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.
"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.
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.
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 c
onflict 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.
While it’s easy to be highly critical of the new influx of amateurs to the field, it’s also worth noting that it was actually bloggers who first uncovered many of the photographic controversies of the 2006 Lebanon War. In fact, it was traditional media that published the images in most cases, and the photojournalists and editors involved were practicing their craft for many years. On one side, you have a public that’s hungry for sensationalism and a media that’s interested in selling the most newspapers and getting the most clicks. On the other side, you have intense competition from other photojournalists who are trying to sell as many images as possible and less and less oversight from editors as the Internet proliferates. Still, none of these moral quandaries is new, none of them has clear answers, and they’re not specific to a digital environment.
The Good News
Everything isn’t doom and gloom, however. There are also more opportunities to present uncensored work to a bigger audience than ever before. Photojournalists can use social media to their advantage just as citizen photojournalists, and with the addition of video and audio in cameras and the mixed-media capabilities of the web, out of adversity will come even more opportunity. Charlie Cole, a photojournalist responsible for one of the images in the famous 1989 Tank Man series from Tiananmen Square, had to keep his roll of film hidden from authorities in a Beijing toilet before he was able to send it to Newsweek. Now you can upload images to secure locations and editors while they’re still being taken.
In photography, what separates the amateur from the pro has always been the ability to tell a visual story, so the cream will rise in photojournalism as in any other field… Certainly, paradigms and technologies will change, but honesty and truth should never fade.
There’s also support in numbers. Founded in 1947, Magnum Photos was the first notable U.S. photojournalist-led cooperative, and it began a legacy of photojournalist-owned groups like VII Photo Agency and the Associated Press. Many other organizations and websites serve as support groups for photojournalists, as well, including the NPPA and Reporters Without Borders, which both offer insurance policies and other benefits to photojournalists.
Things change, especially in tech-driven occupations like photography, and it’s likely cell phone photojournalists and citizen journalism will become as essential a piece of the puzzle of traditional media as photojournalists have been since the advent of the portable camera. In photography, what separates the amateur from the pro has always been the ability to tell a visual story, so the cream will rise in photojournalism as in any other field. Regardless, the news isn’t going away. Certainly, paradigms and technologies will change, but honesty and truth should never fade.