Photojournalism in the Age of New Media

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Applewhite points to the work of Andre Lambertson, a New York-based photographer, as an example of high-quality photojournalism. Lambertson traveled to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake to document the spread of HIV and AIDS in Port-au-Prince for the Pulitzer Center project After the Quake: HIV/AIDS in Haiti. "The Haitian government estimated that 24,000 Haitians were accessing ARVs before the earthquake; by mid summer, according to UNAIDS, fewer than 40 percent had access," wrote Lisa Armstrong, a print journalist accompanying Lambertson on the project, which launched on the Pulitzer Center's website in August 2010. "Hundreds of HIV positive people live in tent cities for internally displaced persons, where their weakened immunity, and the unrelenting heat and rain, make them more vulnerable to diseases. Sex in these IDP camps -- both forced and consensual -- will likely increase the spread of HIV."* His work in Haiti exemplifies the qualities that define valuable photojournalism, according to Applewhite: "sensitive vs. sensational, images that really tell a story."

"We want images that stand the test of time," Applewhite explained. "Snapshots and photos taken by camera phones are not things we can come back to learn from and understand something deeper. Images from Haiti and the Congo, these images are telling a much bigger story than what's in front of them that moment."

What happens to the traditional photojournalist in the new media landscape? "It could be a really negative thing," Applewhite said. "News agencies are often happy with random snapshots from Egypt and they don't necessarily need professional, thoughtful content all the time."

Applewhite noted that crowdsourced content can be complementary for professional photojournalists just as it is for the AP and Reuters, allowing photojournalists and news organizations to explore and gauge new networks. "Direct feeds are absolutely complementary from citizen journalists and bloggers can draw attention to an issue," she said, echoing the AP's Santiago Lyon. "But we would want to verify sources, make sure that information is telling the story that it's telling before it's publicized."

The staff at the Pulitzer Center is particularly sensitive to issues of verification. In crisis situations, verification often goes far beyond the copyright issues and associated legal ramifications cited that are a major concern for major news services like the Associated Press, Getty Images and Reuters. An out-of-context photograph can prove disastrous in a post-conflict zone.

People take images as truth much more than words. And images can be manipulated.

"People take images as truth much more than words," Applewhite emphasized. "And images can be manipulated. They can be used by someone with a vested interest to frame things in a certain way. There's a certain caution that comes from a large news organization."

Senior editor Tom Hundley witnessed the effect of unverified or out of context images well before the advent of social media. During the NATO bombing in Kosovo and Serbia, the Serbian Ministry of War published an elaborate set of volumes, full of pictures and stories of civilians who had been killed, as part of a propaganda campaign. "It was full of gory pictures, people's grandmothers with bodies blown apart," Hundley recalled. "During much of that I was there along with 40 or 50 other reporters. We were basically prisoners at the Belgrade Hyatt except when we were trotted out to report on civilian casualties and collateral damage. The Croatian/Serbian governments all made horrendous use of radio, newspaper and television."

Government manipulation of imagery is certainly an issue, but the high velocity of social networks that makes verification so problematic means that conflict imagery is often left open to misinterpretation and, subsequently, reactionary violence. "With images, there's a huge danger of producing false impressions or false information with bad analysis," said Jake Naughton, who does outreach and production at the Pulitzer Center. "Now it only takes 30 minutes to make a correction, but a lot can happen in a half hour in a conflict zone, especially with the speed that information travels."

Despite social media's drawbacks -- the increasingly uncertain problem of verification and a shifting emphasis to raw, immediate photographs -- new media technology affords professional journalists and news organizations the right tools to engage in the type of storytelling that makes for valuable photojournalism. Social media, like so many other tools, isn't inherently good or bad; it simply needs to be deployed in the appropriate manner to accurately tell a story. With regards to longer and less-immediate crisis stories -- famine, environmental decay or post-conflict reconstruction -- social media can keep an audience engaged long after bloody images are dropped from the evening newscasts.

"One of the things that helps us creatively is playing out content over a long period of time," explained Maura Youngman, a new media strategist at the Pulitzer Center. "Sometimes the things we produce may fall off the map after a couple of weeks, and stories may not be as digestible. Using new media and social media to create creative inroads allows people to come in and digest and enjoy information."

Youngman points to Lambertson's work in Haiti as an example of social media's power to keep a story alive. "Eight months after Andre's project was completed, we're re-releasing photos along with poems in English and Creole. New media allows us to find additional channels to take these stories and keep them alive. With the systemic crises we're dealing with, we're not just running to stay on top of the news cycle but trying to keep things in people's minds. This is the power of our social media channels."

The real test for working photojournalists is to reconcile the technical realities of the new media landscape with the aesthetic and ethical requirements of practical journalism. "Never has there been a time when you needed a professional class of journalists more than right now," Naughton said. "There's a real resurgence in formal and aesthetic qualities in contemporary journalism, the idea of aesthetics and photographers as storytellers, not just people who are be able to break the news."

In the past three years, new media has essentially experienced a baptism in fire as a newsgathering tool. The goal for institutions like the Pulitzer Center is to merge new media tools with the traditional. Mainstream journalists tell a story while creating links with local journalists and local channels through social media, and use new media tools to effectively convey a narrative to readers around the world. Maintaining the aesthetic balance with the speed of social media and keeping technology alive is important for us to keep stories going.

Images: 1. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound are seen burning in Benghazi, Libya on Feb. 21, 2011. The photos were captured by a Libyan photographer, recruited and retained by the AP. (AP Photo/Alaguri); 2. A Haitian woman awaits the results of an HIV test. (Andre Lambertson/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting).



*The post originally attributed writing by Lisa Armstrong from the After The Quake: HIV/AIDS in Haiti project to Andre Lambertson. The Pulitzer Center's Maura Youngman e-mailed to note that this was incorrect. We regret this error.


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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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