The power — and carelessness — of film

“Everyone had a piece of me. And when everyone in the world thinks they know who you are, you don’t want to be who you are,” Mary Ann Vecchio said in a recent profile by Patricia McCormick at The Washington Post. Vecchio’s life was permanently altered when, at 14 years old, she was photographed kneeling in anguish next to the body of Jeffrey Miller, shot dead by the National Guard at Kent State in 1970.

The profile is a fascinating read, detailing Vecchio’s derailed life and the photographer who experienced decades of guilt for capturing her photo. For simply being adjacent to a tragedy, Vecchio suffered years of hate mail, criticism in the media, and harassment by police. She struggled to cope with her status as a symbol — of praise and derision — to both supporters and critics of the Vietnam war.

This story is a reminder that the power of images cuts in many directions. The photograph at Kent State, McCormick writes, “is one of those rare photos that fundamentally changed the way we see ourselves and the world around us.” But it changed Vecchio, too. She is now 65 but says that the photo “hijacked my life” and “50 years later, I still haven’t really moved on.”

The image permanently altered public perception of the war in Vietnam and, in the face of such an impact, Vecchio’s suffering likely seems a reasonable price to pay. Few things come without a cost, after all.

But what about the people who pay a price for visual records of much less historical significance?

It’s a question that’s even more pressing now given the ease of creating and sharing images and video. Take this incident, for example. On Sunday, Tariq Nasheed tweeted a video with the caption, “A white Holiday Inn Express worker has a nervous breakdown after he got scolded by a Black customer because of a mistake in the reservation system.” The video shows the employee begin to hit his own head with his fist and computer as the customer criticizes him, filming him the entire time. At one point, the employee can be heard saying that he has a mental illness and that the man recording him has ruined his life. Rapper Freddie Gibbs also shared the video and added “Somebody make sure this white boy don’t have a gun.” Both Nasheed and Gibbs have hundreds of thousands of followers (though, notably, the replies to their tweets are full of criticism for their decision to post the video).

The employee appears to have confirmed that he was indeed suffering from a “mental crisis” in the video, and that the clip doesn’t even tell the full story. He alleges that the man chose not to include footage of himself calling the employee a “faggot” for “taking his money” or of the employee telling him, “I have mental illness, I need a moment to think.”

Content like this makes its way around Twitter all the time. Many of the videos and images don’t tell a story about major events in public life — like this one, they’re just commonplace disputes between individuals that get shared to hundreds of thousands of people, elevating minor disagreements between two people into fodder for everyone.

It’s not clear what’s to be gained from the filming and sharing of these videos and images — other than engagement metrics — but it’s obvious that someone pays a cost. In this case, it’s a hotel employee who must live with the fact that his moment of suffering has become public knowledge, a topic of debate for thousands of people.

How long will this haunt him? How many other people caught on camera have suffered the same experience, and will in the future? People posting and sharing this material will likely forget about it shortly after the retweets and replies taper off. But the experience could stay with the subjects in the frame for much longer, a lasting fixture in both their minds and their names’ search results.

Last year, I wrote a piece about social media and mobs — how difficult it is to define them and how easy it can be to unthinkingly join one. I offered some guidelines (specifically for posts about non-public figures) that I thought could improve social media and promised to revisit them later on. I’d like to do so now.

At the time, I wrote that people should avoid sharing videos of identifiable teenagers because it’s generally unbecoming of adults (many of whom didn’t live their teen years online) to criticize teenagers’ behavior this way. I now think that rule should be expanded, and that we should be much more hesitant to share any images and videos that seem to primarily serve the purpose of notifying the world that some stranger they’ll never meet did something wrong or obnoxious or shameful. I don’t expect everyone else to reach this conclusion, but after spending years on Twitter and seeing how often context is missing and small disagreements are blown out of proportion, I don’t want to engage with social media this way.

There’s a meme about how the goal of Twitter is to never become the main character. It’s a good joke, but it should inspire self-reflection from those of us who could play a part in elevating someone to the status of main character. In my earlier post, I wrote that we should be more cognizant of what our intentions are on social media, what we’re trying to achieve when we use it, and what we expect the outcomes to be. For some people, the outcome may be thousands of strangers treating one of their worst moments like reality TV.