Citizen Photojournalism

Digital technology has created a range of user friendly cameras and portable devices which are capable or producing a photograph of an adequate standard. It is this technology combined with the developing communication infrastructure that has caused imagery from networked devices to become so influential in photography, more specifically in photojournalism. Citizen photojournalism is characterised as content from an individual member of the public who has not been specifically employed by a photojournalist company whether it be an image or moving image. Most instances of citizen content being used by conventional media has arisen when the content itself is relevant to a breaking news story or when it has received a large amount of attention on social media. The advantage of citizen photojournalism is that organisations now have access to an archive of imagery which covers events that perhaps couldn’t have been attended by a professional photojournalist however the motives behind the use of this citizen content in conventional media is questionable.

Charlie Beckett in his book Supermedia introduced the term ‘networked journalism’ to describe the current status of photojournalism. Collaboration between the professional and the citizen would be a great advantage to the genre of photojournalism, however it also has it’s disadvantages. When given the choice of using free content or an image with a price most photo-editors have admitted to choosing the free option as the costs facing photojournalism especially in print form have risen. This choice endangers the professional photojournalist, many now find that their chosen vocation has become decidedly less financially viable. If the citizen photojournalist manages to usurp the professional it could reduce the photographic quality of the content seen in photojournalism. Fred Ritchin professed the idea of quality and David Campbell stressed the need to be able to construct a narrative effectively; this essentially comes from training in photography professionals have received. Perhaps the notion of free material will greatly reduce the photographic quality in the future of photojournalism.

The tool behind the citizen photojournalist is without a doubt predominately the smartphone; this small, portable, user friendly device has the ability to travel with the individual and document the scene to an adequate standard.This in addition with the growth of image-based and moving image social media such as Instagram and YouTube have allowed the holder of the smartphone to become an instantaneous producer and publisher. Stephen Mayes described a new experiential medium created by smartphone photography in which the user expresses their raw thoughts and emotions. Interestingly enough, social media now represents the largest archive of free image and moving image content, available to anyone. It has expansive content available which covers a wide range of events such as the 2001 Twin Towers attack and the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.

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Screenshot from YouTube
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Screenshot from YouTube

These influential events were mostly portrayed by the content from citizens, it certainly seemed appropriate and even fair that the citizens had the role of shaping the news of the event which had such a big impact on them. This notion of participation in citizen photojournalism was challenged by the case of the Abu Ghraib prison. Images of abuse and torture were made to appear comedic and trivial, comparative to that of conventional social media photographs of a night out.


Here the role of the participant was influential not only in the terms of distributing news, but actually in securing their potential prosecution. The images became symbols, forever to be remembered in the association with the actions of a few individuals. There is a more volatile to citizen journalism in reference to those who use it to spread imagery that has a darker ulterior motive. In an interview with Jonathan Worth, Fred Ritchin explained that groups like ISIS are gaining more awareness because of the power social media given them to construct their own image. It is evident that in the genre of photojournalism, there is content published that has been set up and facilitated by those participating in it. By giving the citizen power in the genre of photojournalism are we giving the power to those destructive individuals to spread their ideology?

Representation in citizen journalism differs greatly to that of professional photojournalism; where the professional photographer is trained in how to construct a narrative and is consequently aware of the choices behind an image, a citizen photographer acts more instinct and impulsion. However ideology from practitioners such as Robert Capa, Agibail Solomon Godeau and Susan Sontag would suggest that the citizen could be the most authoritative in terms of truthful representation. Famous war photographer Robert Capa professed that physical proximity was the best method in taking the best photographs; where the photojournalist would have to travel to document an event, citizens are everywhere and therefore can document the event when it is happening. Abigail Solomon Godeau and Susan Sontag examined the idea of the status of the photographer, whether they were photographing as an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’. A citizen who is native to the culture and environment in which they are photographing would be said to be an insider and could produce a more accurate representation as they have the contextual background a photojournalist should strive to achieve. In addition to representation, reduced naivety to manipulation has perhaps swayed the audience into believing citizen photojournalism over professional photojournalism as they have lost their trust in professional publications. All these elements combined suggest that the citizen photojournalist is actually capable of a far better representation than the photojournalism in terms of contextual quality.

Overall it is evident that the current state of photojournalism is very different in comparison to the original images seen in traditional conventional media publications. Photojournalism can now be considered as networked, and there are many different tools available to maintain this status such as the smartphone technology and social media websites acting as the publishing platform. It would appear according to some theorists that the citizen is actually capable of producing a more accurate representation due to their insider status. However there are cases in which the power given to the citizen has perhaps facilitated an increase in the publishing of volatile imagery which instead of aiming to inform, becomes a spectacle. In addition to this, the fact the social media now holds the status as the largest archive of free content, publications are choosing to devalue the content from professional photojournalists because of the associated cost. Charlie Beckett suggests in Super Media that a collaborative status between the citizen and professional photojournalist, and social and conventional media is possible however there must be an understanding of each side in order for this notion to be achieved. The very fact that citizen photojournalists overpower the number of professional photojournalists and that they don’t need permission or validation to publish suggests that the future of photojournalism could be collaborative but also unconstrained.




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