The rise of citizen photojournalism

The era of ubiquitous media creation is helping average people across the world make a real difference.

The now-infamous beating of Rodney King sparked off not only massive riots in LA, but also a generation of citizen photojournalists [AP]

Twenty years ago, on March 3, 1991, a media shock wave hit Los Angeles and the nation: the Rodney King video. As a bystander captured the incident with his home video camera, several Los Angeles police officers beat King repeatedly while other officers stood by and watched.

The video, or more accurately its broadcast across America, set in motion consequences that have reverberated through the years since the beating. Among them: the Los Angeles riots, after the acquittal of police charged with assault, and the poisonous relations between Los Angeles police and many of the city’s citizens.

Another impact, of course, was the recognition – which grows more and more prevalent – that anyone with a video camera could become more than a witness to the events of our times. The camera-bearing citizen, in this case a man named George Holliday, was becoming an integral part of how we remember these events.

Holliday’s act was one of citizen journalism. It was not the first, however, even though it was a milestone.

Citizen photojournalism in history

Indeed, people have been witnessing and taking pictures of notable events for a long, long time. Consider this picture. It shows a man being rescued from a truck that dangled over the side of a bridge. It was taken by Virginia Schau, an amateur photographer who happened on the scene after the accident. She won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography.

Less than a decade later, an old-fashioned movie camera captured the most famous pictures in the citizen-media genre: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Abraham Zapruder, the man pointing the camera that day in Dealey Plaza, sold the film to Life Magazine for $150,000 – over a million dollars in today’s currency.

In Dealey Plaza that day, one man happened to capture a motion picture – somewhat blurred but utterly gruesome nonetheless – of those terrible events. Zapruder’s work, by any standard we can imagine, was an act of citizen journalism.

But the Rodney King video was a turning point. By 1991, home video gear was becoming common, heading toward today’s near-ubiquity. When people saw that video, they realised a number of things, not least of which was the possibility that average citizens could hold powerful people – the police in this instance – somewhat more accountable for wrongdoing they committed in public places. Witnessing was being transformed into action, we all understood.

Today, many of us carry around still and video cameras that are part of our phones. In the US and around the world, people are capturing events, routine and horrific, that mark our times. The mobile-phone video of Neda Soltani’s death by gunshot in the aftermath of Iran’s rigged 2009 election became a rallying point for opposition to the regime.

Capturing reality

In recent days, the grim videos and photos coming out of Libya have been testament to people’s desire to bear witness to cruelty and oppression. Around the world, dictators have learned that even if they kill their people they can not ultimately stop the world from seeing what crimes they commit. Yes, they can use technology to stifle freedom, and they do. But media from average people can make a real difference, too, and it does again and again.

Imagine where we will be a decade from now in a technological sense, and then let us return briefly to November 22, 1963. Dozens or hundreds of people in Dealey Plaza would have been capturing high-definition videos of the Kennedy assassination, most likely via their camera-equipped mobile phones as well as single-purpose digital cameras and video recorders. They’d have been capturing those images from multiple perspectives. And – this is key – all of those devices would have been attached to digital networks.

If the soon-to-be-ubiquitous technology had been in use back in 1963, several things are clear. One is that videos of this event would have been posted online almost instantly. Professional news organisations, which would also have had their own videos, would have been competing with a blizzard of other material almost from the start – and given traditional media’s usually appropriate reluctance to broadcast the most gruesome images (e.g., the beheading of the American businessman Nick Berg in Iraq), the online accounts might well have been a primary source.

And think about this: We would also soon have a three-dimensional hologram of the event, given the number of cameras capturing it from various angles. Which means we would probably know for sure whether someone was shooting at the president from that famous grassy knoll. In the future, government commissions will still issue official reports, but the documents will be created with much more input from citizens, who, because of digital media tools, are playing increasingly direct roles in governance as well as elections. The prospect of actually making policy, or at least having an impact on it, can offer a serious incentive to be a citizen journalist.

An era of ubiquity

Another famous picture of our times is the single image that we will most remember from the July 2005 bombings in London. It was taken by Adam Stacey inside the Underground (London’s subway), as he and others escaped from a smoky train immediately after one of the bombs exploded. The production values of the image were hardly professional, but that didn’t matter. What did matter was the utter authenticity of the image, made so by the fact that the man was there at the right time with the right media-creation gear.

Stacey’s picture, like the other material I have highlighted here, made its way to wide viewership largely because traditional media organisations gave it a push. That will be less and less necessary as social media become the news-access tools of choice for a new generation that consumes, produces and shares news in varying ways. Big media will always have a role, an important one for some time to come, but it’s no longer clear that they’ll be as overwhelmingly essential even in the “distribution” arena.

The era of ubiquitous media creation tools has been dawning for some time. It is almost here now. It will bring some alarming consequences, notably a further erosion of personal privacy; for example, even if you do not want the world to know that you were falling-down drunk at that party, there’s a growing chance that someone else who was there will post a picture of you in that condition on Facebook.

We will be better off, in the end, as more and more journalistic media creation of this sort becomes part of the mainstream. This isn’t good news for professional spot news photo and video journalists, who are much less likely to be at the scenes of newsworthy events than their “amateur” fellow citizens. But we will have more genuine media than before, as in the authenticity of the London image, and that is a good thing for us all.

Dan Gillmor is the director of the Knight Centre for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University.

This article was first published by Mediactive.

This article lives under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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