Project 1: Eyewitnesses

An eyewitness often holds a position of importance, particularly from a legal perspective for example, when they are relied upon to help implicate criminals. The eye-witness was there; they saw what happened with their own eyes and are able to report back what they have seen, ideally in an objective, accurate and truthful manner. Many of us have grown accustomed to feeling that we too have been eye-witnesses to an event simply after having seen a photograph. But of course, we're not, and there are many reasons why what we see in the photograph is not necessarily an accurate coverage of the events. These days it is certainly not uncommon for doubt to be cast on the veracity of what is depicted in a photograph, whether it is because we believe it was 'tampered with' in some way - such as by using digital editing - or we suspect that we are being misled by how the photograph is 'spun' to depict events in a certain way. So although we may think we have 'seen it with our own eyes', we haven't and we shouldn't be so quick to trust the version of events as told by another person. Unless we witness events ourselves and have a 100% objectivity to those events then there is always going to be an argument against what we have seen and are describing to others.

Citizen journalism is when a member of the public, who is not a professional journalist, creates or contributes to a news story by supplying information direct to a particular medium, for instance, their local newspaper. In some cases the 'citizen' may create their own medium, such as in the case of Eliot 'Brown Moses' Higgins Bellingcat website. In the case of photographs this may be where a bystander supplies an image of say, a car crash, and it is used by a newspaper who would've been unable to send their own photographer to cover events. The amateur photographer may benefit financially from this or they may not. Sometimes people will supply images just to get a credit; to see their name in lights, so to speak. Often these images will be poor quality, taken on smart phones or tablets and are simply something for the newspaper to use to pad out the article. It is possibly better to have a poor image of the pile-up than none at all. In many cases, the photographer will simply be acting on instinct. We see it all the time: certain situations precipitate the mass use of the phone camera - we all seem to feel the need to record events to show that we were there. Let's say Paul McCartney did an impromptu gig in Covent Garden - very few people would be able to resist taking photographs or making videos even though the quality would likely be mediocre to poor. They wouldn't be recording events because they planned to bootleg the recording or sell the photos; I believe it would be in part to show their friends that they did indeed see Paul McCartney (although it is unlikely anyone would accuse them of being liars once the news came out that he did in fact appear there) but predominantly it would simply be an instinctive reaction. It would be almost impossible to NOT try to document this unusual occurrence, even though hundreds of others would be doing the same thing. In the earlier case of the car crash, I think the same would apply, although in this case photographs might be taken for insurance purposes or to apportion blame or implicate one person or another. The bystander though is likely to take the photograph instinctively, simply because they can. It might be needed by someone later; it might help; they may get some money or just thanks or a mention in a newspaper or website. The photographer is unlikely to have a particular view on the incident one way or the other - they wouldn't be taking sides, they would simply be recording the event as they happened to come across it at the time. It would be different of course if the photographer had seen the accident and felt that one side needed to be supported. In this case they may only take shots which appear to benefit the side they are supporting. There would be a switch from objective to subjective; the photographer suddenly has a reason to take certain photographs.

I believe that the situations above show that the photographer can indeed be objective when presenting an image or images for a news story. We can understand that when there is little or no time to think about it, the likelihood is that the image will be at its most objective. As soon as the photographer is given time to consider the situation, then subjectivity will start creeping in and the situation may be recorded in a different way, depending on the personal views or any agenda the photographer may have.

In this exercise, I am asked to consider examples of where citizen journalism has exposed or highlighted abuses of power. Clearly in a case like this, there is the possibility that a photograph was taken with the absolute intention of highlighting a particular abuse of power, although not necessarily so.

Ian Tomlinson (r) shortly before his death.

Ian Tomlinson (r) shortly before his death.

One example of citizen journalism which fits into this category is in the case of the death of Ian Tomlinson. Without going into too much detail about the happenings, several photographs were taken of events surrounding the assault by a police officer on Tomlinson, some of which were objective and some not. One thing is for sure, without photography (and video footage) Ian Tomlinson's death would very likely have been put down to natural causes, as the likelihood of there being a connection made between his assault and his death would have been small; the two events happening a little time and distance apart. It was only when the connection was made that some of the photographs and videos of events emerged. In an instance such as this, where police assault a member of the public, it is very likely that most of us, given the opportunity, would make an attempt to document it. We might see what we would consider to be a crime being committed and would feel duty bound to record the evidence. To me this is an objective viewpoint: it is an interesting scenario but we are recording it with disinterest, although perhaps with a view to ensure the offenders are punished. Had I been a protester however, simply on the look out for ways to catch the police up to no good, then my photographing of events would be much more subjective as I would only have had my camera out for that very reason. I wouldn't be taking photographs of smiling police officers shaking hands with protesters; there would be no photos of this sort on my memory card, only ones of angry looking police misbehaving. Similarly, had I been the mainstream press, I would have been much more excited by this sort of event than by protesters walking quietly along. I would have a very good idea of the photographs I wanted and it would have been ones of violence and disorder. My choice of photograph would have been extremely subjective. Had I been a police photographer recording the events of the day then of course I would certainly not be on the look out for police misdemeanours, only for trouble causing protesters or perhaps police heroics. Like the press or the protester, I would have had an agenda and my photography would have been very subjective.

There is certainly a great deal of subjectivity in photojournalism as professional photographers will be working to a brief, even if it is one they have set for themselves. They will be looking for certain shots to fit a certain premise or theme. Citizen journalists however are often bystanders or passer-bys whose photographs are also often taken with disinterest; i.e. with objectivity. However, this isn't to say that the photograph isn't then used by a party who certainly isn't disinterested; the context is very important to the reading of the image.

As we can see, there are several reasons we may dispute the 'truthfulness' of a photograph and I think this is why unless we are eye-witnesses to an event we can easily be misled by what we being shown. In fact, even if we are eye-witnesses, it doesn't actually mean we know the truth about the situation we are viewing. As Magnum photographer David Hurn was quoted in 'On Being A Photographer': "If I were called, or called myself, a documentary photographer it would imply, to most people in this day and age, that I taking pictures of some objective truth - which I am not ... The only factually correct aspect of photography is that it shows what something looked like under a very particular set of circumstances. But that is not the same as the underlying truth of the event or situation." (Short, 2011)

So when looking at a photograph, some examples of what we should perhaps ask ourselves are:

  • Where is the image displayed and why might it be displayed there and not somewhere else? .i.e. why in a gallery? Why on the front page of The Daily Mail and not the New Statesman?
  • Who took the photograph? Why did they take it? Were they working to a brief? Do they have an agenda? How might they gain from taking the photograph?
  • Was the photograph planned or spontaneous?
  • Is there a caption and if so, who wrote it and why?
  • What is the photograph of? Can it be verified?
  • Were there other photographs taken at the same time that can corroborate the event? If so, why were they not used?
  • Was the image used to make a certain point? i.e. a photograph of dead fish may be used to highlight the effects of pollution but how would we know how the fish had really died? The photograph may have been of discarded by-catch, which would be another issue altogether and possibly amore worthy one for discussion.

Bibliography

Short, M. (2011). Basics creative photography 02. Lausanne: AVA Academia.