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.