Part 1 Project 1
Find some examples of news stories where ‘citizen journalism’ has exposed or highlighted abuses of power. How do these pictures affect the story, if at all? Are these pictures objective? Can pictures ever be objective?
One of the most powerful uses of citizen journalism I have seen was the footage broadcast by Diamond Reynolds on Facebook Live when her boyfriend was shot by the police. This isn’t photography, it’s film, and it later inspired the work autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson that won the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018.
This footage seems to expose an abuse of power. We see a man who has been shot in a great deal of pain who eventually dies, a woman in distress who wants us to know what is happening, and later on footage from a police car of a small child frightened that her mother will be next. We seem to be seeing how the family are treated because of the colour of their skin.
Is any footage objective? No, I don’t think it is; in the end we all have a different point of view which isn’t just what we see visually but stems from our experience of the world and what we believe.
I find it interesting that at the time I originally saw the work of Luke Willis Thompson at The Photographer’s Gallery the video I found online was all by Diamond Reynolds and some from the police car with Diamond with her daughter. This tells the story from one perspective, but we assume that it is objective because it was broadcast in the moment, live and unedited.
The whole situation is so horrific and seems so unfair, but we don’t know why the officer made the decision he did in that moment, what he thinks he saw and what experiences or societal messages he had experienced that made him think he was in danger himself.
I feel the story presented is one where the police officer was a violent ignorant bigot put in a position of authority who thought very little of the lives of those in front of him because of the colour of their skin. Until I had seen the footage recorded from the squad car and see an alternative point of view of this incident I had assumed that the police officer was white. I had assumed that he was uncaring. Far from uncaring, he is clearly extremely distressed by the situation and the other side of it becomes clear. Arguably, this squad car footage is more objective because it is not shot by an individual. It is our own prejudices, beliefs and experiences that colour our reading of it.
I like to think that I am not racist, I like to think that I could never be racist. But I am human and so I work on assumptions and stereotypes about race and class like everyone else. I have to recognise that in myself and question myself frequently. It is the unquestioning belief that we’re above those assumptions that is dangerous as then we never examine the views of the other side, we never question our version of reality. The police are in a position of continual danger and although Diamond knew her boyfriend and what the likelihood was of him drawing his gun to shoot a police officer, the fact is that the officer didn’t know him and reacted to the situation as he saw it.
Things that immediately spring to mind when thinking about citizen journalism are events like the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street. The visual aspect of these stories didn’t expose the injustice, but exposed the idea that those who recognised it were not alone and so the injustices that those crowds of people were fighting were brought to public attention. The presence of the crowds inspired people who didn’t know what was happening at national or international levels to find out the reason for this attention.
The idea of crowds of people taking photographs, film and spreading information on social media in the moment does lead to an idea that the images are objective, even if a set of images or a film from an individual might be acknowledged to be more subjective. But usually the collective presence of a group of people around a political issue or injustice signifies that those people hold similar values and beliefs on the subject they are photographing; being in a crowd of likeminded people is unthreatening; being on the outside of that crowd with an opposing view someone might experience and visually communicate something very different.
No-one is objective and no photograph or footage is either. Documentary photography is never objective. No photograph can be because it is taken by a human and that human has a point of view, experiences and beliefs that will shape their ideas about what is happening, and how they perceive it. It also shapes what they want to say about it and how they should express it and how they are able to – for example, Diamond had access to the phone, access to social media – the police officer wouldn’t have been in a position to start broadcasting on Facebook Live at that moment.