Thoughts About Amateur Phonecam Photojournalism

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I’ve recently been testing a Sony Ericsson P900, the state-of-the-art in mobile devices: It’s a tri-band mobile phone, PDA, MP3 audio and MPEG4 video player, and digital still & video camera, with 65,536 color VGA screen, a Web browser, e-mail access, SMS, MMS, MS Word, GPRS, and Bluetooth to sync with headset or my desktop’s MS Outlook, 16 hours of talk time and 20 days of standby power, all in a 150 gram package. I’ve particularly been having fun with its camera.

Which has led me to consider some pundits’ predictions that phone cameras will revolutionize photojournalism. No, I don’t think so.

Their belief is that when citizens carry digital cameras built into mobile phones, those citizens will photograph news events and get those photos published. It’s a wonderful conceit; something that could revolutionize photojournalism. While I do agree that when digital cameras are built into mobile phones, more citizens will be carrying cameras than now carry regular digital or analog cameras, the pundits’ conceits about those citizens becoming photojournalists makes a few too many leaps about human behavior.

Let’s frog-march across those leaps: Pocket-sized, easy-to-use, amateur cameras aren’t anything new: the Kodak company began mass-producing those in 1900. The camera costs $1.00 retail and 150,000 were sold just during that year. Tens of millions of those cameras were sold during the first decade of last century. Hundreds of millions of amateur cameras have been sold since.

However, think of how few news photos have taken by amateurs in the past century. Even during the past 40 years, few new photos have taken by the millions of amateurs who’ve owned easy-to-use, pocketable cameras. There are preciously few examples: Such as the stunned Abraham Zapruder who let his amateur movie camera continue to roll when President Kennedy was assasinated. Or the amateur videographer who had intended to photograph the contrail of the space shuttle Columbia as that aircraft re-entered the atmosphere over Texas earlier this year, but instead recorded the ship’s incineration. Rare.

And those are examples of expected news events, when the average citizen is most likely to be photographing. Can you cite an single major unexpected news event where an amateur has taken the published picture?

Some pundits’ believe that if cameras are built into mobile phones — devices that millions of citizens already carry — that extra proliferation of cameras will revolutionize photojournalism. A decade ago, some pundits likewise believed that the introduction and mass sales of small, inexpensive video cameras (minicams) would revolutionize video photojournalism. Well, that didn’t happen. Like the Zapruder film or the Columbia fireball clip, there occasionally were amateur video clips that the news (such as the clip of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King), but the millions of minicams consumers have bought hasn’t revolutionized news videography.

The reason why more amateur photojournalism hasn’t been published isn’t really handy equipment; the reason is behavior. Most citizens’ reactions to an unexpected new event is to gawk, not shoot photojournalism. Likewise, the reason why most citizens don’t write news stories about events isn’t lack of literacy, but lacks of intent and training. They will use a camera — analog or digital, separate or built into a phone — to take snapshots of their kids or a nice sunset, but their behavior when encountering unexpected news events generally isn’t to document (which would be the reaction of a professional photojournalist). And professional photojournalists are already at the expected news events.

The average citizen doesn’t behave or act like a reporter or photojournalist when news happens. The proliferation of phone cameras won’t revolutionize photojournalism, just as the proliferation of mincams hasn’t revolutionized videography. Yes, the prolifteration of phonecams will increase (maybe by 5% to 10%) the numbers of published news photos by amateurs, but that’s not a revolution. Sorry, but these devices, however fun, won’t change or overturn the average citizen’s behavior.
          - Vin Crosbie

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