You've just started reading an article by a citizen journalist, accompanied by a photo taken by an amateur. You may even have personally contributed to this site, or others like it, or found that your Flickr photos have made their way into someone else's online story. The rise of Web 2.0, chock full of social networking and collaborative authorship sites, in combination with the cheap and accessible camera phone, have handed the tools of the traditional news world to a fresher, irreverent, non-professional crowd. The output of this disparate group of active citizens - known as the Flickerati in some circles - represents for news outlets a 'smorgasbord' of witness content, the immediacy of which often trumps the aesthetics of the professional photographer’s time-lapse shot. Adding further cause for consternation amongst traditional journalist/photographer circles is that these of-the-moment shots are more often than not distributed for free.
The Frontline club's photography networking party on Friday night was less an opportunity to mingle with talented photo-journalists over free gin and tonics and more an exploration of the future of the professional photographer. The night was dominated by a heated, urgent debate between, on the one side, the traditional photographers whose role is rapidly eroding, and on the other, the citizen journalists - those newly emergent 'accidental journalists' armed with camera phones and in the right place at the right time, or the talented amateurs willing to sell cheap pictures for a shot at mainstream recognition.
Are the two camps actually in competition with each other? If they all continue to operate within the traditional media system, then yes they are, because the professional photographer will always risk being outmanoeuvred by the citizen journalist. The Head of BBC News User Generated Content division actually challenged the notion that post-credit crunch, the news service would go back to paying old rates for professional photographs. When they have been paying less (or nothing) and can continue to do so for photographs of events that the professionals just don’t have, why would they? Perhaps for higher quality pictures? Editor Turi Sienche from Demotix, a citizen photo service that sells images on behalf of Joe/Akhtar/Wen Average, points out that we, the public, get the pictures we want; and it appears we don’t want a perfectly framed, aesthetically pleasing shot. Not every time, anyway.
So if it’s no longer possible to 'eat other peoples’ tears”' - if traditional photography doesn’t pay enough to cover the bills - then professional photographers can’t afford to play by the old rules. They will need to get creative; to diversify, to sell ideas rather than content, and to circumvent the system by creating new outlets for their talent.
They may also need to reconsider the role of the audience: those of us who consume the images. Fed a diet of cheap, blurry, easily digestible pictures, how will out palates ripen to crave something richer, with greater depth of flavour? Photojournalist Mark Vallée has already made inroads in this regard. Following the debate, he spoke passionately about the revelation he had experienced in teaching an adult photography appreciation course. Teachers, bankers and builders arrive ignorant of the nuances of images, or of the importance of provenance, but leave with their eyes open and a thirst for something more from the images the media chooses to present. Many of us want to contribute to the news - to have our voices heard and our pictures pored over - but we still recognise the power of a beautiful shot.
The Frontline club holds six networking parties a year.
By Michelle Newell
Photo taken on an iphone by citizen journalist Andy Lewis. From L to R: Matthew Eltringham (BBC News, User Generated Content), Olivier Laurent (News Editor, British Journal of Photography), Chair Ben Hammersley (Associate Editor, WIRED), Marc Vallée (Photographer) and Turi Munthe (CEO, Demotix).