Are Citizens The New Journalists… or the New Paparazzi?

Now that everybody’s cell phone comes equipped with a built-in camera, and now that videos and images are as easily shared as oxygen, the line distinguishing the journalistic photographer and the citizen photographer have never been more blurred.

Only thirty years ago, editors would send photographers and journalists to newsworthy locations to record history, to be the eyes and ears for the general public. Today, with the developments of social media and information sharing and the popularity and portability of the camera, the general public records their own history.

In a recent article in Media Active Magazine, Dan Gilmor traces the history of citizen photojournalism, citing the Rodney King video a milestone in media history. When bystander George Holiday captured footage of police officers beating King on the dark streets of Los Angeles in 1991, it was one of the first times where a pedestrian photographer documented history in a meaningful way. The video was evidence of the severe racial injustices embedded into government organizations in California, and helped fuel the impetus leading up to the Los Angeles Riots.

The video (and the social consequences that it sparked) helped the public recognize that “anyone with a video camera could become more than a witness to the events of our times” (Gilmor qtd in Media Active). Less than a decade later, another unexpected event would be documented by a pedestrian videographer: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As Kennedy and his wife Jackie rode through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on November 11, 1963 in the backseat of a convertible, Abraham Zapruder, a U.S. citizen who’d come to witness the president’s visit, captured footage of Kennedy’s gruesome assassination. Gilmor writes that Zapruder sold the footage to Life Magazine for $150,000 – nearly a million dollars in today’s currency.

Gilmor’s article raises how citizen photojournalism has made information more accessible, and he argues that consequentially, those who hold power are more accountable for their actions: “Around the world, dictators have learned that even if they kill their people they can’t ultimately stop the world from seeing what crimes they commit.” He gestures to the current uprisings in the Middle East as evidence of our digital information age and concludes that the prevalence of video cameras will have a positive impact on society, ultimately making us accountable – as societies and as individuals: “We will be better off, in the end, as more and more journalistic media creation of this sort becomes part of the mainstream […] We will have more genuine media than before […] and that is a good thing for us all.”

But is there a darker side to citizen photojournalism? A recent video captured of fashion designer John Galliano could make the case that citizen photojournalism fosters an ethos of surveillance amongst citizens, not unlike the panopticism that cultural philosopher Michel Foucault discussed in his 1975 text Discipline and Punish.

Foucault argued that the panopticon – an architectural structure originally designed by Jeremy Bentham as blueprint for prisons – was a metaphor for the way control operates in modern society: in the panopticon, prisoner’s cells line the circumference of the structure while the prison guard sits in the middle. The jail cells are completely visible, but the prison guard isn’t, hence creating the illusion of constant surveillance:

Since the prisoners can never know when they’re being watched by the guard, they internalize the discipline of the institution (in this case, the jail), and the guard need not even be present to ensure that prisoners behave.

In today’s multi-mediated world, the panopticon provides a way of thinking about surveillance, discipline, and control, begging the question, are we watching one another too closely?

If you haven’t already watched the video, I’m sure you’ve read about John Galliano’s racial remarks in the news. Galliano was drunk at a cafe in Paris when a group of women started chatting with him. It isn’t known whether or not Galliano knew the women’s camera was rolling. Irritated, the fashion designer slurred some pretty anti-Semitic comments, and later that night the women uploaded the video to YouTube. By the next morning, the clip quickly made its way through the blogosphere, and Galliano has been publicly condoned by the fashion industry and media mongrels alike.  At best, he’s been the brunt of every celebrity gossip joke, and at worst, he’s been demonized as the poster-boy for contemporary racism.

On Tuesday, Dior made a public statement, calling Galliano’s behavior “odious.” Sidney Tolando, the president and chief executive officer of the Dior label condemned Galliano, saying his statements are in complete contradiction with the House of Dior.

While I’m in no way condoning Galliano’s remarks, we have to regard the video as another landmark in the history of citizen journalism, and we have to wonder whether or not we’re transitioning from a society of citizen photojournalists to a society of pedestrian paparazzi, a culture that’s constantly surveying one another in a style not unlike Bentham’s panopticon.

I have sympathy for Galliano because he uttered these comments while he was drunk. Though I’m sure he knew he was in a public setting, he likely had no idea what he was saying. After all – who among us hasn’t said some pretty stupid things while under the influence?

What’s more, Galliano likely had no idea that he’d be held accountable for his comments, or that his remarks would result in a very humiliating, very public dismissal from a position he’s held for fifteen years. He didn’t know he was being interviewed, and he also didn’t know that he was speaking to a crowd of could-be journalists.

And this is the key phrase: “could-be journalists.” Now that everybody walks around with a video recorder or camera on their phone, essentially, everybody is a could-be journalist, as Gilmor suggested. If we, as a culture, are going to take up the role of recorders of our own history, the difference between journalists and paparazzi must be clear: a journalist informs while paparazzos hound. The people who captured John Galliano drunk at a bar were paparazzi, as they were bothering him in order to provoke reaction, and they uploaded the video with the intent of showing him in a less-than favorable light.

Again, I’m not condoning Galliano’s remarks, but I am cautioning against a society of surveillance in which we regulate one another to the point where even our private – and intoxicated – moments are held for the world to see. If everyone is a could-be journalist, then I can’t help but wonder if we’re controlling one another through the threat of constant surveillance. If pedestrian panopticism is to become the new model of social reportage, then we’re breaching dangerous territory that seems all to Orwellian for me.