As the nation watches with great concern the extensive flooding along the Mississippi, photographers of all kinds turn their lenses onto the drama unfolding before them. Today, with the use of mobile devices, digital cameras, and social media, the way we inform one another as well as the way in which we are informed is unprecedented. Over the past decade alone, society has advanced from a culture of spectacle to a culture of participants in an endless stream of image production and consumption. What would 19th century photographic pioneer George Eastman, if he were alive today; have to say about the current state of photography? Could Eastman possibly imagine the immediacy, intensity, and ubiquity of the photographic image? Unlikely.
Hundreds of years from now, computational anthropologists (my term for social scientists who study how human beings use computers and the Internet to make sense of culture) will exhume a sea of digital images. Many of these pictures will come from amateurs, average citizens who use a camera phone or another device to record their experiences. It is difficult to imagine that far into the future, but the proliferation of images made by amateurs and professionals will undoubtedly increase. Imagine how teams of historians and anthropologists would have to sift through the millions of images just to understand one event. In this case the flood. Beginning with September 11, 2001, the Internet has created a causeway for millions of people to store and share their images. Thanks to the digital camera, camera phones and the Internet, the world has witnessed the worst and the best of the human condition. Pictures of tortured prisoners in Iraq, aircraft accidents, banned images of flag-draped coffins, and many other events flit across screens around the world. Photosharing sites such as Flickr and Photobucket, as well as microblogging services like Twitpic have changed the way people create and use pictures.
As a pilot and physician, Stephen Gipson has a bird's eye view of the Mississippi flood near Memphis this week. After a fly-over of the city, Gipson sent some of his images to CNN's iReport, a site which encourages amateur photographers to tell their stories.
At the same time, Jonathan Serrie, captured and transmitted pictures to Twitpic from the ground in the same area as Gipson. Both Serrie and Gipson are citizen journalists, individuals who believe sharing what is happening around them in the world is as much "news" as anything thing in a newspaper or on a television. The references for such images appear as hash (#) tags or short bits of code that link back to the original source. The way in which people connect today through images appears impermanent and virtual.
Early on, as more and more people began making and submitting pictures pertaining to news events, many in the mainstream held the belief that these cheaper, sloppier, and sometimes inaccurate representations of "reality" would undermine the profession of photojournalism.
There is cause for concern. In the news industry thousands of news professionals were being laid off, downsized, and dump out on to the street to compete for what few jobs remained. The fact is that just about anyone a digital camera meant fewer opportunities for professional. Skepticism and pessimism seemed permeated any discussion about amateur photographers undermine photojournalism's role in the news process. In the meantime, the field scrambled to produce a new, more versatile, type of photojournalist -- individuals that could make images, video, produce audio, write, and build a website.
Professional news photography and amateur photography are forced to co-exist is the hyper-extended media landscape of today -- a place where temporal-spatial boundaries shift and where immediacy is everything. Deadlines seem irrelevant in an age when an eyewitness can upload a picture from their cell phone faster than a trained professional can get his or her camera out of the bag.
While a "first-person responder" type of image (amateur) has its place in the feeding frenzy of endless news cycle, there is also a lot to say about thoughtful, compelling, and more carefully constructed images made by professional photojournalists. Despite the tendency to think that social media "flattens" out how much information we receive, there is still something to say about accountability and reliability. The idea of an information hierarchy may seem to have been undermined by 10 million bloggers with cameras, but in reality the vast number of people seeking news still depend upon professionals to get it.
To become more literate of the events shaping our lives, social media photography provides a rich layer of images in which to make sense of things. But it is just a layer. Traditional media also provides the same function but with the added benefit of a self-regulated control for veracity and accuracy. Social media offers no such guarantee.
While there are thousands of first-person pictures available online, it is easy to see that just a few dramatic pictures made by professional can enhance our understanding of an event and inform us in valuable ways.
Recently, a picture made by photojournalist Matthew Hinton illustrates this point when laid along side first-person responder accounts. Hinton, who works for the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans, made an image of a ship riding high in the swollen waters of the Mississippi. The picture is edifying and helps to develop a context in which to understand how the flood is affecting the city. Hinton approaches visual storytelling methodically and conscientiously. He knows his audience and he knows what is expected of him. In addition to skills sets, his profession prescribes a specific code of conduct -- a set of beliefs and practices that others using social media may not understand.
Social media is often viewed as a one-size-fits-all formula to news judgment. Getting the picture, for many of us with camera phones, means simply that, "getting the picture." One picture. Beyond the physical act of capturing an event -- bearing witness, first-responder photographs appear to be made with little regard to the aesthetics of the frame.
If your plane goes down and you live through it, the last think you are going to worry about is composition and lighting. Moreover, the primary audience for the image is not a news outlet. Getting rich off a "one shot wonder" is very unlikely. In fact, most people make images simply to share with family and friends. Today, we might extend this sharing to Facebook and Twitter followers as well.
When the roof on a commercial aircraft ripped recently somewhere over Arizona, one passenger began emailing and tweeting her images back to earth. Twitpics in not Time magazine, but it does generate a lot of interest. Two things can happen in a case like this one. First, the world gets a personal first-hand view of the event in real time, and, second, the passenger ends up being part of the story.
When the roof on a commercial aircraft ripped recently somewhere over Arizonia, one passenger began emailing and tweeting her images back to earth. Twitpics in not Time magazine, but it does generate a lot of interest. Two things can happen in a case like this one. First, the world gets a personal first-hand view of the event in real time, and, second, the passenger ends up being part of the story.
Joe Spake's love of photography and social media places him the unique position of bridging the worlds of first-responder amateurs with camera phones, and professional photojournalism. With a reasonably priced digital single lens reflect (DSLR) camera, some experience, and a Flickr account, Joe can share his work and his passion for Memphis with the world. A real estate broker by profession, Joe is also an avid blogger and user of all-things social media. One glance at Joe's Flickr site and it is easy to see how connected he is to his community. There are pictures of the seasons, festivals, tourist spots, and much more. When Memphis prepared for one of the worst floods in history, Joe was there to make images. It made sense to take and share his work with others.
Bottom line. Joe’s images far exceed the fuzzy quality of most camera phones. For some, Joe’s Flickr image demonstrate how photo-loving individuals, people with other ways of making a living, can walk the line between the professional and the amateur.
Several years ago, a wild fire threatened to burn down a small town in Southern Oregon. As the sky darkened with smoke, police and fire crews rushed to the scene. At the same time, a small army of shutterbugs was headed toward the fire. In this situation, the police not only had to help evacuate people from their homes, but also keep thrill-seekers out of the area. Back at the 13,000 circulation daily newspaper, a part-time photographer attempted to make a deadline in less than 30 minutes. While at the computer frantically transmitting pictures, a seemingly endless parade of people from the community came in asking whether anyone wanted to use their images for publication.
The photographer soon became overwhelmed with not only the deadline, but with the onslaught of potentially news worthy images taken by citizen shutterbugs. For more than 3 hours, the photographer downloaded memory cards and listened to countless stories from people who had better access and more time than he had to tell the story. In the end, almost all of the amateur images were uploaded to a special section of the newspaper's website. The phrase, "We are the Media" resonates loudly today. But media means different things to different people.
In the world of photography, social media represents many opportunities for people to share their experiences with others. At the same time, social media also challenges the hierarchical nature of news production and transmission. The more we can understand the relationship between mainstream and social media in terms of mutually serving a wider audience, the less ambiguous the process of making pictures will become.