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."
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.