From Zapruder to the selfie: Images capture, but seldom explain

The cultural legacy of the iconic imagery of President Kennedy's assassination is a complex one

the Zapruder film in the National Archives, Oct. 22, 2013
Richard Schneider/AP

A clothing manufacturer named Abraham Zapruder just happened to be testing his new 8 mm camera at the very moment President John F. Kennedy was shot, and the resulting iconic film has become inextricably associated with one of the most traumatic moments of American history. The Zapruder film was by no means the first example of “citizen journalism,” but it may mark the first time that the popular memory of an event has become fused with its recorded image — “so much so that Kennedy’s death is virtually unimaginable without Zapruder’s film,” as art critic Richard B. Woodward once put it.

Fifty years later, much of the world has come to expect that video recordings of every noteworthy — and not so noteworthy — event virtually anywhere will almost immediately be visible on the Internet. Political blunders become memes, endlessly rebroadcast at the discretion of the viewer. Even when no network’s cameras are on hand, raw footage of bombings captured on cell phones and uploaded to YouTube gives us a vivid real-time picture of distant wars. So ingrained in the minds of many Americans is the expectation of such 360-degree video coverage that the absence of imagery often raises questions about whether an event actually occurred. A common refrain in comment sections on aggregation websites such as Reddit is “pics or it didn’t happen,” or “pics or it doesn’t exist.”

The newsmakers themselves are so aware of this dynamic that they “create” their events — whether a quirky flash mob or a gruesome beheading — for the camera. When two young men stabbed British soldier Lee Rigby to death in London in May, one of the attackers took the time to stand in front of a bystander’s cell phone and explain his actions. As soon as that video was uploaded to the news station ITV’s website, so many people watched that the site crashed.

And it may be the Zapruder film that we have to thank for the expectation that we experience the events of our time through instantly accessible video.

In the hour following Kennedy’s assassination, Zapruder brought the undeveloped 486 frames of Kodachrome II 8 mm safety film to a Dallas-based Secret Service agent. Zapruder and the agent got the film developed at a local Kodak processing plant, and later that night, Zapruder had copies made at the Jamieson Film Co. He gave two copies to the Secret Service and offered another one to the media, starting a bidding war between CBS News and Life magazine. Life won out, paying $150,000 for the rights to the film — over $1 million in today’s dollars.

Richard Stolley, one of the editors of Life at the time who helped procure the Zapruder film, told Al Jazeera he’d never before seen anything as graphic as the 8 mm chronicle of the Kennedy assassination.

“When the whole top of the president’s head flew up in the air, I just grunted,” he said. “I was totally unprepared for the graphic nature of that. It was probably the most dramatic moment of my journalistic career.”

It was so graphic, in fact, that Life’s editors decided to withhold frame 313 — the image that showed the moment of impact — when they published stills from the film in their next issue.

For the next decade, copies of the film leaked out and were shown at underground screenings around the country. But it wasn't until 1975 that most Americans saw it in its entirety. That year, Robert Groden — a critic of the original government investigation of Kennedy’s death — obtained a copy of the film and gave it to ABC, which broadcast it on "Good Night America" with Geraldo Rivera.

The screening on prime-time news caused so much shock around the nation that it forced Congress to set up three committees and launch a new investigation into the assassination. It also spawned countless conspiracy theories, most of which were based on the angle with which Kennedy’s head moves after being hit by a bullet.

But the Zapruder film had repercussions beyond JFK.

It cemented the idea that images could bring clarity to confusing, traumatizing situations, launching an era when Americans began to expect significant news to be followed by on-the-ground images.

“The Zapruder film was kind of the beginning of the modern media world,” said Jeff Morley, an ex-Washington Post editor who now runs “The experience the whole country went through of looking at a crime scene and analyzing what happened can all be traced back to that.”

Morley and others who have studied the reaction to the Zapruder film say it provided comfort to a grieving nation. It ultimately offered a visual chronicle of Kennedy’s death that offered at least the coherence of a visual set of “facts.”

Perhaps the desire to visually order a chaotic reality explains the world’s seemingly insatiable appetite for horrific events captured on camera. Within hours after two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon in April, thousands of people posted pictures taken on cell phones to Reddit in an effort to identify the perpetrators.

But for those who have studied the Zapruder film and the new culture in which millions of Zapruders constantly disseminate billions of backlit frames, there’s a cautionary tale in trying to find truth in imagery.

For every question that Zapruder’s footage helped answer, 10 more were raised. It provided fodder for conspiracy theories and formed the basis for several accusations since proved false. That’s similar to what happened on Reddit after the Boston Marathon. The danger posed by misinterpretation of amateur imagery forced the site to shut down the thread.

Media critics today warn that we increasingly mistake visual representations of events for meaningful explanations of those events.

“Without context, you don’t really have anything,” said social theorist Douglas Rushkoff, whose seminal 1994 book “Media Virus” explored the use and manipulation of imagery in American popular and political culture. “You’ve got pictures you don’t really understand, and that could be worse than nothing.”

We seek out these images because, as the Zapruder film proved, they provide some kind of comfort — the illusion of explanation in an often frightening world.

But even the Zapruder film, which Americans have had decades to process and analyze, still causes confusion. What are the implications of historically significant images entering and exiting the public consciousness, not over decades but in a matter of days or hours?

The Internet may offer images of every single historically significant event in today’s world, but those images don’t necessarily offer any more explanation of the events they depict today than they did 50 years ago.

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