Friday, June 17, 2011

Photo App Users Don't Make Good Photojournalists

Sports fans are funny, and every country seems to have a sport that fans lose their heads over. In the United States, it’s college football; in many places in Europe, it’s soccer football; but in Canada, fans go completely bonkers for hockey.

It makes sense. They’ve got tons of ice and cold weather, so even though Vancouver’s only about a hundred miles from Seattle, they’re going to get excited about hockey—especially when their team is in the season’s finals. Actually, some of these hockey fans are crazy enough about their team that when they lose badly in the final game of the series, they set fire to their own city. I’m not sure what the intention was. Punish their team for doing a bad job? Throwing a temper tantrum? A good ol’ fashioned drunken orgy of destruction?

Whatever the reason, it was the major news event yesterday. And when major news stories involve riots, as we’ve seen in Iran, Spain, and the UK recently, sometimes the best—or only—footage comes directly from cell phones. It’s something they’re extremely useful for. The smart phones of the world each come equipped with a camera and the ability to transmit pictures to the internet.

By contrast, major media outlets have to drive in with a van, set up a huge remote antenna, and transmit those images live via a massive pack attached to a video camera. Yes, the quality is greater, but in a hectic situation, we don’t really care about quality. What we want is content.

As Andrew Napolitano famously said, “The camera is the new gun.” Because they’re everywhere, and they hold people accountable for their actions, they tend to be more effective than shooting people with bullets. It’s a non-violent act of counter-protesting, capturing those who stood atop overturned cars in downtown Vancouver and set them on fire. I saw the pictures on multiple news websites that were taken by citizens armed with such cameras, not professional photojournalists. However, we’ve run into a little bit of a dilemma here.

Because smart phones have provided people with relatively powerful cameras with strong processing power right there in their pocket, we’ve moved into a new era of photography: the photo app world. People are sick of the novelty of just shooting pictures with their phone, so as a culture we’ve embraced running dozens of filters on top of those photos to stylize them, giving them a retro look, altering the color balance on the fly, and adding stylish borders among other effects. The photo app market is at the top of its game right now, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

So when the Vancouver riots happened, it was only a matter of time before Hipstamatic or Instagram would be used while taking photos of riots. Yep, mixed in with dozens of other shocking photos of car fires and smashed-out windows were a handful of retro-style shots of Vancouver on fire. This shot by Jenn Perutka may have been intended to be a stylish photo of the skyline and sunset juxtaposed with the ominous smoke of something going horribly wrong, but it was picked up by news organizations—who hunt down these photos due to their timeliness and royalty-free status—and published it alongside other, more clear photos of rioting.

I’ve got nothing against Jenn’s use of Instagram for this photo. It’s neat looking, and it doesn’t purport to be a photojournalistic capture of the event for media use. The blame is on the news outlets for running it. Here’s why:

I want you to think back to the 90s, and the home video camera you had. Remember that EFFECTS button on the side of it? With the push of a button, you could cycle through a range of effects like black and white, sepiatone, crystallize, mosaic, stained glass, inverse, etc. Hipstamatic and Instagram basically provide this service for cell phones. Now imagine watching a news story where someone’s pressed the EFFECTS button and we’re watching footage of the riot in mosaic/slow frame rate like a New Kids on the Block music video.

Here’s an example of what I expect your local news to look like in 5 years:

Photojournalists have long looked for what Henri Cartier-Bresson referred to as “the decisive moment.” In these cases, it doesn’t generally matter if the photo is high quality if it captures a moment that can’t be recreated. In other words, sometimes a terrible photo with unbelievable content is superior to a well-framed, well-exposed photo of something less spectacular. An example of this is Robert Capa’s famous photo “Omaha Beach.”

The photo quality is terrible, but what it captures is incredible. We are at water level, watching a potentially doomed soldier pushing his way up onto a French beach to liberate Europeans from Nazi control. We know he’s headed into horrifically deadly gunfire. We can see the debris in the water behind him, signs that the war is raging. We can look past the fact that the photo is blurry because we know Capa didn’t have the proper light to get a moment frozen in time. He couldn’t ask everybody to hold still for a moment, and in this way, the blurriness actually adds to the chaos and feeling of frantic movement.

However, there’s a difference when an image is given intentional stylization and a news outlet runs it anyway. We don’t look at the news to see what the 2011 Vancouver riots might look like if they’d happened in the 1970s or been snapped by a Polaroid instant camera. We’re trying to see what happened, and, somewhat more importantly, who did it.

Well, there’s one great thing coming out of social media, and it has to do with what Napolitano said. Rather than shooting rioters with guns, creating a larger mass hysteria and possibly leading to people being trampled to death or being caught in the crossfire, we’ll let people make their mistakes, shoot them with the dozens of cameras nearby, and hold them accountable for their actions later. Let’s just hope that the incriminating evidence of someone torching your car hasn’t Hipstagrammed their face into obscurity.

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