Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Will the role of a professional journalist ever go away?

Everyone likes to think that they're a photographer now but when you find yourself in a situation in which you can indeed become a 'citizen journalist' how do we know that these people will have the nerve, or know how to actually document the situation in an unbiased and factually way? Of course there will always be the minutes, or even hours where professional journalists and photographers cannot get close and it will fall down to the everyday people in the situation to document the happenings and send out the first photographs and reports.

But a recent article in the Guardian about photographers who have been put in a position where they had to choose between getting 'the shot' or intervening to help - many of which choosing the former - and a response by James Johnson of (Notes on) Politics, Theory & Photography prompted me to think about how the photographs we see might change and how we may always need professional 'conflict photographers' and that they will probably never go away.

James Johnson asked, "Do we want them for their compassion? Or, do we want them for the ability to stomach events that we'd otherwise be able to blithely ignore?"

I would say we need to know about these things, these photographers have the ability to switch that part of the brain that would normally make someone wince, or become overwhelmed and make sure that they get the shot that makes the event sink in for those who are not able to witness it themselves. Would a citizen bystander be able to do the same thing? Can we ask them to? When the 7/7 bombings happened, the images we saw taken by the commuters on the trains were of the light at the end of the tunnels, they were images that led to a hope at the end, they'd already gotten over and didn't see the need to document what they had seen in the carriages. Why did they need to? They had seen it themselves, in person, they had probably helped some people up, got them out onto the tracks and off to safety. Would a professional photographer, used to conflict situations have done the same thing? Would they have switched into 'work' mode and started documenting the situation as an onlooker, even though minutes before they were just the same as every person on the carriage, bar one - just going about their own business?

I go back to Johnson's question "Do we want them for their compassion? Or, do we want them for the ability to stomach events that we'd otherwise be able to blithely ignore?" You wouldn't randomly find yourself in the middle of a known conflict zone unless you had some reason to be there as part of your profession, automatically making prepared for the situation and ready to see it from an outsiders point of view. These events are far displaced from many people, so they need to be sought out, documented and you need the professionals who have the stomach to do it. Events that everyday citizens may find themselves in are unexpected, they happen right on your doorstep, they are unavoidable and reported upon greatly because they are rarities. It's when things happen more frequently and everyday citizens can go about their business, planning to avoid them, or glazing over them that the role of the professional journalist comes into play. And for that reason they will never go away.

Image courtesy AP

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