Archive for the ‘flickR’ Category

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The professionals, the media and the people

April 21, 2007

by Hughes Leglise-Bataille, Paris-based amateur photographer

“Time magazine has voted you “The Person of the Year” for “seizing the
reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital
democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own
game”. So, did you?”

In my native French, the word “personne” means both a person, and no one. By making us all “Person of the Year”, ironically, Time magazine has replaced the individual with the people, offering us as its cover a blank computer screen, like a mirror of billion faces. Is this a faceless crowd, or like these mosaics of thousand of images, does it have some recognizable features ? And most importantly, can we shape it ? After all, in “digital demo-cracy”, there’s the computer, the people, but also the power (kratos): by the people, for the people.

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Trying to tackle this question, I can only draw on my personal experience as an amateur photographer. Covering news in Paris, I’m somehow “competing” with professional photographers from the media, often working side-by-side with them. At night, I quickly select the best shots and upload them to Flickr, with short captions describing the events, so people have the opportunity to discover the images at the same time they appear in the media. The question at that point is: why do they look ? What difference is there, what’s the added-value, how this so-called “citizen (photo)journalism” is complementing or competing with the mainstream, professional media ? I believe these differences can be broken down into four points :

story-telling: for obvious reasons, the paper media can only show very few pictures of an event, often just one or two. But there’s no way one can tell an exhaustive and balanced story with a couple of photos. Therefore, the ones selected tend to be either informative but boring, or spectacular but biased. Even on the main media websites, it’s rare to have a portfolio of more than half a dozen shots. Amateurs have no such restrictions, and can choose to post on their blogs as many photos as they deem necessary to present all the angles of an event, from the mundane to the dramatic.

access: depending on the type of event, amateurs can be handicapped by more or less restricted access to the scene. Without the proper accreditation, some places and personalities are simply off-limit. Sometimes, it’s the publication itself which is legally restricted, a growing trend in France with a recent law officially aimed at the “happy slapping” phenomenon but which in fact, will strongly limit the freedom of citizen photojournalism. The sheer complexity of the logistics also hinders the coverage capacity of an amateur: for instance, professional photojournalists often have a motorbike with a driver to move around.Therefore, citizen journalism is bound to be local. And that’s also where it can beat the pros: by being closer to the community, amateurs are less intrusive and better accepted (eg. the French suburbs where journalists, especially TV crews, have been regularly attacked since 2005).

ethics: beyond the legal framework, professionals have rules, amateurs haven’t. While some may argue that these rules can sometimes amount to a form of censorship (eg. the collusion of political / business interests with the media), the lack of standards in citizen photojournalism is probably more worrying. Image manipulation (so much easier with digital photography), staged photos, bias towards spectacular / violent images, lack of respect for the subjects, etc. are all disturbing. Responsibilities probably lie with all parties: the photographers, the websites hosting their pictures, and the people visiting them.

economics: stating the obvious, amateurs don’t work for the money, while pros have to make a living. However, the digital revolution has dramatically reduced the difference between the two and it’s now relatively easy for an amateur to have the same equipment as a pro, and to get some exposure. Exposure, that’s often what matters for the amateur: it’s not about the money, it’s about the (relative) fame of having one’s name in a newspaper, and/or thousands of visitors on one’s photoblog. The problem is that intermediaries have jumped on the opportunity, promising both the “fame” and (some) money by putting the amateurs in contact with the media. I tend to believe that unfortunately, this is both lowering the quality of the work and its economic value.

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Finally, I would like to mention one important thing: citizen journalism, especially photojournalism, is often mixing up testimonies with journalism. To me, the people sending photos taken with their camera phones of the bombings in London, for instance, are just testimonies. What they do is no different than in the pre-digital age, when they would have told their story to the media. Now, they have the pictures to back it up, but in essence it’s the same process. Photojournalism isn’t just the recording of an image, and owning a camera doesn’t make one a photographer. But maybe it’s the media’s job to raise the standards, and demonstrate what good photojournalism can and should be ?

Thanks to the digital revolution, amateur photojournalism has become available to many photographers (“by the people”) and is able to reach a tremendous audience (“for the people”), but ultimately, does it mean better photojournalism and therefore, better democracy ? Or on the contrary, is it threatening professional photojournalism and forcing it to lower its standards ? From a strictly financial point of view, if the increase of the photographic offer has decreased its value, it seems the only way out is to compensate by increasing its quality. Call me optimistic, but I’m convinced the problem is not with the professional photographers (because they do take excellent photos and because even if you have to make money out of it, it’s not a job you choose for the money), nor with the public (people would learn and appreciate high-quality photos), but with the media owners themselves, who are trying to lower the costs at the expense of quality.

As for amateur photojournalists, I guess that in an ideal world, either they should be good and committed enough to ultimately become professionals, or they can exploit the niche of local journalism, for which they are better prepared than the professionals, and where the investment is lower for the media. But if everyone wants to be the “Person of the Year”, I’m afraid no one will…

Hughes Leglise-Bataille is winner of the NPPA – Best of Photojournalism 2007 awards in the Amateur Photoblog News and Photojournalism categories. Photos featured in articles in Le Monde, le Figaro, LCI (French TV news channel), Salon.com, MAX magazine.

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poDcast on photography and the digital age

April 20, 2007

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Pedro Meyer from the leading photography website zonezero.com (and who previously posted on this blog) was interviewed for our weekly openDemocracy poDcast. You can listen to it here.

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Thoughts on democracy

April 19, 2007

by Margareta Kern, contemporary artist, in reply to David Levi Strauss’ article

Democracy is one of those terms that makes me feel warm at heart, giving me a sense that we have found the solution for the way we organise and govern our societies. It is a positive term, filled with a sense of hope and strength; a democratic society is one which is fair, in which each citizen can voice hos or her opinion and has a right to cast a vote which can influence directly the politics and economics of her/his country. So the more I examine my fantasies relating to what the term ‘democracy’ represents the more utopian it seems to me. Is democracy an utopian term?

Having just spent one month travelling through Bosnia and Herzegovina, the thought on the meaning of ‘democracy’ has grown louder and louder with each day spent there. The sense of isolation felt there is further complicated when viewed in relation to the broadband Internet access (only urban areas have good and affordable Internet providers). A sense of separateness and division seems to be strong as ever despite the greater accessibility to the different tools of communication and information.

To say that there is a greater accessibility and possibly self-control of images and text since the advent of Internet and digital image is probably true, but to add the term democracy to that process of greater access would seem like giving an incredible amount of credit to what in the end are pixels. Painting, which in the end is just acrylic or oil, has the power to move us beyond our ability to explain why; in the same way images have the ability to move us even if they are just a flicker on our screen. But they will only move us if we allow them to, and for that we will need to find a way, as David Levi-Strauss wrote, to “slow images down to regain our liberty (and our distance)”. However in order to slow them down, we may need to slow down first.

Margareta Kern is an interdisciplinary artist based in London. Her new project is Clothes for Death a-n BLOG.

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The good, the bad and photojournalism

April 18, 2007

by Eivind H. Natvig, photojournalist currently stationed in South Asia

The idea of everyone being a photographer is wonderful as long as we remember a few things: we live in an unpredictable world, and the value of our contemporary history being documented for the future is immeasurable. Events potentially being recorded as more people have fairly high quality camera equipment and great technical skills -at least in the western world- is an incredible development in itself. In the part of the world where I reside this is not the case: even the local media can be overshadowed by the expensive equipment of tourists walking by, hiding in expensive hotels when violence erupts.

My main concern with photojournalism today revolves around ethics. In my opinion to be able to call anything journalism, you also have to be able to explain how the material has been acquired. What is being emphasized in the photographs, and why? This is the essence of it all. There are many insecure professionals out there shooting what everyone else is photographing, but I am positive many do not even know why they point the camera where they do. How will the amateurs know better than professionals in the chaotic situations we face regularly?

There are also known incidents of “photographers” who promise changes in this part of the world to the people they shoot. They spread false hope and deceive people in crisis. It’s important to know what to say and how to behave, what to shoot and what not to shoot when dealing with human beings. Sadly a lot of foreigners I see here seem to forget that their subjects are human beings.

As far as I understand, the “citizen journalists” have spawned from a desire to get other news than what the established media feed them; personally I’m thrilled that people care. But I am not alone amongst professionals who have dedicated our lives to this, and we need to eat. Unfortunately, the same public that wants something else is not buying enough magazines. To some extent citizen journalists can offer some form of competition to the established photographers working in the western world. Free photographs available through FlickR for the sheer pleasure of being published as an amateur might tighten the budgets for buying photography or hiring photographers, but the potential for the viewing public to win from a photographer on every street corner is incredibly positive.

The greater events and catastrophes need compassionate, caring and professional individuals with a spine to tell stories without submitting to the propaganda and directives of playing parts – and not forgetting the human beings while doing so. Photojournalism no longer is about pointing and shooting, and objectivity has been pronounced dead and should be buried for good. But perhaps it should be about storytelling, rather than just registering an event.

We seekers of the truth should embrace others doing the same, as long as the individual rights are never forgotten.

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On the democratisation of images

April 16, 2007

by Pedro Meyer (Zonezero.com), in reply to Bill Thompson’s previous post

I value and appreciate the comments made by Bill, but somehow I think we are looking at the same issues from very differente perspectives.

I would first like to dispell the notion that is implicit when he writes: “…Despite Pedro Meyers’s powerful description of the impact the network has had on the dissemination of his work”.

If my work is part of that of a thousand other photographers that we have hosted, then I think the implication is correct. If however the idea would be that only my personal work is the one that has gotten such visibility through ZoneZero, then I would have to dissent.

Then Bill goes on to make another very interseting remark:

We should remember that the Cambrian was a period of great experimentation in structure and function, but that there is good evidence that many promising models simply died out.

Again, this is a statement that is quite accurate in and of itself, but it somehow leaves you with the lingering impression that this ought not to be like that. That this is a flaw in the system or something we should consider as inappropriate.

I would venture to say that we can only welcome, both the experimentation, and the process of competition between all sorts of alternative solutions and ideas. What we have today is, even though imperfect, a system that makes the playing field for competing options a bit more just.

In the past a publishing venture that would have started in Mexico City to compete for the attention of a world wide audience in competition with the traditional power centers of photography would not have stood a chance in hell to even get to first base.

For all the criticism that has been leveled against “citizen journalism”, I find it quite interesting that the likes of Corbis (Bill Gates’ famous uber photo agency that has taken over a large chunk of photo industry of distribution) -which by the way has never earned any money- is now threatened by the competition of a new breed of agencies that are small, and sell the work of citizen journalists, and amateurs, for a fraction of the price of what Corbis asks.

I believe this is an example of the benefits of competition, and how today no one can sit back and relax and believe that they have it made for very long, or that they can corner the market on anything to do with the digital world. You could corner the market with silver, gold, grains, etc. but certainly not in anything related to the digital world. Just observe the constant erosion of the market share of Windows, not only from other options of OS, but in the way the world of computers is being constantly transformed by ever new ideas.

I like this debate with a very esteemed and highly critical mind, such as Bill Thompson. The competition of ideas is what this is all about. This is not about someone winning but about everyone coming out with new thoughts.

The notion that we can enter into such a discussion while being continents apart, in real time, as it were, makes for a way of looking at issues that over time will obviously leave us with a more enriched environment.

I think that this is powerful stuff and I am enjoying every minute of it.

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How the Land Lies

April 16, 2007

by Bill Thompson, technology critic and blogger

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The ability to record, manipulate and publish digital images has fallen into the hands of the masses in a revolution whose impact is far greater even than the introduction of the Kodak box Brownie in 1900.

The boundaries between professional photography, art and popular snapshots are blurring, just as the growth of blogging and citizen journalism makes it hard at times to distinguish between journalism, literature and a diary entry.

On one side those who make their money or reputation from photography are challenged to justify their continued importance or even survival. On the other the billions with digital cameras find a new way of expressing themselves via Flickr and Photobucket.

But we should not confuse access with accountability, and we should not automatically claim that digital leads to democratisation. Despite Pedro Meyers’s powerful description of the impact the network has had on the dissemination of his work, and the improved access that we now have, this is about openness not democracy and we should not elide the terms. In the media world there is much talk of ‘citizen journalism’, ‘participative media’, ‘the former audience’ and other terms seeking to describe the reshaping of the relationship between the creator and consumer of content at all levels.

It is sometimes called a process of ‘democratising media’ but this doesn’t seem the right way to think about it. Democracy is about power and representation, not merely about having a voice. It is also about the tyranny of the majority and the moral pressure on the winners in any vote or decision to take into account the needs and desires of the whole polis rather than just their side.

This is not, in itself, about democracy but about plurality. We are living through a Cambrian explosion in new media forms and voices, the online equivalent of that amazing period 540 million years ago when the fossil record shows the sudden – geologically speaking – appearance of many of the ancestors of modern species. Photography is part of that explosive growth.

We should remember that the Cambrian was a period of great experimentation in structure and function, but that there is good evidence that many promising models simply died out, leaving the world to our ancestors[1]. There is no good reason to suppose that these forms of life were, in themselves, unable to be sustained if conditions – chemical, physical – had been different or if they had simply been luckier.

So it is today. Experiments are being tried all over the net. Some will succeed and shape the future of media. Some will fail. Those that start to succeed may well shape the environment and make it more likely that others will fail, just as YouTube’s success has polluted the ecosystem and shrunk the niche for other video-sharing sites.

The power of production may have passed to the people but the power of selection online lies with an editorial process that is managed and controlled by those who build the sites, develop the algorithms and host the pictures. We may have taken power from news editors or the magazine publishers, but we have put it in the hands of the programmers at Google, Flickr and Photobucket.

Perhaps, however, we are not looking for democracy, not looking to give power to the people in a simple-minded way, but instead looking for equality of opportunity and digital mobility. The transformational power of digital production may lie solely in the way it allows everyone to create and share rather than in some poorly-considered claims that it can have a radical political impact.

[1] See Simon Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998

Picture: via flickR

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Click here to disappear

April 13, 2007

Writer and critic David Levi Strauss joins our photography debate with an article published today on openDemocracy.net. Titled “Click here to disappear: thoughts on images and democracy“, the piece explores how the privatisation of image-making and the manipulation of image-reception in the global, digital age combine to diminish agency and freedom. Money quote:

I used to think that more people making images would necessarily lead to more conscious image reception, but I’m less sure of that now. It seems that it’s possible to make images as unconsciously as one consumes them, bypassing the critical sense entirely. One of the main culprits here is time pollution, or “the pollution of temporal distance” that Paul Virilio writes about. To regain our liberty (and our distance), we must slow the images down.

Images online are both more ephemeral (in form) and more substantial (in number). They flicker across our eyes and jitter through our minds at incredible speeds. We spend more time collecting and sorting images, but less time looking at any one of them. One can never step into the same data-stream twice. The images from Abu Ghraib suddenly appear and are everywhere, and then just as suddenly they vanish, leaving barely a trace. Photographic images used to be about the trace. Digital images are about the flow.

Read the entire article here.