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Amateur photography: a revolution that wasn’t

  • Sabrina Harman photographs scenes of tortures and abuses in which she took part, 04 November 2003, Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq. Source: AP

    Sabrina Harman photographs scenes of tortures and abuses in which she took part, 04 November 2003, Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq. Source: AP

  • Tourists film the tsunami wave, 26 December 2004, Hat Ari Lay Beach, Thailand. Still from anonymous amateur video cropped by agency AFP

    Tourists film the tsunami wave, 26 December 2004, Hat Ari Lay Beach, Thailand. Still from anonymous amateur video cropped by agency AFP

Visa pour l'Image includes amateur photography in its programming this year, reports Laurence Butet-Roch

On 7 July 2005, a series of co-ordinated suicide attacks hit the London Underground during the morning rush hour. Fifty-two civilians were killed and more than 700 injured. The BBC, unable to send its reporters to the scenes, asked those caught up in the attacks to be its eyes and ears. By the end of the day, the network had received 22,000 emails; 300 contained photographs, 50 of which had been taken within an hour of the attacks. A picture shot by Alexander Chadwick with his Nokia 6630 camera phone, showing a single-file line of commuters heading down a tunnel in search of an exit, made the front page of The Washington Post, The New York Times and many more publications. Soon after, these titles and others followed up with articles hailing a new era in which everyone would be a journalist.

Five years later, World Press Photo awarded a special mention to a screenshot from a video showing the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman gunned down during protests after the country’s 2009 presidential election. This decision not only endorsed citizen journalism but put it on a par with professional endeavours. “For the past 10 years, we have been under the impression that amateurs’ stills were a recurrent feature in mainstream media,” says Samuel Bollendorff, a French multimedia reporter who has curated Amateurs on the Spot, an exhibition for the 26th Visa pour l’Image.

The exhibition in Perpignan retraces the history of the genre, an area Bollendorff was first drawn to after seeing the plethora of images from holidaymakers staying at coastal towns on the Indian Ocean when the tsunami hit in 2004. “As a photographer, I have to draw lessons from studying what makes a picture stand out, and how the uses of photography change over time, to then adapt my practice,” he says. “Therefore, I felt I needed to determine what citizen journalism meant for the news industry.”

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Bollendorff defines an amateur as “someone for whom taking photographs is not a career, who is affected by a news event and who spontaneously decides to record it”. After scouring through archives and calling on the wire agencies, he selected 30 images to put on show. The exhibition begins with stills lifted from footage of the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963, filmed by Abraham Zapruder. It also includes the trophy images showing the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, shots of natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and uprisings from Iran to Libya.

It’s not the first time Visa has shown amateurs’ work – the festival’s founder and director, Jean- François Leroy, organised a show dedicated to the genre in 1990, its second edition. Roger Thérond, the late editor of Paris Match, wrote the accompanying text. At the time, he calculated that there were 200,000 people in Japan capable of taking a shot that could land on the front page of his magazine because they carried accessible recording devices. Today, this number has soared to six billion worldwide.

Even so, Leroy maintains that amateur images “simply and absolutely cannot compare with the work of professional photojournalists”. He explains: “The first tell stories, the latter provide testimonies. For decades, journalists have used information provided by witnesses to gain understanding and build their narratives. Photographs taken by bystanders should be regarded and used in the same way as oral eyewitness accounts.”

André Gunthert, a French photo theorist and editor-in-chief of the scholarly publication Etudes Photographiques, agrees. “By no means is resorting to amateur production a new phenomenon,” he says. “During World War I, when newsrooms were faced with the difficulty of sending reporters to the frontlines, they turned to images taken by soldiers to illustrate their articles.”

Nonetheless, he admits that recent technical advances have altered the relationship between photojournalists, amateurs and the news. “What the professional photographer has lost is the privilege to be the first person on the scene, and thus produce the first image of a newsworthy event.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In 2011, for example, a video of Palden Choetso, a 35-year-old Tibetan Buddhist monk, setting herself on fire managed to make its way out of China. Rare proof of the wave of self-immolations in protest against the Chinese government’s repressive policies, it made the headlines. Previously, Hu Jintao’s administration had been good at avoiding extensive coverage by restricting foreign journalists.

And the screenshots the newspapers used take nothing away from Bollendorff ’s long-term project on self-immolation, he says. In fact, they liberate him from having to cover the basics. “Thanks to witnesses such as the one who was able to record Palden Choetso’s desperate act and alert public opinion, everyone has seen what self-immolation looks like,” he says. “I’m freed from having to try to capture the act itself. I can focus on building a more subtle narrative, which in this case means photographing empty spaces. By showing that they leave no trace, I’m highlighting the violence behind those deeds. And when it comes to China, I’m touching on how the Communist regime is silencing people and altering history.”

In fact, through his exhibition, Bollendorff argues that the impact of amateur images on photojournalists has been grossly exaggerated. Out of nearly 450 front pages collected the day after the London bombings by Newseum, a museum dedicated to journalism in Washington DC, only nine used amateur work. Most of the published images were taken by wire agency staff photographers and showed the rescue operation above ground; in particular, Jane Mingay’s surreal portrait of an injured passenger holding a silicon mask over her face, which was taken for Associated Press. Amateurs rarely produce iconic pictures. In fact, most of what they send are not photographs at all.

“It seems the bystander’s instinct is to look at an event through the video mode of their phone,” says Bollendorff. “In that sense, they don’t perform any photographic act. If anything, by selecting which frame to freeze and distribute, the 2 picture editors of the agencies are those who create the photo.”

Moreover, professional photographers do more than simply create an image. “The experienced photojournalist gives the newsroom not only a deliberate edit, but also guarantees that ethical and legal standards are respected, as well as all the information needed to attest to the authenticity of the image and captioning,” Gunthert points out.

Even so, amateurs’ images have still proved influential. In particular, their distinctive aesthetic has had an impact on viewers’ perceptions of authenticity – so much so that when the US government released images of Saddam Hussein’s execution in 2006, it opted to make them look grainy and low-quality when they were actually taken on a high-end camera. “The authorities preferred snaps with an ‘amateur’ feel that imitated the style of terrorist propaganda videos,” notes Bollendorff. “They thought it would make it appear more real.”

And whether professionals adopt that aesthetic or work in contrast to it, it has had an effect on their work. “Some of my colleagues may opt to replicate the gritty, raw look of amateur shots to convince viewers they are showing the truth,” says Bollendorff. “Others will choose to produce sophisticated photographs to distinguish themselves from the average Joe.”

For Leroy, amateur images have been a red herring – “a convenient scapegoat that has kept us from having to deal with the real reasons for today’s problems in the media industry. We’re guilty of having confused one thing for another.”

Just a few weeks ago, when pictures surfaced of a Roma teenager savagely beaten by a mob in Paris, news reports referred to the person who had taken them as a “neighbour”, not an amateur photographer. “The change of vocabulary signals a change of discourse,” says Gunthert. “We are returning to the journalistic standard, which had long been to consider such images as testimonies.”

Amateurs on the Spot is on show at Visa pour l’Image, from 30 August to 14 September.

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