EYEWITNESSES?

This first Exercise asks me to find some examples of news stories where ‘citizen journalism’ has exposed or highlighted abuses of power.  It then asks the questions : –

  1.  How do these pictures affect the story, if at all?
  2. Are these pictures objective?
  3. Can pictures ever be objective?

‘Citizen journalism’ is a recent concept which has been variously described as being:- 

‘when public citizens play an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing, and disseminating news and information’ (*1) and

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.’ (*2)

‘Citizen journalism’ differs from ‘Civic journalism’ through being carried out by non-professionals. As a result the motivation for producing ‘copy’ for publication / dissemination, whether it be photographs, video, written text or a mix of all three, through citizen journalism could be different to that produced by civic journalism.  There could well be an intention by the reporter to bias the article in order to reinforce a point or an angle in such a way that it could influence the viewer.  Photographic images are a particularly powerful way of achieving this as their impact can be immediate.  However, as they have been used out of context and with no guarantee that they genuinely reflect the reality that they are supposed to, they can fuel misconceptions.

In my experience, it can be difficult to know if an article in a magazine, newspaper or online blog has been produced by citizen or civic journalism.  The impact and bias of the final article is largely under the control of the editor, whether they be professional or amateur, and the choice of images to accompany the article or post will be as much a reflection of the viewpoint of the editor as the text.  Examples to illustrate this are given below.

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EXAMPLE 1

GettyImages-502499_2888870a

Source – Getty Images

Positioned under the headline  “London’s population to mushroom past 10m by 2024 as 4.1m immigrants set to flood in over next 10 years” this image was used in an article in “The Sun Online” which set out to highlight the possible effects on the population of London as a result of increasing numbers of immigrants to the UK. The headline itself is misleading and clearly intended to generate a reaction as it suggests that 4.1m immigrants will be coming to London rather than the UK over the next 10 years and the use of the photograph of a street crowded with people of mixed ethnicity reinforces the message.  The image gives a sense of being overwhelmed and out of control, but is it objective or subjective and does it provide an unbiased illustration?

I would suggest that the image is far from objective and has been chosen specifically to support the tenor of the article that the uncontrolled influx of immigrants to the UK generally, and London specifically, will lead to overcrowding and serious problems including putting enormous strain on housing, schools, transport and education as suggested in the text. The use of the reactionary phrase ‘flood in‘ in the headline is reinforced by the image which depicts what could be seen as a tidal wave of people taking over a street in an overpowering manner.  This could be seen as being reminiscent of images of tsunamis with all the implications of devastation, loss of control and powerlessness. The image has no context as it is not known if it accurately depicts a typical London street, a typical time, an ordinary day, a typical population structure, or even whether it was shot in London.  That same street might look completely different at a different time or on a different day, but then the use of an image which showed a half empty street would not meet the editor’s intentions for the article which are to raise public concern, passion, and antagonism and to make a political point.

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 EXAMPLE 2

On 5th June 1989, Stuart Franklin, a famous photojournalist and contributing member of Magnum Photos, was on a balcony of the Beijing Hotel overlooking Tiananmen Square in Beijing to record ongoing protests by the people against the Chinese Government.   Franklin was recording the events of the day using a wide angle lens to capture the scale of the scene and the broad sweep of the tanks entering the square.  He shot a range of images of the events that took place and produced contact sheets some of which are shown below.

image3

Source – Stuart Franklin, Magnum Photos

As he recorded the scene unfolding, he suddenly became aware of a lone figure dressed in black and white standing in the road in the path of the tanks and he included the man in his images. This was the first in a series of iconic images that he took of the subject who was to become known as ‘Tank Man’.

image2

Source – Stuart Franklin, Magnum Photos

Recognising the potential for the situation to develop into something special, Franklin returned to his hotel room to change to a telephoto lens so that he could crop in on the action.  This simple act of changing the lens brought an element of subjectivity into the resulting image as it focused attention on the man and the line of tanks and highlighted the might and power of the tanks and the relative smallness and isolation of the man.

image

Source – Stuart Franklin, Magnum Photos

The fact that the man was successfully stopping the tanks from making progress despite his relative small size and lack of might was a clear metaphor for the belief that the people could successfully stand against the might and aggression of the Chinese Government.  As a result this image became an icon around the world for the courageous stand of the small and downtrodden against the large and powerful.  It could be argued that the first image which depicts the scene in its entirety is completely objective if one was to ignore the fact that the photographer was present at the location because of the possibility of action and in order to capture whatever drama might be enacted.  However, the active decision to change the focus of the subject through the change to the telephoto lens clearly brought a large element of subjectivity into the final images. This image was the one that was finally selected to be beamed round the world by editors, the media and politicians on account of its powerful subjective message.   (*3)

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EXAMPLE 3

Le drapeau de la victoire

Reichstag_altered_thumb 2

Photos by Yevgeny Khaldei

The two images above are two versions of a photograph taken by the Russian photographer Yevgeny Khaldei.   They show Soviet soldiers raising a flag on top of the Reichstag building in Berlin after the city had been taken from the Germans and is one of the most famous images of World War II.  This image was inspired by Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo of the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima which has always been surrounded by controversy as to whether it was staged, but unlike the Iwo Jima photo, Khaldei’s Reichstag photo was both staged and doctored.  

Even though Soviet soldiers had already succeeded in raising a flag over this building a few days earlier. Khaldei recruited a small group of soldiers and, on May 2, 1945, proceeded to recreate the scene (top).

Back in Moscow, Soviet censors who examined the photo noticed that one of the soldiers had a wristwatch on each arm, indicating he had been looting. They asked Khaldei to remove one of the watches. Khaldei not only did so, but also darkened the smoke in the background. The resulting picture (bottom) was published soon after in the magazine Ogonjok. It became the version that achieved worldwide fame.

Subsequently, the photo continued to be altered. The flag was made to appear to be billowing more dramatically in the wind. The photo was also colorised.  Throughout his life, Khaldei remained unrepentant about having manipulated this, his most famous photo. Whenever asked about it, he responded, “It is a good photograph and historically significant. Next question please.”   (*4)

EXAMPLE 4

By way of a contrast I will now briefly discuss my own experience of taking photographs of a local incident, one of which was subsequently used by the local paper.  A holiday maker had suffered an injury as a result of a fall on the coast path and a helicopter was called to lift him and take him to hospital.  Having heard the activity of the helicopter I went to investigate and took my camera to make a record of the event. I took a large number of photographs all of which were an objective record in that they showed what was occurring, but as I had it in mind to offer shots to the local press and the injured walker’s partner had asked me if she could have some shots for her own records, I brought some subjectivity to bear in the way that I framed the shots, chose my position and angle, and chose my subjects.

IMG_7583 copy

Of all the images I took, the one chosen by the newspaper showed the whole action panned back to include the helicopter, the patient and the rescuers and some of the surrounding scenery.  The reason they chose this was because it showed all the action and people involved together with the location and would hold most interest for the general reader.

IMG_4138 copy

The image which was favoured most by the injured walker’s partner was the shot showing the patient being loaded into the helicopter after having been lifted on a winch from the cliff top.  The reason for this was because it brought the lady in close connection with her injured partner and highlighted the rather perilous position that he was in.  As she said, it would be a dramatic image to share with friends and family when the situation was over and they were back home.

This experience highlighted for me that not only did I introduce subjectivity to my shoot and therefore to the resulting images, but also that the images produced a subjective response in the viewers which was influenced by their interest and purpose.

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DISCUSSION

The degree of objectivity / subjectivity in documentary photography will be dependent on a number of things.  If one assumes that there is no serious post production work carried out such as the removal of elements from or the addition of elements into the image, and that the image is not falsely annotated or described then one can take it that all photographs have some element of objectivity in that they record an actual scene that is taking place.  Equally, however, it is also true to say that no photographs are completely free of some element of subjectivity.

The very fact that the photographer has taken a decision to be in a particular location at a particular time with a particular camera and lens in his / her hand suggests that they have a purpose in mind and some sort of a personal vision as to what they are wanting to produce.  It might be that they want nothing else but to create an honest record of a scene with no ulterior motive, but even so the conscious or unconscious decisions as to where they take the shot from, from what angle, what focal length lens, f stop, light balance, shutter speed, etc. they employ, what their interests are at the time, even what frame of mind they are in, will influence the outcome of the shoot. The resulting photographs will inevitably reflect something about the photographer which explains why, if one places 100 photographers in front of the same subject, one will get 100 different images with none quite the same.

Documentary photography comes in many forms.  It can be the ‘simple’ taking of photographs of static subjects purely as a record for posterity, comparison or research for instance on the one hand or, at the other extreme, the capture of a fleeting moment during an event of intense and possibly confusing activity.  Clearly, the scope for introducing subjectivity into the resulting image is very different in the two cases.  In the former, the artist will probably have a greater time to compose the shot and to consider the creative elements that they want to introduce through, for instance, a choice of technique, equipment, lighting, background, angle, distance, cropping, composition, etc. By contrast, in the latter case the photographer will probably have little opportunity to do anything more than fire off shots and hope that something worthwhile will result.

In the former case, where the purpose is purely to create a documentary record and where the scope for introducing considerable subjectivity is high, paradoxically, the artist is probably less interested in doing so.  In action documentary photography such as news reportage or war photography it might well be that, whilst the desire to introduce subjectivity in order to ‘get a message across’ might be high, the actual scope for doing so might be reduced because of the speed of the action.  The scope for introducing an element of subjectivity in this case will improve through prior preparation and planning, and the benefit of previous experience will also be an advantage so that opportunities can be made best of.

Of course, most documentary photography will fall somewhere between these extremes allowing photographers to have some time and opportunity to make choices and introduce creativity and subjectivity into their work.  Having said that all photographs have some element of subjectivity within them, however small, the use to which those images are put and how they are described will add to their subjective impact.  The selection of particular images to illustrate particular articles will depend on what spin or impact the editor wants to put over as is shown by the examples above.  Images have the power to create emotion and to influence and so they can be powerful tools in the hands of those with an ulterior motive or an angle that they want to get over.

I had some difficulty with this Exercise as I found it very difficult to track down images that fitted the required remit of being ‘news stories where citizen journalism has exposed or highlighted abuses of power’.  I spent 4 hours + trawling possible sites on the internet and putting in Google searches but all to little avail.  I could not identify whether citizen journalism was involved or not, so in the end I made the above selection in order to make progress.  I will be exploring the question of objectivity in documentary photography further in some notes in my Learning Log.

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Sources of Information

*1   Bowman, S. and Willis, C. “We Media: How Audiences are Shaping the Future of News and Information.” 2003, The Media Center at the American Press Institute.

*2   Jay Rosen in PressThink http://archive.pressthink.org/2008/07/14/a_most_useful_d.html

*3   Business Insider Australia    http://www.businessinsider.com.au/famous-tiananmen-square-tank-man-photograph-contact-sheet-2014-7

*4   Hoaxes website  http://hoaxes.org/photo_database/image/red_army_flag_over_reichstag/

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