Experience

The Final Shots of Onlookers

A tsunami, a volcanic eruption, the falling of the twin towers and other incidents that people with cameras managed to capture before their deaths.


In the 1870s, German physiologist Wilhelm Kühne tried to find a scientific basis to the ancient belief that the eyes of a victim captures the image of their murderer in the last seconds of life. According to Kühne, the visual pigment rhodopsin, decaying at the time of a person's death, could play the role of a photographic negative. During experiments, Kühne behead rabbits and photographed the retina of their eyes. In one of these pictures, he noticed a window that was allegedly seen by the animal just before death.

For some time, Kühne tried to practice "optography" in several countries, and in 1888, London investigator Walter Drew took a picture of the retina of murdered prostitute, Mary J. Kelly, hoping to find the face of Jack the Ripper. None of the attempts were successful, and soon a scientific journal published an article with a devastating critique of the method. By the beginning of twentieth century, he was only remembered by investigators who used the myth of optography as a method to pressure suspects, “We saw your face in the eyes of the victim, so you must admit it.”

Nevertheless, a victim can capture the cause of their death. 100 years later, cameras that survived tragic incidents are being increasingly found on the scene. However, footage that directly shows the tragedy is extremely rare, and fake photos appear almost more than real ones. We will discuss both.

Terrorist Attack in New York, September 11, 2001, USA
Bill Biggart

Bill Biggart left his career as a commercial photographer for photojournalism with no regrets: he documented an intifada in Palestine, riots in Northern Ireland, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first war in Iraq. On September 11, 2001, when he heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, he ran out of the house with three cameras. According to other reporters, Biggart was the closest to the fall of the South Tower and was killed by debris from the North Tower when it began to crumble. His body and the remains of the cameras were found among the debris four days later.


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The Six Day War, June 5, 1967, Israel
Paul Schutzer

Leading LIFE magazine photo correspondent, Paul Schutzer, arrived in Israel in June 1967. By that time all the neighboring Arab countries had done a full mobilization, and the Egyptian President publicly called to "throw the Jews into the sea." War was a foregone conclusion.

On June 5, 1967, Israel preemptively struck airfields, almost completely destroying the combat aircraft of Egypt, and its motorized infantry and tanks attacked Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian troops. Paul Schutzer was in an armored truck with Israeli soldiers. One second before the car was hit by a bazooka shell, Schutzer was fatally shot in the head. His body and camera were found on the battlefield the next day.


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Mount Ontake Eruption, September, 27, 2014, Japan
Izumi Noguchi

Mount Ontake, at a height of 3,000 meters, is one of the most visited mountains of the Nagano prefecture in Japan. Because of the relative ease of a one-day climb, it is often recommended for beginners. Starting in 1979, the volcano was considered extinct. When an eruption began on the slopes of Mount Ontake, more than 300 people were climbing. Sixty were able to get down quickly, and the rest sought refuge in two alpine campsites.

One of the stranded hikers was 59-year-old construction worker Izumi Noguchi. He took about 100 pictures to show his wife later, as she had been unable to keep him company. Like 56 other tourists, Noguchi was killed when he was covered in a plume of gas and stones. His camera was destroyed, but the memory card survived.


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Dyatlov Pass Incident, February 1-2, 1959, USSR
Yuri Krivonischenko

The tragic, albeit somewhat commonplace, death of nine students of Ural Polytechnic Institute (from 1975-2004, more than one hundred people died on ski trips in Russia alone) has entered tourist mythology due to the unidentified official cause of death and mystical details. A tent cut open from the inside was found at the end of February in 1959 on one of the ridges of the Altai Mountains. The half-naked bodies of the tourists were discovered in different places, some at a considerable distance from the camp. Although most of the students were frozen, some bodies had been injured which might indicate a violent death.

Experts believe the most likely cause of the accident to be a large formation of snow that was displaced when installing the tents, and the panic that ensued at night under extremely heavy frost and gale-force winds. But it is much more popular among the public to support the hypothesis of an attack by native Mansi people or runaway prisoners, of a secret weapon that eliminates witnesses to its use, and of the failure of a controlled transfer of radioactive materials from undercover KGB agents to foreign spies.

The wildest versions have been fueled by the publication of the Dyatlov hikers’ film rolls, received in 2009 from the personal archive of the prosecutor who led the case. One frame from a Zorki camera of one of the tourists, Yuri Krivonischenko, became particularly famous: in the blurry photo, you can make out moving balls of light in the dark.

However, professional photographers and forensic experts can explain the picture. Upon receiving camera for development and printing, and before rewinding the film, a laboratory employee pressed the shutter button. The shutter on Krivonischenko’s camera was cocked, it opened, and thus another conspiracy theory was brought into the world.


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Tsunami, December 26, 2004, Thailand
John and Jackie Knill

The Knills were from Canada, but considered Thailand their second home, and in 2004 celebrated Christmas at a resort in Khao Lak. The next morning, like many other tourists, they went to the beach. When an unusually large wave appeared in the distance, John and Jackie did not panic and began to take photos of it. It was a tsunami wave caused by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Later, it would be considered the deadliest natural disaster in modern history. The Knills were among the 300,000 dead.

A month later, a Baptist missionary, Christian Pilet, arrived in Khao Lak. Walking along the beach, he found a broken digital camera with the memory card intact. There were photos on it, including portraits, which Pilet compared to images of people who had gone missing during the tsunami. Later, he sent a card to children of John and Jackie.


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Bear Attack, August 8, 1996, Russia
Michio Hoshino

Michio Hoshino became famous for his photos of wildlife, the most famous of which were devoted to the bears of Alaska. For the same reason, Hoshino arrived in Kamchatka, Russia in 1996. Near Kuril Lake, the team tracked down a big bear that was not afraid of people, and continued to hunt for fish at their approach. This allowed them to shoot the animal up close.

Two days later, traces of a bear were found near their campsite. It became clear that not only was the photographer following the predator, but the predator was following the photographer. A Russian guide believed it a dangerous situation and asked Michio sleep in a house, but he refused and, as usual, went to sleep by the window of his tent. At night the bear killed him, hitting him with its paw through the fabric of the tent and dragging the body away. When huntsmen killed the animal, they found Hoshino’s hands in its stomach.

In 2009, as part of a photoshop competition on worth1000.com with the description, "the last picture you'll ever take..." the last shot of Michio Hoshino was allegedly published. It took off and is now called authentic by many sources.


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