The Failure in Crowd-Sourcing News Photos

© Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

At a time of cost cutting for media budgets, lots of news organizations imagine that user-generated content can fill the void. But the recent failure of crowd-sourced news photos of Hurricane Sandy, and the shortage of coverage of other climate change-fueled disasters around the world, demonstrate how far we are from truly democratizing the medium of photography. Photographers worry that the lowering of technological barriers means “everyone’s a photographer now,” but in fact, the number of people who can take and share news photos is still limited by economics, infrastructure and geography.

Now that news organizations have quit crowd-sourcing instantaneous images of the approaching storm, we are seeing enterprising professional photojournalists who are focused less on flooded tunnels and wrecked cars, and have been seeking out the less obvious stories behind the slow process of rebuilding, rehousing the displaced, and supporting those underserved by relief efforts. (The New York Times photographer Ruth Fremson’s November 2 coverage of people coping without power, elevators, heat or  a sense of security on the upper floors of public housing projects is one example.)

Among the critics of the media’s immediate response to the storm, photographer Kenneth Jarecke  and Prison Photography’s Pete Brook  (who gathered a round-up of storm coverage) seem most irked by the poor quality of many of the images editors chose to publish (by professionals commissioned to shoot on iPhones and by amateurs).  “Most of the photographs are REALLY bad,” Jarecke wrote. “It’s history. It changes people’s lives. You’re not allowed to make excuses or drop the ball, but sadly most of you did.”

As a New Yorker who was seeking up-to-date information about friends and loved ones the day after the storm made landfall, I’ll forgive esthetic lapses in favor of timely and useful information. The problem was, amateur photographers don’t seem to know how to write captions, and they lack  journalistic instincts.

“Instagram” implies instantaneousness, but as these photos remained on websites without time stamps, they became misleading and confusing. When you can’t reach your uncle in New Jersey or your friend in Red Hook, a photo of a flooded street or a downed power line vaguely captioned “New York, NY” or even “Avenue C” is useless when there’s no indication whether it was taken before, during, or after high tide.

A more persistent problem, however, is the narrowness of the coverage: The crowd doing the crowd-sourcing was not large or diverse.  The interactive map of readers’ photos that The New York Times put together shows the story: A lot of people in the suburbs and select parts of New York City seem to have photo equipment and the means to share their photos. And a startling percentage of them used these tools to photograph fallen trees. (As Jarecke wrote: “This just in…a tree fell in Brooklyn.”)

Many professional photojournalists are now working with dedication to cover the hardship in many areas –some totally ignored in amateur crowd-sourced imagery. People whose homes are flooded have more important things to do than document their lives for the edification of strangers like me. But more than two weeks after the storm struck the US, there are still gaping holes in the coverage.

As noted recently on the blog for En Foco, the non-profit devoted to supporting diversity in photography, the devastation Sandy wrought in Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas has been missing from news in the States, though Sandy killed dozens and left thousands homeless in the Caribbean.  Heavy rains in Haiti, still struggling after the 2010 earthquake, are slowing recovery and may lead to food shortages. (For one of the few photo stories we’ve seen on the storm’s effect in the Caribbean, see “The Other Side of Sandy: Caribbean Devastation.” )

Meanwhile in Nigeria, the worst flooding in 50 years has displaced an estimated 2.1 million people and killed 400, according to the UN. But so far, except for a few aerial photos used on NGO web sites, Gideon Mendel, who was this month photographing in Nigeria as part of his continuing project on climate change, Drowning World,  is the only photojournalist we’ve seen who has documented the unfolding crisis there.  Given predictions the floods will cause food shortages and waterborne diseases, in a few months Nigeria could become one more famine-in-Africa story, presented in the media without context or explanation.

Photos—good ones —can drive news coverage. But it’s hard to say for sure that we’d know more about how people are coping in Haiti or Cuba or Nigeria if everyone in those countries had smartphones and Instagram accounts. Good photos take enterprise and curiosity—more photos of fallen trees aren’t enough to get American editors and readers to shed their blinkered focus on news from the developed world. But given the economics of newsgathering now, the media is unlikely to restore their budgets for foreign bureaus or overseas reporting. So who’s left to provide insights on the lives of people far from media centers?

As the clamor to address climate change grows in the US, attention has to be paid to how these dramatic weather events affect people in poorer nations without  infrastructure or resources to cope with disaster and loss. Unless media organizations widen their view of what is relevant news, we can only hope that the day comes when in fact everybody is a photographer, and a good one at that.

(Thanks to John Edwin Mason for his view of how the widespread adoption of cellphones might –someday–provide people in Africa “their first opportunity to represent themselves in photos, rather than to being photographed largely by professional outsiders.” See “Déjà vu All Over Again.”
* Update: On November 18, Mason looked at how access –or lack of it– to smartphones and the internet is playing out in the propaganda war by Israelis and Gazans posting images on Instagram. See his post here.)

* Photo: Landswan Elam, right in back, got a chess lesson in Red Hook (published November 2, 2012). © Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

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