and initial thoughts about objectivity in photography
With the development of technology in the last decades, most people in the western world own some kind of camera. That means a camera, usually a smartphone nowadays, is accessible to the average person on the street just like a key to his home. Any moment he likes – he can just shoot, and if something of interest is happening around him, it is just natural he would try and capture it… Citizen journalism exists some time by now, and some of the most significant photos in our recent history were taken by amateurs, random passbyers or officials on duty (security forces and emergency units). Therefore this type of journalism has found its niche – through news agencies as well as through social media.
There are a few issues touching this field, all of them coming to the same end – can citizen journalism be used as a proper tool and in what sense does it differ from professional journalism. The role of photojournalism, and its objectivity in general should also be taken into consideration – when asking if citizen journalism is objective, we need to rethink what are the aims of photojournalism. For this exercise, I tried to confront the photos I came across in the light of objectivity.
The first photo taken by a citizen I came upon was taken in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by a US soldier. This one, amongst many other, was depicting torture of Iraqi captives, sometimes staged into a humiliating posture. Here the intention was frequently ‘joking around’ and sharing with friends. The fact some of the photos are staged could put a question mark on their objectivity. Nevertheless, the act of photographing itself is part of the abuse, the story, added to the visible physical suffering.
Other photos, such as these documenting 9/11 or the 2004 tsunami in SE Asia can be more easily regarded as objective. In a crucial moment, a citizen, with no intention except for simply documenting a significant event, has taken a picture. It would be hard to add other influential factors, not by the photographer, nor by the publisher, whoever it would be.
Continuing in my search, I specified it to an event I believed was covered by citizens as well – Tzuk Eitan operation in Gaza strip in summer 2014, focusing on the Israeli side. I found a collection of “the best and most interesting photos from the operation” by ‘ynet’, a leading Israeli news site. It contains a mix of photos from local and well known international news agencies as well as ones taken by citizens. It was interesting to scroll down and pose the objectivity question towards the variety of photos which document the same event, large scale story, taking into account their category (citizen/local/international).
The main conclusion I got from this comparison is that a photo’s simple objectivity doesn’t necessarily mean it is telling the full story. Yes, a photo taken by a citizen picturing his house hit by a missile is certainly true – the event happened just like it was pictured. The same is true for one of children lying on the floor during an alarm, though in this case it could be argued that the photographer had a clearer intention of arising certain feelings in the spectator, and by that affecting the story. Taking it to another level, the picture of a missile interception with an Israeli flag hanging, or the one of a burning of an Israeli flag during a manifestation (by its holder) show a clear opinion, which could not be interpreted otherwise. The effect of the last examples is supported by the choice to give it a stage by the media, the publishers, who could easily ignore them.
Comparing it briefly with photos taken by photographers, I found citizen journalism photos tend to document a moment rather than show a story or a full side of it. It is more direct, usually documenting in a straightforward manner what is seen, and if subjectivity or intention are involved, it wouldn’t be too sophisticated to identify. Of course all these moments add up to a story in the end. Back to objectivity, other photos taken by photographers, which try to pass a message, were showing a more complete side of the story, and make the spectator reflect on it. This one, of a praying soldier, is a good example. Other ones, such as this one, could be considered more objective. They are well composed and capture a moment, but I found they give more information about the story than the ones taken by citizens. That made me reflect, as requested, on the place of documentary photography on the line between subjectivity and objectivity. What is the reason for taking that photo? The intention in taking a photo at first place and then its aim have a big role in this discussion, both for citizen journalism, photojournalism and photography in general. When there is intention, the objectivity is more fragile.
Finally, I made a short list of arguments for/against citizen journalism:
- Virality and quick sending of photos adds to its originality.
- Usually, less intention in capturing the photo, therefore showing an event just like it happened
- Could be posted by individuals directly in the social media, and by that avoid possible additional interpretations.
- Faster and more accurate photos in real time – it takes time until media crews arrive in a scene. These photos couldn’t be taken otherwise, and could be crucial sometimes in transmitting the truth or be used as proper evidence.
- Could be less influenced by needs of news agencies.
- Taken by an amateur, it risks passing a less exact message, or just a minimal part of the story
- Could be more easily used by the media to tell a certain scenario, and be put out of context.
- In conflicts, sometimes the media would have access only to citizens from a certain side therefore forgetting one side (like in the Tzuk Eitan photos collection I referred to)
- Lower photo quality, more relevant to newspapers.
- Could represent only one side of the story, especially in conflicts where the access to the other side is limited
P.S I tried to express my opinion of citizen journalism, and I found I either repeat ideas mentioned already, either I cannot put my finger on what exactly I want to say.
My biggest lesson from this exercise was not the place of citizen journalism in society, or anything related to that. It was rather starting to understand the line and ‘sub-genres’ between intended documentary photography to a ‘random’ one. They both have consequences, and responsibility comes with both, especially when the objectivity is put under a question mark. Can a photo be objective? Yes, it can. Should it necessarily be objective in order to document? Before I would answer yes much more easily; Documentary and objectivity were hand in hand. Now I see its complexity, the nuances. For instance, sometimes a fuller picture of a certain reality could be extracted from a ‘subjective’/staged photo, as long as the message is exact. The opinion brought in the picture could even represent a side in the story, which is documentary in a way. On the other side, a completely objective photo put in a different context could, if intended, deform the truth. With all that in mind, I still tend to prefer objective photography (or photos that are closer to this end), when done thoughtfully.
Anyway, for both, awareness is required.
http://journalism.co.il/3247/ – An interview with 3 israeli photojournalists about citizen journalism, also from the angle of influence on work.