For this exercise, I had a look at various web pages outlining examples of citizen journalism. I looked primarily at still images, although several of the sites had videos as well, both in connection with specific protest events or interviewing the photographer.
Styles are always different, but most of the photographers I looked at had primarily covered events and protests, and most of them have nearly always done so from an insider perspective (i.e., as part of the protest itself rather than as a bystander). Some of the pictures depict police violence and in some cases, the perspective is not dissimilar from that of the victim of the attack itself (see for example these two pictures by Angel Zayas, here and here (1)), and indeed in many cases these journalists would be direct victims of abuse themselves.
Photo-reportages of protests are not new and we have always been able to see dramatic pictures of these events, even when these were covered by regular press photographers. The advent of citizen journalism has perhaps added a new perspective to the coverage, though, closer to the action and also closer to the intended recipients of the news: a lot of these photographs are distributed through blogs and social media, and likely reach a wider audience than photographs included in press publications.
So we are closer to the action, but one has to wonder if this makes any significant difference in terms of the quality of reportage. For one, being inside the protest, and in many cases being part of the protest, could lead to a degree of bias that may not necessarily be present in the output of a professional press photographer. One could argue that the output of the latter may also be subject to editorial bias by the owners of the paper publishing the photographs, but that does not necessarily leave us any better than before, it just provides a counterbalance to the old bias while leaving the general public none the wiser about what really happened.
The point above is interestingly highlighted by Elena Kirsh in an article published by the Jerusalem Post (2), where she talked about this image (3) of a soldier pinning down a girl that has probably been staged, but has been used on numerous occasions to portray violence in Syria and Palestine. Ms Kirsh goes on to argue that uncontrolled citizen journalism could end up with fake news being spread widely, in some cases aided by unsuspecting newspapers picking up and reporting the images without verifying their authenticity, and that citizen journalism somehow needs to be moderated or reigned upon by traditional news outlets, citing the examples of the “open newslist” from the Guardian and CNN’s “iReport”. One has to wonder, though, if the solution of any potential lack of objectivity by citizen journalism is for it to be subjected to the editorial control of traditional media outlets. Citizen journalists would in this case become no different from traditional press photographers and their unique contribution to the way of presenting the news (ie as an insider) could be lost in the process.
Aside from the question of objectivity, being closer to the action – which I would argue is perhaps the defining feature of citizen journalism – brings up coverage of events that would generally be ignored by mainstream media but that nonetheless may be of interest to the general public. Angel Zayas again provides examples of this, when he photographs police officers in New York searching, arresting or harassing members of the public. See for example here and here, taken from his previously quoted Instagram page (1).
On the subject of aesthetics, it is interesting to note that some (but to be fair, not the majority) of the examples of citizen journalism pictures that I have seen were highly stylised photographs which probably had a good degree of post processing. A good example of this are these pictures depicting protests by Michael Nigro (see here) and Jenna Pope (see here), both of which were taken from an article on citizen journalism appearing on the Huffington Post (3). These pictures are very likely genuine and depict a situation of interest, but the use of post-processing to make them “pop” may detract from their subject matter and could even give grounds to suspicions that they have been altered. Traditional journalism has long been obsessed with limiting the degree of post-processing that can be done to a picture (see for instance rules from the World Press Photo contest on manipulation (5)), but citizen journalism is not bound by these rules and may breach them out of necessity in order to appeal to their target audiences in the various social media outlets that they use.
In the balance, it may be argued that the rise of citizen journalism does not necessarily improve the objectivity of documentary photography, but it creates additional points of view on matters that be of interest, and that in itself is a positive development.
(1) Angel Zayas Photography (@azp.nyc) • Instagram photos and videos . 2017. Angel Zayas Photography (@azp.nyc) • Instagram photos and videos . [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/azp.nyc/. [Accessed 17 June 2017].
(2) Untangling the Web: Citizen journalists running amok . 2017. Untangling the Web: Citizen journalists running amok . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.jpost.com/printarticle.aspx?id=262434. [Accessed 17 June 2017].
(3) latimesblogs.latimes.com. 2017. No page title. [ONLINE] Available at: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/world_now/2012/02/viral-photo-of-israeli-soldier-appears-fake.html. [Accessed 17 June 2017].
(4) HuffPost. 2017. Let’s All Commit Acts of Citizen Journalism | HuffPost. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-nigro/post_11089_b_9319686.html. [Accessed 17 June 2017].
(5) World Press Photo. 2017. What counts as manipulation? | World Press Photo. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.worldpressphoto.org/activities/photo-contest/verification-process/what-counts-as-manipulation. [Accessed 17 June 2017].