Eyewitnesses?

In todays mobile technology world most of us have cameras at our disposal whenever the need arises.  This has produced a diverse wave of news reporting, in the middle of the action, at the most crucial time. This is referred to as ‘citizen journalism’.

With the dawn of citizen journalism has come the instant exposure of injustice and in particular the ways in which power can be abused.  This comes in the form of people who work in positions of power such as politicians, doctors and police etc.

One of the most widely exposed abuse of power is within the police force and is a world wide issue.  This isn’t a new subject, the accusations have always been there but without the evidence it would be a criminals word against a police officers.  However, being in the right place at the right time with a mobile phone will turn you into a citizen journalist.

Whilst researching examples of abuses of power being exposed by the public, I came across some very harrowing scenes, some of which left me sick to my stomach.  An example was given to me as Abu Graib, in Syria 2004, which shows photographs of pow’s being tortured by American soldiers.  Without the torture being photographed we wouldn’t be aware of the terrible acts that were committed to these human beings who ironically were doing the same job as the torturers before their capture.  The photographs were taken by the torturers themselves as trophies for themselves, however, they were exposed by a citizen journalist and the world was able to see the extent of their crimes.

Other examples I have found are:

  1. Ian Tomlinson, died after being pushed to the ground by PC Simon Harwood during the G20 protests in 2009.  The protest bought an abundance of spectators to London an already vastly populated city and with it enough people to record the events leading to Ian’s death.  There are videos widely available on the internet showing the entire incident but I found one single photograph that exposes the abuse of power carried out by PC Harwood and captured by a bystander.

ian_tomlinson_as_he_fell(Photographers name not released)

On the face of it this photograph breaks all the rules of a good photograph.  Its blurred, badly composed and incredibly busy however, the details it reveals through it’s unfocused lens, are indisputable.

The main activity is centred around a man (Ian Tomlinson) falling to the ground.  the question is how did he fall?  Directly behind the man is a police officer, who seemingly appears to be in ‘riot gear’ and is the police officer PC Simon Harwood.  Whats interesting is the way PC Harwood is positioned.  He’s the only office who is bent over, his feet firmly on the pavement, knees bent as if in a ‘push stance’.  Now look at all the other officers standing next to them, they’re all standing upright, hands by their sides as if watching but with no threat of violence in front of them.  You could say despite the event being a riot, they look calm.  So why is PC Harwood taking such action?  This is where the abuse of power comes in to play.   PC Harwood has used a violent act against a member of the public without provocation or threat.  How do we know that Mr Tomlinson wasn’t a threat to PC Harwood?  Look at the position on Mr Tomlinson’s arms and in particular his hands.  A natural reaction to falling is to put your arms in front of you to break the fall.  The position of Mr Tomlinson’s arms at this stage of falling suggest that his hands were in his pockets at the time of being pushed and therefore no threat to PC Harwood.  The most obvious clue here though is the fact that Mr Tomlinson has his back to PC Harwood, and therefore was walking away when the attack happened.

All of that evidence captured on a shaky mobile phone without a prior thought for how the photograph would be composed is proof in itself that citizen journalism is an unexpected and invaluable bi product of modern technology.

Lets imagine this photograph didn’t exist and there was no evidence to suggest PC Harwood acted aggressively and maliciously. If this photo didn’t exist we wouldn’t know that Mr Tomlinson wasn’t a threat to the police officer.  The police officer being in a position of power and thought of as upstanding member of the community, someone you can trust, would still be regarded as such.  A terrible and fatal injustice for Mr Tomlinson if it hadn’t been for a quick thinking bystander capturing the truth and exposing PC Harwood for the aggressive thug that he is.

2. Alton Sterling

In America, where police officers carry guns, they have even more power over the general public.  When two Lousiana police officers confronted Alton Sterling little did they know they were being filmed by Alton’s girlfriend who was locked in a nearby police car.  I’m going to be blunt in my description of the video as it’s far too shocking to comprehend the abuse of power demonstrated by one of the police officers.  Alton didn’t appear to threaten the police officers (he’s a big man) when they managed to get him on the ground and held him down, one with their knee on his head.  It’s fair to say Alton was restrained without a struggle.  One police officer takes his gun out of its holster and shoots Alton in the head several times.  You then hear Alton’s girlfriend scream and the video ends there.

You can’t argue with the video.  It’s as plain and blunt as that.  The police officer must have been confident, knowing the girlfriend was watching, that his word would be valued above hers.  His position and a protector of the people had been abused in the most heinous way.  Without the video, there would be no justice for Alton and it could happen again.  In fact how do we know the police officer hasn’t acted in this way before?  It’s just that on this occasion, he was filmed.

Is citizen journalism objective?

‘Objective’ not influenced by personal feelings and opinions in considering and representing facts.  In relation to a photograph can it [objectivity] be obtained without the provocation of feelings or opinions?

An argument that supports this is the fact that there’s no time to think or consider how the photograph will look.  As if its a means to an end or performing a function without a moments thought.  Where is the time to consider feelings?  No self debate about where the viewpoint will be.  No analysis of camera settings as we live in a point and click society of mobile phone cameras.  All without prior planning.

Another interesting theory is that a documentary photograph is either objective or subjective depending on it’s content and that the photographer can hide subjective content to make the photograph more objective (Bate 2009:54).  This idea separates the two different modes of documenting a social situation into objective as being cold and subjective being hot and therefore different strageies can be applied.  Whereas Maria Short wrote ‘While a photograph may not be an objective depiction of reality, it can be a considered means of conveying what the photographer feels to be the spirit or essence of the idea, person, place or event (Short, 2011:14).

It seems that photographers have many different theories about whether a photograph can be objective or not although they don’t seem to categorically state which way they sway.  The topic itself is subjective and therefore suggests that nothing in photography is objective.

My personal thoughts on whether a photograph can be objective or not rest on the one single argument; to reach for your camera is a response to an emotion and therefore the end result can never be without feeling.

Bates, D. (2009) Photography, the key concepts. London:Bloomsbury.

Short, M. (2011) Context and Narrative. Switzerland: AVA

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