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?