Citizen Photography on the Rise

There are many disputes under the umbrella of photojournalism; however, none of them seem as prudent or more debated as the matter of citizen photojournalism. With the rise of high quality camera phones and more consumers than ever purchasing Digital Single Reflex cameras (DSLRs), it seems that everyone is a photographer. Many photojournalists are going freelance due to the many jobs that are being delegated to citizens who happen to be at the right place at the right time. Because of the citizen “snapshot,” photojournalists have to find new aesthetics of telling compelling stories while staying true to their roots of documentary photography or else the field of professional photojournalism will certainly die off.

Many photographers today seem to be all saying the same thing, and that is photojournalism is dying. In the article ”The New Photojournalism,” Neil Burgess, a former director of Magnum Photos and Network Photographers, discusses the sad state that photojournalists are in: “we should, stop talking about photojournalists altogether” (qtd. In Machell). Due to budget and the rise of citizen photographers, it should come as no surprise why there are so many freelance photojournalists. Though, there are some optimists out there, such as Hampden-White, who seems to have the mindset that these new growing pains that we find ourselves in are a new era where we can change for the better (Machell). If we embrace this concept of a new creative look to documentary photography, it might be revived, but it will take much effort.

We have never had such a numerous amount of imagery than now; everyone is a photographer. With this in mind, it is no wonder why photographers have to compete with these “snap-shooters.” When companies, like the Sun-Times, let its entire photojournalist staff go and rely on citizen generated images, it should be no surprise when the quality of imagery goes down, because of their untrained eye “Insight” (Targeted News Service). Nonetheless, from a business stand point, this seems like a smart move to have. This tradeoff is due to the fact that citizens seem to deliver faster and there seems to be more citizens than there are photojournalists. When George Eastman started Kodak, his first camera released to the public was the Brownie. The photographer had no way of looking through a ground glass or viewfinder to frame his/her image. Because of this difficulty, the name “snapshot” was given to these particular images because it is a hunting term that means, “to shoot blindly.” Today many seem to be reverting back to this time and making images without any trained eye; though, we promote these over the ones produced by professionals.

This is not the first time photography has had to earn respect from others; this medium has not always been considered art. When the first daguerreotype camera was invented, many artists were outraged. Many artists had this same view up until Alfred Stieglitz came along. Alfred was a photographer in the early 1900’s and was responsible for many large movements in the art community, during his time such as the Photo-Secession, Camera Work, and the 291 Gallery. Stieglitz was ahead of his time, for example he was scoffed and mocked when he was one of the first people to bring Picasso’s paintings to America. In all, Alfred’s true motivation was trying to prove that photography was in fact an art, he had to think of new creative ways to show that it was. Thanks to his contributions, photography today is well received by the artistic community. History seems to repeat itself, and even though we are not in a state where we have to gain respect from the art community, we are in a state where we have to regain respect as professional photojournalists. There needs to be a new breed of photojournalists. This new photojournalist needs to produce images in a conceptual and personal format. As photojournalists, we have to compete for our place in the field of documentary media. In order to get on top, we need to find new creative artistic ways of presenting our media. We are seeing more contributions to the art of photography; yet, the ones that stick out the most are the ones that are new and creative. Inventive approaches to documentary photography will always come out on top.

Prior to citizen photojournalism, the ways that documentary photographers went about telling stories was much different. Photojournalists competed against each other rather than citizens with camera-phones; also the lack of access to the Internet caused photographers to rely more on print media than self-promoting social media. Gary S. Chapman is a photographer who made a name for himself during this time. He is currently a humanitarian photographer who calls Atlanta, Georgia home. He has had his work featured in National Geographic, LIFE, and Time to name a few. Though, in 1977 while working on his degree at the University of South Florida, he was employed as an intern at the Fort Myers Newspaper. In the year 1978, he graduated and continued in the photojournalism industry, working for revenues such as Brooksville Sun Journal, The Tampa Tribune, and The Louisville Courier Journal. Yet, in 1994 Gary decided to break away from the staff photojournalist business and go out on his own by becoming a freelance photographer, like so many photographers choose to do. Citizen photojournalists were a strange concept to Gary up to the point where he discovered social media, such as Twitter and blogging. He also feels that photojournalism, in the aspect of a career, is not what it used to be. The days of starting out as an intern and working your way up to a larger market is dying off with print media. Gary also believes that in order for photojournalists to come out on top, they will need to present straightforward and visually appealing images. Likewise, Gary anticipates that in the aspect of spot media, citizens will always be chosen over all else partly due to the fact that it is free. But overall, Gary seems optimistic that we are in a very exciting time in this trade; young photographers are “no longer held back by the gatekeepers of old” (Chapman). If we remain strong and show no fear in our media, Gary seems to think that it will not die off, like so many deem to be true.

Many experienced photographers are ensuring that this industry has a future and does not simply fade away. For example, James Capers is a photojournalism instructor at Randolph Community College and has been since 2010. Before teaching at this community college based in Asheboro, North Carolina, he was an adjunct instructor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Though, prior to teaching students the art of telling stories through imagery, James was a staff photographer for numerous news outlets, such as The Florence News, Fayetteville Observer, and the Democrat and Chronicle. Capers earned his Bachelors of Science in Mass Communications/Media with a concentration in photography in 1989 at Fitchburg State University. In his time as a photographer he has covered major events such as the 9/11 attacks on the United States of America in 2001. In the aspects of citizen photojournalism he thinks that it is a “double edged sword. It is good to have visual watchdogs and everyone with a camera to record history” (Capers.) However, James also feels that the problematic side of this “double edged sword” is when we take the citizen generated images at face value without any serious vetting. James believes if photojournalists present images of stories that must be told then photojournalists will rise above all. The idea of photojournalism as dead or dying is simply untrue to James Capers who believes “because [of] the options to self-publish” (Capers) stories that seem significant to the photographer. We no longer “have” to sell our work or stories to magazines or newspapers rather we can self-promote. James has the mindset that paper and magazine revenues are realizing their mistakes, such as the “Sun-Times” which hired four staff photographers following the termination of the complete photography staff department. He seems confidently positive that the job market in this industry will continue to thrive. “I am still seeing openings at local papers, at least 5 NC papers in the last 2 years” (Capers). Due to the progression of technology in order to reinvent ourselves as photojournalist we need to have multimedia as one of our tools in our toolbox. James says, “You still have to have awesome singles, a long term story, but now most publications and web only news sources want and require multimedia” (Capers).

Photographers, it seems, will always have to prove themselves. Though, with this in mind, it is fair to say that with this fierce competition it will make the medium a much stronger one. As with any art, photography will go through trends and it is fair to say that this movement may very well burn off. However, one can expect to find the roots of photojournalism planted firm in the history under the ashes of the once popular trends. In the aspects of citizen photojournalism, photographers will have to find more ways to be creative to compete with the citizen “snap-shooters.”


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