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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Under Fire

In an era of “cell phone” photojournalism, does the professional photographer still have a role?

This Article Features Photo Zoom
Egyptians gather at Tahrir Square in Cairo for Friday prayers and to protest President Hosni Mubarak's government. A man reacts to the rumor that Mubarak officially resigned.

A wounded anti-government protester is attended to during clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators in Tahrir Square, February 2, 2011.
During the recent uprisings in the Middle East commonly referred to as the Arab Spring, the people of the region were able to circumvent censorship and bring governments to their knees, thanks in large part to cell phone and mobile digital technology. Images and videos were disseminated to the world via social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube, spurring public outcry and political debate. Thanks to universal access to the Internet and the sheer ubiquity of mobile phones, the very participants of events all over the world now can upload images and publish them instantaneously, even while history is unfolding.

From environmental disaster zones like Haiti, Japan and India, mobile phones and social networks often become the most reliable means of communication because mobile phones aren't tethered to fragile landlines and, to an extent, power needs. As seen most notably in the Arab Spring, mobile technology also can be used to covertly rally popular support. One example is Libya, where Gaddafi's general approach to dealing with the foreign press for the last 40 years has been to prohibit them from entering the country. As a result, much of the vital news and information coming out of the country has been credited to citizen journalists like Mohammed "Mo" Nabbous, who was killed in March.

While despots may argue that giving people a say is a bad thing, very few others would, and yet media has seen its fair share of criticism for publishing images from these "cell phone" photojournalists. Images taken by the cell phones of surviving victims of the July 7, 2005 terrorist bombings in London, for instance, became part of the story itself as shots taken literally at the scene were uploaded to the World Wide Web within hours. One iconic cell phone image of the evacuation process from commuter Alexander Chadwick was picked up by the Associated Press and ended up on the front page of The New York Times the following day. Blurry, dark and disjointed, it encapsulates in a single shot the confusion and chaos following the bombings, and although it's hardly an image that many would consider to be professional, there's no denying that it's photojournalism at its best.

People lie in front of a hospital without treatment at night in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 13, 2010. The 7.0 earthquake that rocked the country a day earlier devastated much of the capital, killing thousands.
"These are confusing times for photojournalists," says National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and VII Photo member Ed Kashi. "Against the backdrop of a terrible world economy, a fractured media environment and dwindling paid opportunities, more great photography is being produced around the world now than during any period in history. While new media and citizen journalism are gaining increasing importance in our world today, they don't replace the need for well-crafted and responsibly reported journalism. There's no less of an appetite for images that reflect our world and give us information, but somehow the monetary value of this work has diminished. While traditional outlets are shrinking, new opportunities are arising, so I remain cautiously optimistic about the future of photojournalism."

"We're living in a time of transition," adds VII Photo Agency co-founder Ron Haviv. "Our once-known ways of working are dying; a new way has been born and is slowly taking hold. Photojournalists working today must be able to survive in both of these worlds and at the same time look to what the future may hold. It's an exciting time in many ways because there's an ever-pressing need for content. Having the ability to produce pieces with multiple mediums often ensures that we'll have more control over our final pieces than ever before. As citizen journalism takes hold, content provided by authors with points of view and integrity aside from photographic skills will always resonate with the audience."

The Global Newsfront
It's obvious that photojournalists can't be everywhere at once, and it often takes time to deploy them to an area that's hot after the fact. During the Arab Spring, flash mob rallies by their very nature were designed to be spontaneous in order to avoid government crackdowns. That also made it very difficult to get professional photojournalists to the scene, so instead the media had to resort to crowd-sourcing images that were coming from the participants themselves. That doesn't mean that the role of photojournalist has become irrelevant, however. Imagery produced by citizen photojournalists can be invaluable, but it's not the whole story. The world still needs long-form, deeply analytical explorations of global and local issues. That requires sophisticated reportage from professionals who are sensitive to the issues while still being able to detach themselves at a personal level.


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