Project 1 Eyewitnesses? Exercise (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?

Write a list of the arguments for and against. For example, you might argue that these pictures do have a degree of objectivity because the photographer (presumably) didn’t have time to ‘pose’ the subjects, or perhaps even to think about which viewpoint to adopt. On the other hand, the images we see in newspapers may be selected from a series of images and how can we know the factors that determined the choice of final image?

Think about objectivity in documentary photography and make some notes in your learning log before reading further.

In researching for this exercise and considering citizen journalism in relation to the abuse of power it is an uncomfortable truth that the internet is full of images of apparent brutality at the hands of Law Enforcement Agencies. It is perhaps the contradiction implicit in brutality dealt out out by those charged by society to protect us that sits uncomfortably.

With the spread of phones as cameras and recording devices perhaps we are just being more of what has always been there but this makes the reports of brutality none the less disturbing.

In considering citizen journalist it is perhaps alleged police brutality in the united state that has mad the news and the wider media. Few people will not recall the infamous Rodney King case. King was a Los Angeles taxi driver who was beaten by four police officers following a high speed chase on March 3 1991. 


A nearby observer, George Halliday record the incident with a video camera and sent to footage to a local TV station.

That King was beaten seems to be beyond doubt, but the motives of Holliday are unclear. He made the tape and was clearly a witness to the event. I suspect he didn’t feel he could call the police about what was going on. Sending the tape to a new outlet seems on the face of it a pragmatic choice. But not knowing anything about Holliday leaves some gaps in intertepring his actions.

That said, the images of King led to widespread Rioting and a nationwide outcry about police behaviour. The story that developed did not just focus on the police officers involved but sections of the media also presented less than favourable in formation about King. I this sense the image shaped multiple stories in spite of what appears to be prima facia evened of brutality.

There have been many more similar examples of brutality, particularly against black men and boys and there is a growing archive on the internet of examples of such brutality. It appears to only be matched by a similar number of related articles reflecting the lack of prosecutions flowing such incidents. One contribution that citizens journalism unmistakably makes is that many of these incidents would have gone un recorded but for the presence of camera and came phone. In this sense there is a real contribution made to evidence gathering by citizens. What impact that evidence has is unclear though.

A more oblique take on this theme of abuses of power and citizen journalism is the recent resignation of the Icelandic Prime Minister following revelations about his tax affairs and the use of off shore accounts revealed by the release of records in Panama.

People demonstrate against Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson in Reykjavik, Iceland on April 4, 2016 after a leak of documents by so-called Panama Papers stoked anger over his wife owning a tax haven-based company with large claims on the country's collapsed banks. REUTERS/Stigtryggur Johannsson

REUTERS/Stigtryggur Johannsson

Crowds assembled in the capital to demand his resignation and under pressure the pressure Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson did resign. In this case the abuse of power is around tax avoidance amongst the political class, suggesting one rule for them and something different for the rest of the populace. The spread of images of the gathering crowds on social media s well as the news media may have contributed to peoples choice  to go and join the protest. In this sense such citizen images contributed to the intended effect in quickly spreading the scale of the protests. 

Objectivity in documentary photography

“…documentary photography shows the camera at its most potent and radical”

Clarke (1997)

Clarke’s statement highlights the power of the image perhaps more than that of the camera. The two examples I used above demonstrate how an image can influence people, particularly when they are spread quickly to the masses.  None of this though says anything about objectivity. This is an altogether more problematic idea. Yes Rodney King was beaten by police officers and crowds did assemble in reykvic

Can picture be objective?

Arguments for:

  • There is an immediacy about the images I have selected.
  • The photographers were  present and witnesses to the events
  • there was an element of opportunism
  • Events are being captured that might have gone un noticed in a time before cameras and social media
  • There is an element of truth in these images

Arguments against

  • Are we seeing the whole story?
  • What bias might be present in the image maker
  • We don’t always know the image makers intention-for example what was Holliday’s motive for filming the King assault?
  • A documentary photograph may well have a very specific intent on the part of the photographers that may not always be obvious to the viewer

Summary Learning Points



Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph, Oxford Publishing, Oxford

Love, D. (2015) Study: In Civil Rights Cases Involving Police Brutality, Federal Prosecutors Fail to Indict 96% of the Time-Atlanta Black Star  Found at: Brutality-Federal-Prosecutors-Fail-to-Indict-96-of-the time/ (Accessed April 2016)


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