Modern technology has enabled anyone with a digital camera or cell phone to capture images of newsworthy events as they develop, and news organizations around the world increasingly depend on these amateur images for their coverage of unfolding events. However, with globalization facilitating wider circulation, critics have expressed strong concern over exactitude and objectivity. The first book on this topic, Amateur Images and Global News considers at length the ethical and professional issues that arise with the use of amateur images in the mainstream news media—as well as their role in producing knowledge and framing meanings of disasters in global and national contexts.
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About the Author
Kari Andén-Papadopoulos is associate professor in the Department of Journalism, Media, and Communication at Stockholm University. Mervi Pantti is a lecturer and program director of the Media and Global CommunicationMaster’s Program at the Social University of Helsinki.
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Amateur Images and Global News
By Kari Andén-Papadopoulos, Mervi Pantti
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Looking Back: Ethics and Aesthetics of Non-Professional Photography
This chapter explores, from several historical and cultural perspectives, the changing relationship between professional journalism and its amateur alternatives, that is images from private cameras. Drawing on historical examples and various journalistic genres, I examine how the border between professional and non-professional photography in the press has been continually challenged and redrawn, and discuss the ethical dilemmas that arise in this uneasy borderland. Journalism's ambivalence over using pictures from outside its professional domain has a long history, which I trace here, focusing particularly on the aesthetic and documentary character and appeal of the private photograph, and what happens when this appeal coincides with the interests of news. I consider, further, some of the routines and strategies that journalism has used to pull in these 'outsider' images, explaining or 'taming' them to fit within the news frame.
The Private Photograph as News
I begin with 1912 and the major news event of that year, the sinking of the passenger ship the Titanic. No photographs were available of the tragedy itself; and in the aftermath, a portrait of the captain's widow, Eleanor Sarah Smith, holding their daughter, began circulating widely in the press. The newspapers that carried the picture on their front pages include L'Echo du Nord, in Quebec, and the London Daily Mirror, both well-established newspapers, but with a tendency towards sensational journalism. Strictly speaking, this is not an amateur photograph, but a studio portrait made by a professional photographer. Yet it does have similarities to the amateur's photograph, even today, that make it relevant for unravelling questions about the ways in which journalism handles pictures that come from outside the press. Like the amateur photograph, it was made for use within a private, domestic setting. It was not intended to be a press photograph but became one when it was taken out of its intended context, and reinserted into the news, whereby it raised several ethical issues. First, it was not a current photograph, but had been taken six years earlier. Although conveniently dressed in black, the woman in the picture was not yet a grieving widow, and the three-year-old child on her lap had reached the age of nine. Yet the desire to publish a photograph of people affected by the tragedy overrode any questions about its lack of currency. Secondly, this was apparently the only photograph available of the widow Smith, which enhanced its value to the press: it was an exclusive picture. Whereas today one could expect many public pictures of a woman with the social standing of a captain's wife, at the time a different standard of privacy prevailed. Women who exposed themselves to the public's gaze (actresses, singers, entertainers) were viewed as of questionable character, so it was no accident that pictures of this woman were hard to come by. Mrs Smith should have been allowed her privacy, not because she was in mourning, but because according to the social norms of the time a woman of her standing should have remained out of the public eye. By exposing her to the public (and a global public, at that), the press was degrading her to the status of a 'common' woman. The photograph became a benchmark of the excesses of visual journalism and was seen as the first example of 'presenting private grief as a breakfast-table spectacle' (Baynes 1971: 48).
There are several things we can learn from this example. First, the photograph that gets close to its subject runs the risk of transgressing the boundary of what is seen as ethical journalism. The line maybe drawn differently at different times, and for different kinds of events. Yet, ethical questions are raised and the boundary is invoked whenever a photograph promises an exclusive look at a subject that, although it may be public knowledge, has not previously been visually exposed to the public eye. Second, there is a long history of incorporating pictures into the press from external, freestanding sources that lie outside strict editorial control. In these cases, we find that the desire for pictures has taken the upper hand in the decision to publish.
Another aspect that this example illustrates is that the desire for photographs was particularly evident in the tabloid press, which from its early days actively sought and used images to sensationalize the news. Large photographs were widely used, with violence, sex, accidents and society scandals as major themes. The Daily News, for example, with its front-page photograph in 1928 showing the murderess Ruth Snyder at the moment of her execution, was offering what a later photojournalism textbook described as 'daily erotica for the masses' (Kobre 1980: 17). US press historians continue to point to the period as a low point for journalism, an expression of what they consider the loose morals and loss of ethical standards that threatened public and private life. In the United Kingdom, Daily Mirror had established 'a genre of making public the grief of private individuals,' and was among the newspapers influenced by the US tabloids' early use of photographs (Baynes 1971: 46, 51). In the meantime, many broadsheet newspapers remained dominated by text long into the inter-war period, with the New York Times as a prime example. Their restrictive use of photography can be seen as a response to the visual excesses of the tabloid press (Becker 1992), grounded in an ethical position embedded in evolving standards of a professional journalism.
The Emotional Baggage of Sensational Journalism
Why is the polarization of photography in daily journalism relevant to a discussion of amateur photography in the press? With photography as a central feature of sensational journalism, in its turn characterized by emotional excess and unethical practices, it became increasingly difficult to conceive of a journalistic photography outside the boundaries of this genre (Becker 1992: 133). Central to the legacy of the yellow press of the 1890s and still evident in the circulation wars that raged in New York's tabloid press of the 1920s, was the power of the image, and in particular the photograph as non-mediated, speaking directly to the reader. In its directness and immediacy, the photograph carries an emotional power that undermines the possibility of rational reflection. The sensational image - and by extension any photograph - was seen as impeding the public's ability to maintain a reasoned response to the event it represented. The reader is pulled into the event, getting 'too close', thereby losing the capacity to weigh its significance. The photograph had come to represent a potential threat to the 'proper distance' that was a cornerstone of ethical, professional journalism (Silverstone 2007). Issues of emotional and ethical excess in visual journalism had bracketed photography as suspect within the profession as a whole.
With the rise of a professional photojournalism, as newspapers and news agencies employed photographers and the wire services began sending photographs, journalism grew less dependent on photographs from other sources. Yet there would continue to be events where photographs from outside journalism would be needed for full and adequate coverage of the news. In these circumstances, the ways the photograph is understood, how it represents, including its power and its appeal, raise ethical issues for the profession.
In an oft-repeated quotation the iconic war photographer Robert Capa claimed that if the photograph is not 'good enough' it is because the photographer is not close enough. Closeness is therefore an admirable quality or attribute, conflating physical and emotional distance into a visual representation of what is it is like to be present, witnessing the event as it happens. Obviously, this is mined territory, not only for war photography. The border between getting too close and maintaining a proper distance must be negotiated each time it arises. What does this closeness look like? In order to identify when the photograph signifies that it violates the 'proper distance' of professional journalism, I now turn to the specific visual attributes of photographs that appear too close. My argument is not confined to the amateur or non-professional photograph, but includes references to ways ethical distance is constructed, maintained and violated in the practices of professionals. As I hope to show, the framework of professional practice is necessary for understanding when a news organization allows the amateur photograph to cross the border and enter the news. This includes identifying specific strategies that journalism employs to make the outsider image fit the constraints of an ethical journalism. Each of these strategies stems from the need to insert distance between the image and the viewer. Visual, audio and textual means are employed to defuse the emotional power of the photograph and reframe it within a journalistic discourse characterized by proper distance.
The Look of the Family Photograph
The private portrait has a long history in the press, and continues to be a staple of a certain kind of news story. When people who are not public figures suddenly become newsworthy, the usual way of picturing them is with a private picture, usually a school photograph or a snapshot from a family collection. Examples include news events such as the disappearance of a child, a murder or other violent crime or tragedies or catastrophes where many people are missing or dead. In these news situations photographs - either of the victims or the perpetrators - gain currency within journalism, and the most sought after images do not exist in press or public archives. The iconography of these images is easily recognized. Both the school portrait and the family picture from a private setting carry connotations of the presumed warmth and intimacy of the private, domestic sphere (Hirsch 1981; Kuhn 1995). Inserting them into the public display of the newscast or newspaper page creates a radical disjuncture. The closeness, the visual connotation of emotional and physical proximity, is ruptured. The reader knows immediately that something is not as it appears in the image; the altered context signifies differently, as tragedy. The closeness established through the familiar look of the picture is thereby intensified. Re-framing the private image within a discourse of journalism zooms in even closer to what the reader now reinterprets as only a visual semblance of normalcy.
The private picture in the press also collapses time. The viewer is presented with an image from the past simultaneously with a current event that is news. Inserting the past into the present creates a special form of temporal immediacy. Looking at the people in the photograph we see how they were, at the same time that we are witnessing the tragedy in their future. The privacy of the past moment is fused with knowledge of the tragic event that brought them into the public eye. The temporal closeness created when the private photograph is re- situated in a journalistic frame closes the gap between the private past and its future made public.
The photograph from the family collection is frequently posed, with the subject looking into the camera. This effect of direct eye contact presents the person in the picture as a subject, engaged with the photographer, and in turn with the viewer. This 'look' implies complicity between the photographer and the subject, acknowledging that a photograph is being made. The subject position established through eye-to-eye contact is an important way the private photograph signifies closeness, suggesting a personal bond with the person holding the camera and with the intended audience of family and friends. The family photograph is one of the few cases when the direct gaze appears in photographs in the press. It occasionally occurs in the local press, where even front-page news photographs may show their subjects looking directly into the camera. The local newspaper's editorial policies typically include a responsibility to represent the local community, underscoring the close bond it enjoys with its readers, an exception that supports the rule of unposed photography as the norm (Becker, Ekecrantz and Olsson 2000). Other exceptions include portraits of well-known social figures and celebrities in private settings, where the direct gaze with its sense of intimacy establishes the photograph as privileged and exclusive (Becker 1992). More generally, photojournalists develop strategies to avoid the gaze in order to make their photograph appear unposed. Waiting for an unguarded moment, or simply directing subjects not to look at the camera are examples. The distance that is constructed through such strategies presents the event 'as if' it were not being observed or documented. By looking away from the camera, the person is being asked to behave 'naturally', that is, as if the photographer were not present. The fictive absence of the journalist that these strategies construct is one form of proper distance.
The amateur picture violates this distance, particularly when it is pulled into coverage of mainstream news. Publishing private pictures of victims of crime and tragedy are frequently seen as particularly invasive. They avoid the intrusion of the professional's camera, but substitute the more intimate view from the victim's daily life with its cruel appearance of normalcy. Claire Wardle (2007) shows an increase in the visual coverage of child murders during the 1990s, where emotionally charged personal photographs of the victims and their families 'suggest to readers that this is no longer a personal affair; it is one which affects us all' (p. 279). Private photographs of perpetrators of crimes, far less common in Wardle's material, can raise additional issues. A childhood photograph or school portrait of the offender presents a mask of normalcy, inviting the viewer to look for signs of deviance to come. Publishing a photograph where the perpetrator of a crime looks directly into the camera establishes the person as a subject, which may not be the desired effect. Before discussing the ways the press controls this dangerous proximity, I consider the other familiar look of the amateur photograph, the snapshot aesthetic.
Beyond Control: The Amateur as Paparazzi
Even when posed, the amateur photograph can have a rather haphazard look to it. The composition may be a bit off, crooked or awkwardly framed. People may squint into the camera or their faces appear contorted by the harsh light of an unexpected flash. Objects close to the camera can look amorphous and out-of-focus, while other objects may appear too far away to clearly identify. Although the amateur photograph is typically taken during highly predictable moments, during family gatherings and celebrations, trips and holidays, it nevertheless looks unplanned as if people are caught off guard by the camera. Although these visual features do not characterize all family or amateur photographs, they nevertheless cohere around a type of image that is generally understood to be made by a non-professional. The look of the amateur photograph, as an iconic form, has been part of visual culture in the West since the first hand-held cameras entered the market in Europe and North America. With its long history and traditions, it also evokes a complex emotional response among viewers who identify its visual form with the private and domestic spheres. This includes an expectation that the photographer is familiar with the people in the picture and may even belong to the group. The haphazard look of the amateur snapshot signifies intimacy and closeness. These qualities adhere to the image, regardless of the photographer's actual relationship with the people and events pictured. The visual form of the snapshot is read as an insider's view.
These visual characteristics are not confined to amateur photography, and they also signify in other ways. The 'candid' photograph that catches its subjects at unguarded moments also has a long history in the press. Celebrity journalism, including paparazzi photography, and crime reporting offer many examples of press photographs that follow the snapshot aesthetic. The people and events are not the same as those found in the family collection, but the visual form is similar: awkward composition, harsh contrasts and uncertain focus that appear to be the result of simply pointing the camera at a subject that might 'make a picture'. The frozen moment captured in the candid photograph suggests that neither the photographer nor the subject had time to 'compose' themselves for the picture. Like the amateur's photograph, this style of press photography appears raw and immediate. In his discussion of the paparazzi, Alan Sekula (1984) argues that these photographs follow a different order of truth than the carefully composed image. The photograph that catches its subject off guard 'is thought to manifest more of the "inner being" of the subject than is the calculated gestalt of immobilized gesture, expression and stance' (p. 29). Standards of good composition and technical control are sacrificed in favour of getting the subject on film. The raw appearance of the image signifies that the subject's public facade has been ripped away, revealing the inner character, what the subject is 'really' like. News photograph taken of people responding to tragedy and loss follows a similar logic; in such situations people are exposed, revealing human nature at its most basic level. Photographs of such moments, when the comfortable facade of daily life has crumbled, provide a psychological closeness to the experience. The moment of trauma becomes the moment of revelation.
Excerpted from Amateur Images and Global News by Kari Andén-Papadopoulos, Mervi Pantti. Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Kari Andén-Papadopoulos and Mervi Pantti
Part I: Histories
Chapter 1: Looking Back: Ethics and Aesthetics of Non-Professional Photography
Chapter 2: Amateur Photography in Wartime: Early Histories
Chapter 3: The Eyewitness in the Age of Digital Transformation
Part II: Practices
Chapter 4: Amateur Images and Journalistic Authority
Chapter 5: Transparency and Trustworthiness: Strategies for Incorporating Amateur Photography into News Discourse
Mervi Pantti and Kari Andén-Papadopoulos
Chapter 6: Pans and Zooms: The Quality of Amateur Video Covering a Breaking News Story
Chapter 7: 'You Will Die Next': Killer Images and the Circulation of Moral Hierarchy
Chapter 8: From Columbine to Kauhajoki: Amateur Videos as Acts of Terror
Part III: Circulations
Chapter 9: Visual Blowback: Soldier Photography and the War in Iraq
Chapter 10: In Amateurs We Trust: Readers Assessing Non-Professional News Photographs
Liina Puustinen and Janne Seppänen
Chapter 11: 'More Real and Less Packaged': Audience Discourses on Amateur News Content and Their Effects on Journalism Practice
Andy Williams, Karin Wahl-Jorgensen and Claire Wardle