Find some examples of news stories where ‘citizen journalism’ has exposed or highlighted abuses of power.
How do these pictures affect the story, if at all? Are these pictures objective? Can pictures ever be objective?
Write a list of the arguments for and against. For example, you might argue that these pictures do have a degree of objectivity because the photographer (presumably) didn’t have time to ‘pose’ the subjects, or perhaps even to think about which viewpoint to adopt. On the other hand, the images we see in newspapers may be selected from a series of images and how can we know the factors that determined the choice of final image?
Think about objectivity in documentary photography and make some notes in your learning log before reading further.
Examples of Citizen Journalism
A well-known example of the impact of citizen journalism and concurrently, the importance of social media as a distribution channel for opinion pieces and photographs is commonly called the “Arab Spring”.
Following is a screen grab of the first page of results of a Google image search for the term “Arab Spring”:
Needless to say, there are 1000s more images available. Some images were taken by professional reporters, others by citizens. Is it easy to tell one from another? Absolutely not.
Another famous example of the “rise” of citizen journalism was the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013. Following is a screen grab of the first page of results of a Google image search for the term “Boston Marathon bombings”:
Again, we see a mixture of image sources (where these are identified) including newspapers such as the Boston Globe as well as relatively unknown websites.
Affect of Pictures on Story
All of these pictures affect the story by making it much more realistic and bringing it down to Earth. It’s one thing to have carnage described and quite another to see a graphic image with blood everywhere. However, they can never be fully objective. No matter whether professional photojournalist or just Joe-in-the-street-with-a-camera, decisions are always being made at the time of taking the photo, even if only what to point the camera at.
I think that the biggest danger lies in not knowing the source of the photo and what interest they may have (if any). At a time of reducing numbers of photojournalists, we are at risk of not having much choice in what images are presented, assuming that we have some degree of trust that photojournalists at least attempt some degree of objectivity.
Objectivity in Documentary Photography
We could be extreme and insist on “balanced” reporting. For example, we could insist that the reporting of the Boston Marathon of 2013 also report on the presumably 1000s of people who weren’t hurt at all. But if the story is the bombing, what sense does that extreme approach make? We have to keep in mind what is the purpose of the article. In the news, the tendency is to focus on “bad news”, so we should expect photos that support that view. That’s the nature of mainstream reporting channels and unfortunately, it’s driven by human nature.
The excellent article by Kate Buckley in The Guardian (2012) quotes Roger Graef, the filmmaker who uses footage from social networks and YouTube to supplement what he shoots himself. He states that there’s a risk about using such media because it’s very difficult to establish provenance of citizen-provided images or video: “it takes money and time to check that it is real and not faked; the second risk is that just because you can shoot on a camera phone doesn’t mean you should. I worry that commissioners will use this as an excuse to cut budgets for factual even further.” If we don’t know what we’re looking at, how can we trust what we’re consuming?
Finally, I believe that photography can be objective, but only within a carefully controlled domain. The key question is: what lies outside of the frame? If the frame’s internal context contains all that is relevant for a certain application, then I think we can say that the photo is objective.
I am strongly reminded of the anti-rascism campaign in the UK in the 1980s which featured the poster shown to the left containing a white policeman who appears to be chasing a black man. The strapline was “Another example of police prejudice or another example of yours?” In another shot containing a wider frame, it becomes clear that they are both policemen chasing someone else.
In this case, what is contained in the frame can be highly manipulative, but the choice is ultimately that of the photographer.
Buckley, Kate (2012) ‘The Rise of Citizen Journalism’. In: The Guardian [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/jun/11/rise-of-citizen-journalism (Accessed 20 Nov 2016)