Every day I am amazed by how much life has changed in the last twenty years. In pre-cell phone camera days (Remember those? I do!) we had to debate stories and decide without visual evidence to believe one side or another. We judged based on reputation and societal expectations. We took the side of the teacher over the student, the adult over the child, the police officer over the suspected robber. But with cameras, the power structure has flipped, and all of the previously unknown abuses of power are now replayed in the lucid form of cell phone video.
Rodney King was arrested in 1991 and beaten by the side of the road while a local witness, George Holliday, videotaped much of it from his balcony and sent the footage to local news station. Now at the first moment of conflict we take out our cameras and record the action. We press record so there is objective evidence of what is happening. We also record so that we can re-see, so that we can check our first impressions against the recording. In that, we realize how fallible we are…our memories torqued or our angles off…it is always possible to be missing something off to the side. While even video isn’t perfect, the ubiquity of the medium and our access to it as a tool is still a force to be reckoned with – our way of experiencing the world has changed.
I just finished the book “Drawing Blood” by Molly Crabapple. It is a memoir filled with sketches that describes her “coming of age” as an adult, as a woman, and as an artist. One thing that really struck me is how her art changed from sketching women performing burlesque in Manhattan clubs to becoming a witness of the Occupy Movement, which was happening right down the street from her apartment. After gaining a foothold as an illustrator by using her artistic ability to represent politics, Crabapple was sent to Guantanamo Bay by Vice magazine to sketch the legal proceedings since photography is not allowed. In one of her sketches is Rita Lasar, who lost her brother in the Twin Towers on 9-11, and who traveled to Gitmo to be a witness. The idea of seeing, being present for and seeking understanding of a moment is profound to me. A witness is not necessarily an actor, but a person who is present for the action and reports back on the experience. By being there, the witness has power – you are a primary source.
In this election year consider ways to meld your creativity with your political beliefs (no matter what they are) by showing up to a rally, a fundraiser, walk-a-thon, pancake breakfast, or a protest and take notes on the political machine and machinations. As the political season heats up, consider practicing being a witness and writing about what you see.
Due to the rise of phones with cameras we are no longer stuck debating WHAT happened but can delve deeply and question WHY it happened. Since we don’t need to rely on hearsay we can delve deeper into the socio-economic-historical reasons and greater forces at work in our lives. As author Salman Rushdie stated, “Expression of speech is fundamental to all human beings. We are language animals, we are story-telling animals. Without that freedom of expression, all other freedoms fail.”