What We Do
Photography changes the way news is reported on and distributed
Fred Ritchin, an author, media producer, and educator, reports on how digital photography and “citizen journalism” is changing the field of photojournalism.
It has been widely commented upon that much of the important photojournalism of the last several years—images of the London Underground bombing, Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, coffins of American soldiers shipped back from Iraq, and of a young woman being flogged in Afghanistan—has been done by amateurs. More recently, amateur still and video images from Iran became critical to understanding the volatile political situation there, particularly after professional journalists were banned from the country.
Given the preference by large numbers of readers for diverse—and free—sources of news, and the financial decline of many conventional media outlets, the changing ways news images are now being made and distributed are likely to become permanent.
In some newsworthy situations—especially when governments or other powerful organizations are unable to control how events are represented—instead of expecting to see a few strong images by professional picture-makers, we will probably need to get used to seeing dozens, even hundreds, of photographs and videos made by citizens and posted directly online. All those images will demand more of readers and viewers who will have to sort through them to figure out what the mass of unedited imagery is saying. All those images will also make it harder to wrongly accuse any single image of being faked because so many will corroborate what any particular image might show. Instead of being presented with iconic photographs made by experienced photojournalists, we increasingly are seeing images made by people without photographic training and who primarily attempt to capture information, not to create symbolic images. As a result, images made by digital photography's growing band of "citizen journalists" often look less studied and more awkward than those made by practiced professionals. And that, in turn, creates problems for news and photo editors whose job is to select out one or two graphically compelling images to sum up a complex news event. That kind of editorial practice, now and in the past, often simplifies and sometimes distorts reporting about what is going on. In addition, today's audiences for news are more likely to resist being told which images are the most important, especially when they've been selected by people working in the world's media capitals, far away from the action.
Imagine if in 1989, Chinese protesters at Tiananmen Square all had access to cell phone cameras. Would the image of a lone man standing in front of a line of tanks have broken through the visual clutter to become the icon of the event? Perhaps it would have been better if that now-famous image had not become so central to the telling of the story, given the ways it represented what was going on from a Western point of view—highlighting a single individual standing up to authority instead of reflecting a larger movement of diverse protesters. Of course, it is possible that the mass of amateur images now coming out of Iran is a phenomenon that, if repeated often and elsewhere, may confuse and tire readers.
How interested and willing are we to scour thousands of images from, let us say, Kazakhstan or the Congo? The outpouring of digital “insider” imagery is and will be challenging for outsiders to interpret. Previously, primarily Western trained or influenced reporters and photojournalists provided a bridge, making images to explain one culture to another, even if the professionals involved sometimes did not fully understand the subtleties of the culture he or she was being paid to look at. Since photography is not a universal language, as more images are generated by non-professionals, caption information may need to be written by knowledgeable readers for viewers unfamiliar with what specific images show or refer to. That may include explaining what some of the more subtle cultural referents embedded in an image—a hand gesture or a particular way of standing, for example—might mean.
All of this, of course, raises interesting questions about what professional photographers will be doing in the future. At least one answer is very clear. As viewers and readers, we will benefit from having access to strong and extended bodies of work that have explored a society in the past and which can give us a context for understanding what is happening in the present. The news usually reports on governments and major political and economic activity, not on the everyday lives of people. Faced with contemporary images of demonstrators expressing their extraordinary anger on the streets of Iran, for example, it would have been helpful to a global audience to have access to previously produced photo essays that explored Iranian life under calmer conditions.
The need for professional photo essayists, both insiders and outsiders with deep understandings of specific cultures, is more crucial than ever. Their work will co-exist with and contextualize the more on-the-spot work done by non-professional citizen journalists. What still needs to be worked out, though, is how professional photojournalists will be paid for their work, and what outlets they'll find or will have to create in order to publish it.
- "NEDA AGHA SOLTAN. PROTEST Shouting women in iran June 20please share lotfan taksiir konid 3", 2009
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"NEDA AGHA SOLTAN. PROTEST Shouting women in iran June 20please share lotfan taksiir konid 3"
Video images and still photographs made by bystanders who witnessed the death of Neda Agha-Soltan during the 2009 Iranian election protests, were quickly and widely distributed by news and social media outlets around the world, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Time.