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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

Darfur, Sudan, Ron Haviv photographs young girls leaving a camp for internally displaced persons to gather firewood for cooking. For some, the work will take more than seven hours, leading them past government checkpoints and leaving them exposed to attacks.
Big media is facing challenges of its own. Thanks in large part to the Internet, traditional media has lost footing amongst the deluge of new voices that have been added to the mix. Blogs, social media and instant publishing have all contributed to an environment where immediacy and relevance trump quality and depth. There may be more outlets for reaching people than ever before—traditional print, the Internet, mobile devices and even your iPad—but learning how to make money off of advertising in these myriad platforms with their evasive readership has been much trickier.

Meanwhile, the creative arts, including photography, are having growing pains of their own. Digitization of artistic media like photos, music and movies has been groundbreaking in terms of the technical possibilities and new, direct marketing routes that connect the artist to the consumer. As the record industry discovered, however, it also has shaken up established paradigms and led to the collapse of traditional business structures. From fashion to fine art, photographers have seen their fair share of the economic impact, but if you look at both paradigm shifts, you'll see that photojournalists, in particular, have been hit by an absolutely perfect storm.

Running-And-Gunning
A primary criticism of citizen journalism is that sources are nearly impossible to verify when thousands of people are clamoring for attention, each with their own biases and often with their own agenda. Founded in 1947, the NPPA established a code of ethics strictly governing the publication of documentary images to address many of these concerns. Their preamble states, "Photographic and video images can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated."

In 2006, Lebanese freelance photographer Adnan Hajj significantly, even glaringly, manipulated two images that covered the ongoing conflict between Israel and Lebanon. Both shots used simple cloning methods to enhance the apparent chaos of the area, with extra smoke added to burning buildings in one and in the other two extra flares added below a jet that had released a single flare while trying to evade incoming missiles. Presumably, both photos were manipulated to add drama, with the second image of the jet also being mislabeled. Shortly thereafter, Reuters fired an editor and withdrew Hajj's images from their site after having worked with the photographer for more than a decade. The 2006 Lebanon War photo controversies also included allegations of photographic staging from Hajj and others.

Hajj wasn't an amateur, but as more cell phone photojournalists enter the fray and as digital manipulation gets better and easier to perform, the likelihood that what you're seeing isn't necessarily the truth is going to increase. Anonymity is the heart of the Internet, and the maelstrom of image Tumblrs and Tweets makes it very hard to verify sources, especially when many of these sources have a lot of reasons to be biased in the first place. It's very easy to misinterpret an image once it has been removed from the original context, and the Internet makes it exceedingly simple to remove the original context.

 

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