Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Let's talk photographers - let's talk George Holliday

Since Friday, the tubes have been a'buzzing about the whole Thomas Hawk/SF MoMA/Simon Blint incident. One side benefit of this (and I believe Thomas Hawk would agree) is that it has refocused attention on photographers who have been truly persecuted when taking pictures that some people didn't want taken (I'm thinking of people like Carlos Miller and Scott Conover, who I mentioned yesterday.

As I was musing about this today, I began thinking about the most famous photographer who fits in that category.

And then I realized that I didn't know the name of this most famous photographer.

And I wasn't alone. If you try a FriendFeed search for George Holliday, you'll find that no one on FriendFeed had discussed him before today (August 12, 2008).

Now that you see the name George Holliday, perhaps some of you remember who he is. And even if you don't remember Holliday's name, you certainly remember Rodney King's name.

Here's the story from Holliday's point of view:

A story of an [A]rgentine plumber who inmigrated to the U.S. escaping from a turbulent country, Argentina in the 80’s, looking for the american dream, and suddenly gets involved in a case of police brutallity, human rights leaders, media preasure, court rooms, unfaithfull lawyers, and millionaire demands.

So how did it all begin?

Rodney King was pulled over by the police in Los Angeles, had an angry verbal confrontation with the officers, and was then brutally assaulted by several of them. Public servants gone wildly out of control, savagely kicked King, landed 56 baton blows to his body, battering and bloodying him. The beating was so loud and raucous, in fact, that it caught the attention of George Holliday in his nearby apartment. He got out of his bed and went to his window, where he witnessed the horrible scene. Holliday immediately went to get his video camera, and he captured the whole awful episode on tape.

Holliday asked questions and didn't get answers. That's when the fun really began:

Holliday was curious about what he had witnessed, so when the L.A. police would give him no details, he called local television station KTLA. Those videotaped images rocked this nation's consciousness.

Holliday noted the differences between the United States and the country that he had just fled:

Holliday reflects on how he did not realize how newsworthy his video of the Rodney King beating would be. He explains, "Coming from Argentina, it's different over there. If a criminal commits a crime, you know, the police take him in and they take care of him. For me, that's normal because that's the way I grew up."

Ironically, Holliday didn't meet King until years later:

[Y]ears later he finally met King, a chance meeting at a gas station at 10:00 at night. Recalls Holliday: "He says, 'Yeah, you don't recognize me.' And I said, 'No' and he says, 'Yeah, you saved my life.' And so then I knew who he was…”

And for his efforts, Holliday received fame, fortune, and recognition. Not exactly:

Back then, George was married and a manager at a big plumbing and rooting company. Now he's twice divorced, self-employed and scraping by. He might have been better off had he stayed in bed that night.

After he gave the eight-minute video to KTLA, his name was trumpeted in the newspapers and plastered across television screens and repeated on the radio....George received a couple of death threats in the mail—"Be careful when you start your car in the morning," one said; the other was an envelope full of drawings of daggers—and often when people recognized him they'd say: "You're the guy who caused the riots."

His first wife left him. "There was a sea of reporters every day," he recalled, sitting at my kitchen table. "Maria didn't even want to leave the house." His second marriage didn't work out either.

When he adds it up, he doesn't see that he got much on the positive side: a few thousand dollars (he wouldn't be specific) from licensing the video to filmmakers, including Spike Lee for "Malcolm X"; plaques from the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the LAPD; and his name on a Trivial Pursuit card—misspelled as "Halliday."

I wonder - if the police had answered Holliday's questions that night, rather than stonewalling him, is it possible that the tape would never have seen the light of day?

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