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.

The Future of Amateur Disaster Footage

Amateur disaster footage arguably has its roots in yellow journalism, the graphic and dramatic coverage that has graced the front pages of newspapers since the late 19th century. With the advent of photography, coverage of gruesome events became a lot easier, such as with Jacob Riis’ photojournalism project, How the Other Half Lives. The new dimension of movement was extremely important in developing this genre – video documentation of horrific events was incredibly valuable.

Now the genre is becoming easier, more widespread, and more comprehensive. With video sharing platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, the motivation for sharing footage has increased. With applications on smartphones, ordinary citizens can film and upload footage in minutes. Applications such as Vine, Instagram, and Snapchat use a video capture capability with a limited duration, giving rise to the “video tweet,” an ultra-short, unedited video. The quick versatility of these videos make them integral to the genre amateur disaster footage.

In the future, tweets, blog posts, and videos will get shorter and shorter to accommodate the lightning-quick speed of data. Disaster coverage will always be in demand, due to the inherent fascination for horrific events humans have. I predict that disaster coverage will become shorter and more graphic. It will also be easier to upload and search for. Developers will create smartphone applications to group these videos, in order to inspire and help activists.

Ideally, the spread of disaster footage would be controlled. These violent images can be incredibly disturbing and traumatic and when shown to a broader audience, such as young children, can cause significant emotional damage. We as a society need to understand the detrimental power of these videos and create restrictions on the audience.

History of Amateur Disaster Footage

The history of amateur disaster footage evolved alongside the history of video recording in general. As camcorders became less expensive and more portable, non-professional producers were able to record their lives. It is hard to know from where this genre of online video directly came. One could argue that ultimately these disturbing clips came from cave paintings of unsuccessful and violent clashes between tribes. The urge to record trauma comes from the basic human instinct to study catastrophe to learn from mankind’s mistakes.

One of the earliest known and certainly most infamous video clips is called the Zapruder film. Abraham Zapruder, a private citizen, captured the John F. Kennedy assassination on his personal camcorder. This first-hand footage can be seen all over YouTube, accompanied by a plethora of analyses and conspiracy theories. Before its dispersion on the web, stills from the Zapruder film were published in newspapers and magazines.

A new form of amateur disaster footage bloomed with the development of social media and camera phones. It became much easier for civilians to produce their own content and to share it with the world. The violence in the Middle East was a showcase of the ability of the general public to create this eye-catching footage. Instead of relying on newspaper, magazine, and television companies to publish the stills and footage, the audience can view the disaster straight from the original source.

Amateur disaster footage is not new to the history of media. However, with the rise of web video, the footage has become more raw and honest to the event details. These horrific videos have satisfied the human desire for images of tragedy.

About Amateur Disaster Footage

Amateur disaster footage is a type of online video that depicts first-hand accounts of  frightening events. Along with Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms, raw footage has changed the course of political and social action around the globe. YouTube, as a video sharing platform, has the added dimension of captivating audiences with visuals. These videos have a kind of horrible allure that brings millions of views.

Producers of amateur disaster footage are usually civilians with camera phones or camcorders who were at the scene of the event at the right time to capture it. More young adults produce these videos, causing their spread across social media platforms. Shaky, low-quality cell phone footage and mediocre audio give these videos an authentic feel that makes the viewer feel like s/he is really in such a dangerous situation.

Amateur raw footage on YouTube has played an important role in increasing social activism, such as in the riots and demonstrations of the Arab Spring in 2010. Civilians posted first-hand accounts of the violence in order to spread the word about the severity of the situation. This led to a fast-paced movement in the Middle East that included thousands of people. Amateur footage broadcasted the events to the world – garnering more support and awareness from both Western audiences and the rest of the world.

In the case of localized senseless acts of violence, amateur footage is a type of “yellow journalism,” a technique to pull in viewers with eye-catching and often gruesome images. For example, the people who uploaded the many videos of the Boston Marathon bombing and September 11th were not focused on organizing widespread activist support. They just felt the need to document such a catastrophic event. Broadcast stations gathered this raw footage and used it to increase their views.

Watching footage, especially repeatedly, of these terrifying situations can be emotionally and psychologically damaging. Therefore, it is important to take small doses of this intense videography. Amateur raw footage of violence and disasters is a powerful tool for inspiring emotion and action.