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Citizen journalism: can ordinary people substitute professional photojournalists?

By Angelo Zinna

The unprecedented technological shift that the media industry has seen in the past twenty years has pushed many to wonder whether photojournalism as a practice has reached its due course, or if, more simply, it has become necessary to give new meaning to the term. Moving from paper to web publications was just the first of many subsequent changes. Film was abandoned in favor of digital tools, and staff photographers replaced by freelancers first and by ordinary citizens later. When the New York Times asked his opinion about the current state of photojournalism, Neil Bourges, former head of Network Photographers at Magnum, declared its death in precise words “We should stop talking about photojournalists altogether. Apart from a few old dinosaurs whose contracts are so long and retirement so close that it’s cheaper to keep them on, there is no journalism organization funding photographers to act as reporters.” Despite the pessimism, we shouldn’t be too quick in declaring the demise of the craft, but rather attempt to adapt to the new forms of communication born out of modern, always interconnected societies.

With the internet taking over the information landscape, editors found that sending photographers on assignment in far-flung destinations was an unnecessary cost, and with budgets being cut due to the reduced revenue from online advertising and sales, the choice fell on content produced directly on location. As a result, the supply of photographers grew exponentially, and although the timeliness of the sourced material increased, the dividing line between professionals and amateurs became blurry. A new way of taking pictures came into existence. The term “iPhonography” was coined and soon after dedicated awards and instances of iPhone journalism began to appear. Images produced through the tiny lens of a smartphone became widely accepted as a medium thanks to experienced photojournalists – such as Michael Christopher Brown and David Guttenfelder – adopting the new tool as an addition to their equipment to infiltrate private situations impossible to shoot with a large format camera.

With two billion smartphones in circulation, every owner of a mobile phone quickly became a potential reporter waiting for a story to happen. The London bombings of July 2005 are considered to be the first significant event covered predominantly by footage obtained through subjects directly involved in the accident. National and international newspapers – from the BBC to the New York Times and the Washington Post – relied on photographs captured by eyewitnesses to outline the developments of the attacks, convincing media experts that a new era of journalism had started. As the Guardian wrote in the days after the bombing, “Emerging from inside the police cordon, ordinary tube travelers brought out dramatic footage that defined the media coverage, leading the evening TV news bulletins and staring out from the pages of the next day’s newspapers.” The long-awaited democratization of the media has revolutionized journalistic storytelling. On the one hand, citizen reporters are now essential elements for the construction of a comprehensive narrative, and on the other, professionals have been required to adapt their skills to modern, fast-moving, times.

Damon Winter was one of the central figures responsible for the rise in credibility of mobile photography in journalism. Winner of two World Press Photo awards (in 2006 and 2007) and a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, the New York Times staff photographer won third place for feature picture story from POYI (Pictures Of the Year International) in 2011 with a series of intimate portraits of American soldiers on a combat mission in Afghanistan, entirely captured with an iPhone. The awarding of A Grunts Life was followed by a heated debate between industry professionals, where the use of the Hipstamatic filter as a way to aestheticize the narrative received a heavy dose of criticism. The dark atmosphere created in post-production was said to compromise the objective, realistic delivery which is expected from war journalism. Despite the initial opposition from industry veterans, however, the mobile phone became a central player in the information economy and a significant number of stories today rely on smartphone footage to reach their audiences, thanks also to the qualitative increase of the images produced by modern devices.

New technologies have created a set of possibilities for photographers, filmmakers, and journalists that were unimaginable in the past. The media has benefited largely from the seemingly boundless sources of (often free) content and the crude, unfiltered footage shot by amateurs has given the concept of truthfulness a new meaning. With mainstream media continually battling the “fake-news” label, impartial eyewitnesses have become more relevant than ever, enriching reports and documentaries with what looks like a factual, unaltered first-person view. However, this is not without consequences. Trained photojournalists capable of capturing the nuances of complex stories are being substituted with random contributors sharing subjective depictions of what is happening; while the value of footage shot “in the moment” can’t be discounted, the lack of fact-checking and contextualization may cause false information to spread.

“Now everyone out there is a creator of content, and our job is more as managers of an overabundance of content,” said Mark Little, chief executive of Storyful, during 2014’s Web Summit conference, “[…] Authenticity has replaced authority as the new currency of this environment.” In an attempt to manage the expanding flow of material a small group of journalists was driven to create On Our Radar, a “non-profit communication agency for unheard communities” that aims to connect isolated groups to media houses that invest in citizen journalism. Led by journalist Libby Powell, On Our Radar started by training average citizens to report via SMS on local issues and expanded to form a network of citizen reporters able to cover situations otherwise difficult to access.

The internet has broken the constraints of traditional media. An infinite stream of online content now complements text and images bound to the physical space of the printed page, and the gathering of information is no longer limited to the working hours of the individual journalist. Every person is now able to contribute to the public discourse, but without any entry barriers to filter out what isn’t valuable, it becomes challenging to differentiate what is factful from what isn’t. This continuous flow of anonymous content may have redefined the elements of journalism, but it’s hard to imagine a future scenario where information is dependent solely on the work of amateurs. The frustration of professionalist journalists and photojournalists having to compete in a wide-open global market is understandable, but perhaps a specialized outlook on the world is essential now more than ever. The post-truth era is in dire need of expert eyes to assess the facts.

Photo D.G.