Whenever I watch documentaries, there's one thought that I can't shake: "how are these people filming this?" Moving toward the action is a required impulse for documentarians. No matter how horrifically violent or emotionally scarring the event they're capturing is, documentary teams constantly aim to capture moments in progress. I don't know about you, but I find that level of detachment slightly unnerving. However, without that impulse existing inside documentarians and photographers, the world would be deprived of tremendous resources and images.
With the advent of smartphone cameras, it seems like the impulse to record horrific events has grown substantially. One needs to look no further than the George Floyd video. On the one hand, I'm grateful that someone recorded the video as it helped bring Derek Chauvin to justice, but I'm a little disturbed by the existing video in the first place. Darnella Frazier, the girl who filmed Floyd's death, spoke about the trauma recording the video induced on her, but ultimately, she said she was "proud of herself" for filming the incident. What kind of strength does that take to power through the very human urge to help or flee, choosing instead to immortalize a moment that will assuredly traumatize you?
The picture of Thích Quảng Đức is another example of a photographer following the impulse to capture a scarring event. Fifty-nine years ago, Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk, immolated himself to protest the Buddhist crisis in Vietnam. The image of flames swallowing Thích Quảng Đức became one of the most iconic pictures of the 20th century and one that always hurts my soul. Similar to Darnella Fraizer, Malcolm Browne won a Pulitzer prize for the image. Still, I have to wonder, how much trauma, if any at all, does an award of that caliber remove from your heart?
To be clear, I'm not calling either Fraizer or Browne inhuman for documenting either event; I'm only saying that I don't think I would be able to. And how differently would history look if everyone behind the camera was like me?