20 amateur images that have helped make history

 From the Normandy landings to the Arab Spring, the history of the 20th and 21st century has been caught on camera. There are of course plenty of propaganda videos and journalists’ reports, but key moments in history have also been captured by regular people who happened to be at the right place at the right time.


Screengrabs from amateur videos. Clockwise from top left: Adolf Hitler at the Berghof; the death of Muammar Gaddafi; the September 11 attacks; the assassination of JFK.



From the Normandy landings to the Arab Spring, the history of the 20th and 21st century has been caught on camera. There are of course plenty of propaganda videos and journalists’ reports, but key moments in history have also been captured by regular people who happened to be at the right place at the right time.


The FRANCE 24 Observers team, which uses such images to cover the world’s news, has compiled a selection of some of the most striking amateur photos and videos in modern history.

1939-1945: GERMANY – Up close with Adolf Hitler


Some of the most remarkable films of World War II are those made by Eva Braun of her lover Adolf Hitler at the Berghof, the residence of the Nazi dictator in the Bavarian Alps. These films, compiled in a documentary by Isabelle Clarke and Daniel Costelle in 2010, offer a unique insight into the private world of the Nazi elite and show the context in which many key decisions were made.




1955: FRANCE – The Le Mans Disaster


The 23rd edition of the legendary Le Mans automobile race resulted in the worst accident in motorsport history. A car crashed into the stands, killing more than 80 people, including the driver. A horrified spectator filmed the whole incident.



1963: USA – The assassination of John F. Kennedy


It is no doubt the most famous amateur film in history. A video filmed by a man named Abraham Zapruder is the only known footage of the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. The assassination was carried out by Lee Harvey Ostwald on the November 23, 1963, during a presidential visit to Dallas. The footage quickly circled the globe; tangible proof that the role of the amateur in news coverage was only to grow as cameras became more available to the public. Life Magazine bought the film from Zapruder for 150,000 dollars.




1981: ITALY – The attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II


Less than three years after his election to the papacy, Jean Paul II survived an assassination attempt. On May 13, 1981, in Saint Peter’s Square at Vatican City, Mehmet Ali Agça, a Turk, shot the pope, who survived and went on to publicly forgive his attacker. A witness filmed the moments immediately before and after the attack, though not the attack itself. The footage was used in a ABC News report, below, starting at 0’30.




1989: CHINA – Crackdown on Tiananmen Square

From April 15 to June 4, 1989, students, intellectuals and workers demonstrated for democratic and anti-corruption reforms at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. On June 4, the government decided to send in the army to quell the protest. Aside from the famous video of a lone man standing in front of a column of tanks, photographs taken by a soldier in the aftermath of the crackdown surfaced in 2012 via a Chinese blogger. (These photos were relayed by the FRANCE 24 Observers.)




1991: USA –Rodney King beaten by L.A. police



On March 3, 1991, Rodney King, an African American man, was driving in Los Angeles. Having consumed several alcoholic drinks, King refused to pull over for a police highway patrol, triggering a high-speed chase that ended with King being cornered by police cars. Unaware that the scene was being filmed by a bystander, officers began to violently beat King. The footage of the scene made news around the world, but the following year, the officers involved were acquitted of all charges in a verdict that sparked fierce rioting in Los Angeles.



2000: FRANCE – The crash of the Concorde


On July 24, 2000, a Concorde flight scheduled to fly from Paris to New York ended in tragedy. Seconds after takeoff, the plane caught on fire and crashed, resulting in 113 deaths. Andras Kisgergely, a Hungarian student and aviation enthusiast, was watching from near the airport. He took this photo, which was later bought by news agency Reuters. The Concorde fleet were permanently grounded.




2001: USA – The 9/11 attacks


Thousands of images were taken at the time of the attacks on the World Trade Center, but there is only one video of the first plane’s crash. On September 11, 2001, two French brothers, Gédéon and Jules Naudet, were filming a documentary about New York fire fighters. They were only a few hundred metres from the towers when the plane crashed, catching them by surprise. After this, many New Yorkers turned on their cameras and captured the second crash.




2004: IRAQ – The Abu Ghraib scandal


In early 2004, photos taken in Abu Ghraib prison, located to the west of Baghdad, began to surface. They showed Iraqi prisoners, arrested during the US intervention in 2003, in humiliating and degrading conditions. These images quickly sparked a global outcry and undermined the image of the United States in the Middle East. A photograph of a prisoner standing on a box, face covered, hands connected to electrodes, is perhaps the most well-known.



2004 : INDIAN OCEAN – A devastating tsunami


Following a 9.1 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean, a tsunami struck the coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, southern India and Thailand, causing at least 220,000 deaths. Holiday-makers in all of these countries took photos and videos that were quickly relayed by television stations around the world.




2005: UNITED KINGDOM – London bombings


"Be our eyes and ears." This was the BBC’s message to passengers on the three London tube trains and the bus that were hit in a terrorist attack on July 7, 2005, killing 57 and injuring 700. The British broadcaster was flooded with hundreds of photos and videos of the attack, which was orchestrated by Al-Qaeda. Many of these images were recorded with mobile phones – a technological advancement that would radically expand the role of witnesses in capturing historic events.




2007: FRANCE - In Villiers-le-Bel, an amateur video contradicts the police


On November 25, Moushin Sehhouli and Laramy Samoura (15 and 16 years old, respectively) were driving a motorbike with no helmets when they collided with a police car in Villiers-le-Bel, a suburb of Paris. They were killed. According to police, damage to the front of their vehicle was caused by angry youth from the neighbourhood well after the accident. However, a video made by a local resident immediately after the accident proved the car was damaged in the crash. This triggered a national debate about the responsibility of the police in the tragedy and sparked two days of rioting.



2007: PAKISTAN - Assassination of Benazir Bhutto


While on the campaign trail for elections scheduled for January 2008, former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in a suicide attack on her way to a meeting of the Pakistan People’s Party. The tragedy was caught on film by witnesses.



2008: CHINA – Tibetan unrest


On March 10, 2008, only a few months before the Olympic Games in Beijing, residents of Lhassa demonstrated for the release of monks jailed the year before. On March 14, these demonstrations turned into riots against China’s presence in Tibet – a province that has been under Chinese control since 1959. These demonstrations were violently suppressed by the Chinese authorities, as seen in amateur footage leaked to the international media. In this video, protesters are tied up and dragged away by Chinese soldiers.




2009: IRAN - Death of Neda, icon of Iran’s “Green movement”


The re-election of Iran’s hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad triggered protests unseen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Thousands of Iranians disputed the victory, claiming that the election was rigged. Protesters were brutally suppressed, causing among many others the death of Neda, a young Iranian killed by gunfire on the streets of Tehran.




2010: TUNISIA - Protests in Sidi Bouzid become the catalyst for the Arab Spring


On December 17, police confiscated a fruit cart belonging to a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouaziz. He and his family depended on this cart for their livelihood. When Bouaziz went to the governor’s office to try to get it back, the 26-year-old was insulted and slapped by a Tunisian policewoman. Humiliated, Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the governor’s office. His death led outraged Sidi Bouzid residents, who took to the streets in protest. Images of these demonstrations were first relayed in France by the FRANCE 24 Observers. These protests quickly spread throughout the rest of Tunisia, kicking off the first revolution of what was to become known as the Arab Spring.



2011: JAPAN – Tsunami hits Iwaki


On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake created a tsunami that hit the eastern coast of Japan, leaving little in its wake. Many witnesses filmed its devastating effects. The damage the tsunami caused equipment failures at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, causing three reactors to melt down and release radioactive materials.




2011: SYRIA – The crackdown that sparked a civil war


Following the revolutions that toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian dissidents started protesting against Bachar Al Assad’s regime on the March 15, 2011. These demonstrations were violently crushed by the police, who fired on peaceful protesters. This marked the start of a conflict in which, to date, at least 110,000 have died.




2011: LIBYA – Muammar Gaddafi’s death


In August 2011, Tripoli had already fallen into the hands of the rebels, backed by NATO forces. Colonel Gaddafi was hiding out in his hometown of Sirte. Libya’s de facto ruler since 1969 attempted to flee the town on October 20, but was encircled by NATO air forces. Gaddafi was captured alive, but several hours later, he was pronounced dead in unclear circumstances. His ordeal was filmed by one of the rebels that captured him.




2012: FRANCE – The siege of the Toulouse killer’s apartment


From a window, a neighbour filmed the siege of Mohammed Merah’s apartment building by the RAID, an elite French anti-terrorist unit. Merah, a 23-year-old French citizen who said he belonged to Al Qaeda, had killed seven people earlier in the week, including three Jewish children.



Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Corentin Bainier (@cbainier).