Social media have given photojournalists a million extra eyes in conflict zones. But if a picture can say a thousand words, the trick is finding the right one.
An elderly woman kisses a riot soldier in the streets of Cairo. A building collapses in Tokyo. Bloodied bodies and dismembered limbs fill an infirmary in Benghazi. The images come to us through Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook, captured through mobile phones or Web-ready digital cameras. Far from the grit of revolutionary unrest or the tumult of a natural disaster, average people sit, transfixed.
This story is a familiar one. As new media tools and social networks have become more widely utilized, the powerful images of the world's crises are delivered directly to the laptops and smartphones of people around the globe. Since Iranian citizens filled the streets of Tehran in 2009 in defiance of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime, social media has allowed even the least tech-savvy people around the world to become bystanders to history.
While new media's value as an organizational tool during global crises has been much debated since the Iranian election protests in 2009, its role in the process of narrative storytelling is palpable. In places like Libya where journalists are outlawed -- or disaster zones like post-quake Haiti where regular means of communication are interrupted -- the linkages of social networks can be turned into a means of observing (or, in the case of a tech-savvy dictatorship, surveilling) the origins of political unrest or the makings of a world historical moment. But new media also comes with challenges for photojournalists: while a single snapshot may tell a thousand-word story, the trick is to get that story right.
The technical benefits of new media to photojournalists in crisis zones are equivalent to unrefined digital omniscience. A whole universe of photojournalists, both amateur and professional, is made available to the public through social networks, allowing news organizations to ferret out important stories using tools beyond their existing technical capabilities.
"With regards to Twitter, it's a very useful tool in order to point journalistic organizations towrads potential leads and potential developments in stories," said Santiago Lyon, director of photography for the Associated Press. The AP, alongside Reuters and Getty Images, provides the vast majority of editorial photos used by American news organizations. "When there's a breaking story, whether it's an ongoing crisis or a spot development -- like a plane down in the Hudson -- we're very actively trolling social media sites for imagery: performing searches, scraping Twitter and Facebook, soliciting information. There's a fairly robust mechanism within the AP to identify and capture citizen journalism ... once we find something of interest, then it's incumbent on a specialist to take care of it. Content goes through a specific department for vetting. We look, apply, crosscheck, reference."
Since the camera phone has essentially turned any casual observor into a potential photojournalist, an extra pair of eyeballs in Libya could eventually become a temporary appendage of a larger news collecting organization. Lyon provides the example of Alaguri, a Benghazi resident who become the AP's sole set of eyes in Libya in mid-February as Western journalists were just entering the country. "We found a guy in Benghazi in Libya who had posted some pictures onto the Internet," Lyon said. "We tracked him down through his Facebook account. We made contact, had a conversation, asked relevant questions, ascertained that he was who he said he was, got permissions for his photos and retained him for a couple days of work. Because of that, we were able to have an exclusive look into the vents in Benghazi last weekend when there was no other imagery coming out of Libya. Our customers were using that. It was a great journalistic scoop on the strength of good, virtual, shoeleather reporting and verification."
While verification can be a minor obstacle for photojournalists using social media as a resource, it lies at the heart of the ethical and aesthetic issues of crisis reporting.
But verification can often be problematic, and the proper context and attribution are often lost in the space between retweets and Facebook shares. If they happen to make contact, how does a news organization know they're dealing with the photographer or copyright owner? How do we make arrangements to distribute the content? Is there a financial transaction involved? Even determining the original owner of a photograph becomes problematic. "It's very complicated because what happens on the social media becomes something of an echo chamber," said Lyon. "People scrape stuff off each others' accounts, or a contextual claim is far from good or solid."
If the original source of a photograph cannot be verified, the value of content is called into question. "We have to look at these things on a case-by-case basis. There's no general blanket approach other than 'they must be sure' that the content is what is says to be and the person is in a position to deal with it (the owner, or a proxy)," said Lyon. "Everything is assessed on its value ... we see this at times when the material is superseded or overshadowed by our staff material (not as good so we don't need it), or it's stuff that we absolutely need because we don't have it or it's from a hard-to-get-to location or whatever that may be."
The Agence France-Presse and Getty Images found themselves in hot water over copyright infringement shortly after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Photographer Daniel Morel managed to post exclusive post-quake images from the devastation in Port-Au-Prince on his Flickr and Twitter accounts. The images were stolen and re-distributed on Twitpic by a Dominican named Lisandro Suero. AFP and Getty licensed and distributed the photos with attribution to Suero to major news organizations -- the New York Times, Time Inc, the Washington Post. In December 2010, Morel won a pre-trial victory in federal court against AFP and Getty for copyright infringement. "A news organization didn't do due diligence," said Lyon. "It's absolutely critical. No matter how compelling the content is, we always make sure to deal with the copyright owner."
While verification can be a technical or legal obstacle for photojournalists utilizing new media as a newsgathering resource, it lies at the heart of the ethical and aesthetic issues of photojournalism and crisis reporting. The sudden influx of raw images from areas ravaged by political conflict and natural disasters may be a wealth of information, and news organizations with limited budgets may be more inclined to rely on citizen journalists on the ground, but they do not necessarily constitute the narrative storytelling at the heart of valuable photojournalism.
I spoke to the staff at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, an independent organization that sponsors reporting on global affairs, about the evolving role of new media in photojournalism. Founded in 2006, the Pulitzer Center treats news coverage of systemic global issues as long-term media campaigns maintaining a spotlight on often-ignored topics, ranging from water and food insecurity to homophobia and stigma to fragile states and women and children in crisis.
"The Pulitzer definition of 'crisis' differs from the usual conception of the term," said Nathalie Applewhite, managing director of the Pulitzer Center. "It's not that crisis doesnt mean immediate crises, like earthquake and floods, but the perspective of the Pulitzer Center has to do primarily with systemic crises: what happens before, after, the underlying causes. New media is very significant in immediacy, but not totally in long term. It doesn't matter if there are a thousand cameras, it's the storytelling that's important. A photojournalist with an artistic vision that transcends superficial coverage. It's a different media space."