  1. Ha! Just stumbled across this post upon googling my name. It was an amazing moment for me, being there for the last show at CBGB. Easily one of the most significant concerts I’ve been to in my lifetime. Glad people can enjoy the video. Peace.

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