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Autograph

April 21, 2007

By Jessica Reed liveblogging at the Democratic Image conference

Mark Sealy, director of photographic agency Autograph just gave a presentation highlighting the fact that if we talk about Democracy in the digital photography world, we should keep in mind that only + one billion people worldwide have access to the Internet. He also talked at length about the (mis)representation of “visible minorities” in relation to the while middle class males’ “white noise” which obstruct access to the global media platforms for an enormous amount of people left voiceless or misrepresented.

You can find more about Autograph’s mission and ongoing work here.

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IRL vs. Online experiments

April 21, 2007

Bill Thompson was scheduled to speak at the conference this morning, but had to stay at home due to personal matters. He was, however, talking to us live via Skype, and asked himself/us a really good question: how will he remember the event? Will he remember it as being in Manchester with us, or being at home, following the symposium from his desk? His reply seemed to be simple: “I will remember it as being blurry!”.

He then mentioned following the general elections with his friends online, all of them chatting and drinking behind their respective screens – “I remember quite vividly, he said, as being an event I was truly following with my friends”.

Fair enough Bill (maybe you will want to comment on this one)!

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Having equal access to something cannot necessarily be construed as democratic

April 21, 2007

By Charlie Devereux, liveblogging from The Democratic Image symposium

Pedro Meyer’s keynote talk was a tour through the development of technology and how this has affected his work and photography around the world.

Here are some facts he threw out:

– The omnipresence of digital means that film costs nothing nowadays. Today we should instead be looking at how much it costs to store the data. The cost and capacity of a hard drive is a better measure of how much photography costs today.

– The price of digital cameras is falling by 30% year-on-year

– The Mexican photagrapher Raul Ortega published a book with funding from the Chiapas government. He printed 4000 copies, 2000 of which remained unsold 4 years later. He then published it as a downloadable pdf on Meyer’s zonezero. 24,000 were downloaded within 30 days.

So, the argument goes, advances in technology (low cost + increased distribution) = more democratic.

Yes, but…

Having equal access to something cannot necessarily be construed as democratic – look at Coca Cola.

The debate continues with a video link up with Bill Thompson after the coffee break.

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Giuseppe di Bella’s stamps

April 21, 2007

by Jessica Reed, liveblogging from the The Democratic Image conference

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As I was walking to the conference this morning I found myself chatting with Giuseppe Di Bella, a French-Sicilian photographer based in London; I hope to get him to blog here this week-end. Talking about the myriad of exhibitions around the city, he asked me if I had seen his work. “Not yet”, I replied slightly embarrassed, “but I will as soon as possible”.

He smiled, “well there’s a really good story attached to my work, something you might like to blog about. It turns out I have the FBI following me around. They find my work to be suspicious”.

And how could they not! Giuseppe used photographs of Abu Ghraib which he then transformed into stamps, sending letters worldwide adorned with his controversial art. “Of course”, he pointed out, “I would also add a real stamp so as not to be accused of counterfeit. But they didn’t like my art one bit. They have been watching my actions closely, and even interrogated one of my acquaintance in New York”.

“Well”, I replied, “… that would certainly make a good blog story”.

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Can the democratic republic of photography be glimpsed on the horizon?

April 21, 2007

By Charlie Devereux, liveblogging from the Democratic Image symposium

The title of this blog is a quote by John Perivolaris, who opened today’s symposium by throwing some questions to the audience.

Most important of all, considering the title of the conference, he asked that we consider how we define democracy.

“Democracy is a word much bandied about,” he said.

Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of democracy:

“While the term democracy is typically used in the context of a political state, the principles are also applicable to other groups and organizations.”

I think that if this discussion is going to take off we will have to arrive at some kind of definition for democracy.

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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.