Amateur Disaster Footage: A Manifesto



“We enjoy contemplating the most precise images of things whose actual sight is painful to us, such as the forms of the vilest animals and of corpses.” – Aristotle, Poetics

We are the amateur disaster videographers. We record horrible events and tragedies. Spontaneity is key. Luck is essential. A strong stomach is encouraged.

We don’t have fancy shmancy HD cameras. We didn’t go to film school. We don’t know Ken Burns from Ken’s Steakhouse. But we do know a dramatic event when we witness one. And we know that something is compelling us to pull that iPhone out of our pocket to point and shoot.

Cave paintings. Imagine ghostly stick figures hunting a mighty mastodon. That’s the human urge to record hair-raising, fatal instances. Fast-forward to yellow journalism: Hearst and Pulitzer started an arms race to sell newspapers through sensationalist gore. Capturing the moment where JFK’s blood splattered Jackie’s pink jacket was just a fluke initially, but it grew to so much more. Media companies clamored to buy the film off of Zapruder, and even today, it has hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. Even though the genre of online video is new, the motive behind it is not.

Are we terrible people? Are we sick monsters banking on human suffering? Do we just jealously feed off of others’ misery? No. We fulfill a basic human need, just like food, like water, like shelter. The need to stare. The need to gape. The need to be shocked. This need is evolutionarily beneficial. We gaze at these atrocities to remember them, to mentally note just how they happened, in order to prevent them in the future. It’s psychology. It’s innate. It’s human nature.

And let’s not forget widespread activist revolutions, like the Arab Spring of 2010. Without our twisted genre, the Western World would only know the horror through bland newspaper articles and cheesy, watered down documentaries five years later. Raw footage, however macabre, tells you what’s really happening now. And isn’t that what democracy is all about? To give the general public hard data to inspire action?

Our genre is more than a type of online video. It’s a tool. It’s a weapon. It’s as dangerous as the events it displays. Don’t take our genre lightly. Don’t watch too many in one sitting. Don’t get sucked into a rubberneck whirlpool of horror and fear and guilt. Ultimately, you have to go on with your unremarkable life, because not all of us can pull out a camera phone and shoot the shooters.