Johann van Tonder

Photojournalism free for all

2004-07-30 10:19

My cellphone was recently upgraded. I had been quite happy - thrilled in fact - with the previous handset, a Nokia 5210 in a bright orange protective plastic casing that proved to be immune to falling down a staircase (still holding the call when it reached the bottom), flying off a fire truck, and plopping into a (recently flushed) toilet. So it was deemed "Cisca-proof" and passed on to my cellphone-abusing girlfriend.

The only thing I ever did with that phone was, well, phone. And sms - a lot. Now I'm taking pictures with my new toy, setting up photo-galleries, and showing off the results via MMS. A self-confessed camera-snob, I never thought I, or any self-respecting photographer, would need these added photographic features.

However, in May this year Die Burger ran a photograph taken of John Travolta arriving in South Africa. The image was not taken by a professional photographer or photojournalist, but by a staff member at PE airport with a camera-equipped cellphone.

I realised that the game was changing. No wonder the use of phones with built-in cameras have been banned from the cloakrooms at the gym.

Banned or not, these phones will redefine photojournalism. In every crowd, at every event, at accidents or crime scenes, anywhere a publicity-shy (or not-so-shy) celebrity treads, someone is bound to have a camera in their pocket. The nature of the event will make it possible for ordinary citizens to act as documentarians, spot-news photographers, and paparazzi.

Newspapers and magazines are already inviting readers to supplement their own coverage of parties, protests, and a multitude of other events by encouraging readers to e-mail their own photographs, taken on their mobile phones, for publication: "Democratising the mass media," they claim.

Despite the, perhaps, welcome notion of a revolutionised media and more exposés similar to the disclosure of human abuse at the hands of foreign soldiers in Iraqi prisons, I am not excited about this new "democracy." Crappy quality is the very least of the concerns that editors will have to face:

What guarantee is there that the image is real?

Many readers may recall the many fake images on the internet after the September 9/11 attacks. One prankster composed a picture that showed someone being photographed inside one of the Twin Towers with a plane approaching the subject from behind. Digital manipulation has eroded the credibility of the media. How badly do we want to protect the little bit that we have left?

How did the photographer influence the scene or outcome of the photo?

On more than one occasion, as I have previously shared in this column, I remember turning my back on potential award-winning photographs in cases where I felt that my presence was inciting a given reaction from those I was photographing. Should untrained people, with no binding exposure to codes of ethics, be encouraged to play photojournalist?

Has the image been obtained legally?

If we encourage readers and untrained 'journalists' to supply content, we have no guarantee that someone's privacy, for example, was not violated in getting the picture. In the early days of the internet, some Sociopaths, were posting nude photographs of their unsuspecting girlfriends and sisters. Do we want to invite this same element to contribute to serious print and digital publications?

We have long needed a democratised mass media: an open, censorship-free 'site of struggle', so to speak, but we already have it and it's called the internet.

We cannot stop the transmission and virtual publication of dubious and damaging images on private sites in cyberspace, but that is where these images should stay.

Send your comments to Johann

  • Johann van Tonder is an award-winning news and conflict photographer, and was previously photo editor at Die Burger. He lectures in photojournalism part-time at the University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University.

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