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Trusting citizen photojournalists

Posted by Mark Leccese  May 17, 2010 08:05 AM

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Never get in a car with a newspaper photographer. They drive like maniacs. A reporter can show up on the scene after the fire is out or after the suspect has been arrested and still do interviews and get the story. Professional photographers have to be there when the fire is burning or when the suspect is led out in handcuffs.

Unless someone with a camera, any camera, is already there. And who doesn't have a camera, even if it's just a app on a smartphone? We're all photojournalists now.

GateKeeper_Arrest.jpgThe front pages last Friday of both the Globe and the Herald featured the same photo: a still from Watertown resident Barbara Lacerra's grab-the-camera video of the arrest of Aftab Khan, a gas station attendant officials say may have been involved in providing money to the failed Times Square bomber.

According to a Herald story, Lacerra ignored the sensible warnings of her husband to shoot the video.

Despite the start it gave her heart, Barbara Lacerra, 50, grabbed a video camera and jumped into the fray.

“My husband said, ‘Don’t go out there, they’ll shoot you,'” Lacerra said.

“I’ll duck,” she told him. She recorded several minutes of the operation.

She captured the only images of the arrest, a video showing Immigration and Customers Enforcement officers putting a shackled and handcuffed Kahn into a car. For less than a second, at 0:19 of video, he looks up at her. That's the image that the made the front pages.

Perhaps the first famous citizens photojournalist was the passerby who, in 1991, shot the video of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles Police. The most well-known recent shot by a citizen photojournalist around here was taken by 59-year-old retired bank manager Bill Carter of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates' arrest.

The Globe reported Carter's photo "has made the media rounds, popping up on the Internet; on television, including CNN, NBC, and CBS; and in such newspapers as USA Today, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and the Guardian in England."

Carter, unlike Lacerra, uploaded his photo to Demotix.com, a website that serves as a wire service for amateur news photographers. Demotix says it sell the photos to media organization for anything between $50 and $3,000 and splits the take 50/50 with the photographer. The site, which says it has 100,000 images on file, announced earlier this month it is adding amateur news video.

Quality is a problem, of course, although Lacerra did a pretty good job. But take another look at the photo of Gates' arrest. It's awful.

Verification is a much more serious potential problem: How can a media outlet and its readers be sure the work of a citizen photojournalist wasn't staged or Photoshopped? Deep in its "Terms of Business" (Section 5F), Demotix states it "may need to contact you for administrative or verification purposes" [emphasis added].

That sounds like trouble waiting to happen. If just one citizen photojournalists rigs a photo and gets caught, the whole citizen photojournalism enterprise will be thrown into doubt.

It has happened in the mainstream media — most amusingly in 1982, when National Geographic editors moved two Egyptian pyramids on a photo to make the pyramids fit on the magazine's cover — so it is sure to happen (if it hasn't already) with amateur news photographers.

And it'll be a shame when it does, because Barbara Lacerra and her fellow citizen photojournalists have the potential to transform newsgathering.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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