The Digital Journalist
If They Give You Grief,
Tell 'Em About Gustave
January 2003

by James Colburn

"I don't care so much what the papers write about - my constituents can't read - but damn it, they can see pictures."
- William M. (Boss) Tweed

Some rich guy recently spent over $1 million building an exact replica of the Wright Brothers original airplane and, on the 100th anniversary of the brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, attempted to re-create it.

You probably saw it on television. The President was there along with other dignitaries and a crowd numbering in the thousands. The plane started down its two rail track.... And proceeded to crash into a large puddle of water at the end of the "runway." This is an instance where it might have been better (less embarrassing anyway) if no cameras had been present.

One of the big reasons for the Wright Bothers' fame over the past 100 years is the simple fact that pictures were taken and distributed in a stunning early public relations exercise that firmly fixed Orville and Wilbur in the minds of the world's population as the inventors of the airplane. The picture of those guys running along at the side of the plane was milked it for all it was worth.

Then there's Gustave Whitehead. He was a German immigrant and inventor that made what appears to be the real first powered human flight on August 14th, 1901.... More than two years before the Wright Brothers. He made his 1/2 mile flight on the beach in Fairfield, Connecticut and, while there were a few witnesses and the event was reported in Scientific American and newspapers in New York and Boston, old Gustave was a shy guy and didn't have a photographer present on that day or on any of the subsequent days that he flew his monoplane up and down the Connecticut coast and over Long Island Sound. All in all, a bad decision on Gustave's part.

Since the dawn of the 20th Century it's become more and more apparent that something hasn't really "happened" unless there's a photograph. Saddam is captured and within hours pictures of him are sent out, in the main, because a lot of his former constituents wouldn't believe the story of his capture with the proof of an image. Whenever a tape of Osama Bin Laden is released it takes days for it to be declared authentic for the simple reason that audio no longer counts on its own. If the statement was released on video with a copy of last week's New York Times on the wall everyone would believe it immediately.

During your next assignment you might want to bring this to the attention of your subject or client. "I hate having my picture taken," is the mantra used by so many people that have a story to tell, a cause to promote or something to sell and it's usually a pain in the ass to convince and cajole them with flattery and reason to get them to stand still long enough for you to get a decent picture.

Play hard ball. Tell them that if you don't get your picture, now, they won't exist. They won't go down in the general historical record and future generations will never know of their existence. Tell them that they'll just fade away like a sand sculpture on the beach and drift off into insignificance. Tell them about Gustave.

© James Colburn
Contributing Writer