I hate to admit this.
The day Benazir Bhutto was murdered, I realized it then.
Yes, there were words that told me, on my computer start page, words only, that Bhutto was dead. Words, however, weren't good enough. At first reading, my mind refused to process what the words were saying. No. What I wanted was a picture. A picture that confirmed the truth of the words.
© Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi, Dec. 27, 2007, before her assassination.
Creative Commons/Adnan Asin
Sure enough, before the day was over, there was a photograph: Benazir Bhutto standing center stage in the sky roof of her van, arm raised, greeting her adoring crowd.
But that wasn't good enough either. What I wanted wasn't just any picture. What I wanted was THE photograph. The one that would make me believe the story.
This photograph of Bhutto, standing in the sky roof of her van, showed her alive. Touching as it was, knowing it was taken when she had only moments left to live, this photograph didn't do it for me. This is the part I hate to admit. Yes, it had poignancy. But it didn't go far enough. What I wanted was a photograph that showed me the moment when her life was taken, the photograph that made it possible to believe this unbelieveable act. I'm not even thinking news crews here. There was a crowd. These days we expect someone, just any old somebody in the vicinity, to have a camera rolling.
© Benazir Bhutto gunman; alleged suicide bomber in background.
Clearly, that is, we have come to expect what once we never would have.
When the terrorist bombs exploded in the London subways and survivors staggered out, some bearing visions of the smoky hell they'd lived through on their camera phones, we saw that as a bonus. There were no news crews on hand underground. Not one of us then would have expected we'd get a look inside those blown-out subway cars in the minutes after the bombs went off. I don't know about you, but for me, I was amazed there were pictures to see, photos that made it so real. That made you feel what it was like to be there. Those photographs were an unexpected plus.
Equally amazing and unexpected, at the time, only just last August, was to see the exact moment when the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. Not just the aftermath, as we would expect, but footage of the bridge actually going down. Taken, as it turns out, by a security camera.
Now Britney Spears goes berserk and shaves off her hair at a California beauty shop, or is checked into the hospital after a standoff with police at her house and somebody has the picture. Yes, we have come to expect it. That is the change.
© Creative Commons/Adam Stacey
Trapped underground during the London subway bombings, July 7, 2005.
How quickly we have traveled this road.
With the Bhutto assassination, by the weekend, a couple of days later, footage did emerge. Footage of what I would call THE pictures, the telling moment. The gunman advances out of the crowd, stalks her from the rear. The flash of gunshot. The beginning of Bhutto's fall. In fact, we ended up seeing the attack from more than one angle. Left rear, right side. Soon thereafter came the photos in the newspaper, the stills of the gunman, circled in red, waiting in the crowd and, standing behind him, the man in the white shawl said to be the suicide bomber. Later, we even get the photograph of the gunman's severed head.
Satisfied. Now I can let it rest. Seeing is believing.
Years ago, on "Saturday Night Live," as if mocking the news business, Eddie Murphy used to do the Buckwheat is Dead sketch. The joke is we see it over and over and then over again. Buckwheat is dead. And then, from the top, Buckwheat is dead again. But there is a kernel of truth lying here.
When our reality is altered, particularly by something incredible, meaning not easily believed, first of all, we do need to see it. And, secondly, we need to see it over and over again. In this way, "incredible," "I don't believe it," moves to "hard to believe" and then "I guess it did happen, isn't it a shame," to, eventually, "yes, of course, that's the way it was." If we can see it, if we can get a picture in our heads, then we can believe it. We can buy this change in our reality.
That has always been true.
© Creative Commons/Mike Wills
Creative Commons/Mike Wills
The difference is now that we know how many eyes are out there watching, we have gone from amazed that there are pictures. To happily surprised. To where's the shot? To how quickly can we see it? Where is it already?
The next time a bridge collapses. Skiers are trapped by an avalanche. An ocean liner sinks at sea. I will figure someone must have the picture. And I am afraid I've become so spoiled that if no one has the shot on a story where it matters to me to feel I "saw" it, I will ask, indignantly, "How could that be that there isn't any shot there!"
I suppose that's what makes me a journalist in the first place.