From Vision Journalism to Citizen Paparazzi

Being in the MCM (Media/Communication/Marketing) business gives one an opportunity to observe the way ideas develop – from germination in some theory geek’s mind, to a conference, or series of conferences, or publications, or all of the above, then to academia, and then, sometimes, through to business.

It was 1996. In one of the very first ever sessions of Highway Africa – the yearly New Media conference hosted by the School of Journalism & Media Studies at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, Robin Parker, one of our country’s most knowledgeable media experts, presented his view of the Journalist of Tomorrow. In his inimitable style, Parker described a guerrilla reporter, all alone in storyland, with a laptop, a digital camera and a cellphone (Parker’s presentation predated the advent of the Smartphone, now comfortably carrying all three.)

I remember hearing about Citizen Journalism for the first time five or six years ago at Highway Africa. The focus was on social and political ramifications of having people telling about their lives, directly, rather than have a skilled intermediary ‘extracting’ a story. The star gadget in those pre-digital days was a film-based miniature Russian camera called the Lomo Kompakt. It appears that the Lomo had some non-specified military uses before being re-branded as the people’s camera and produced en-masse.

But the Lomo became much more than the Kodak’ish ubiquitous family tool its re-designers may have wished it to be. The sturdy, clear, friendly camera with the unbelievable pictures quality (day and night pics), became a worldwide phenomenon. Before long, people were carrying the small gadget with them wherever they went. Snapping pictures and creating ad-hoc documentation of their lives. This global movement was (and still is) known as Lomography. The Lomography credo says that reality is made out of all events in people’s own life circumstances, where both the story and its narratives co-exist. The ten golden rules of Lomography are as simple as can be:

    1. Take your LOMO everywhere you go and whenever you go.
    2. Use it any time – day or night.
    3. Lomography is not interference in your life, but a part of it.
    4. Shoot from the hip.
    5. Approach the objects of your lomographic desire as close as possible.
    6. Don’t think.
    7. Be fast.
    8. You don’t have to know beforehand what you’ve captured on film.
    9. You don’t have to know afterwards, either.
    10. Don’t worry about the rules.

At Highway Africa, we discussed how stories from rural Africa were being captured and disseminated without external professional help from social workers, educators and, yes, journalists. The obvious question was — can there be journalism without journalists? It was only two odd years later, in 2003, that the issue was addresses satisfactorily, in a paper called “We Media: How Audiences are shaping the Future of News and Information.” by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, of Hypergene, a media consulting and design firm, who were commissioned to write the paper by The Media Center at the American Press Institute. “We Media” became the perennial publication on the issue.

According to Bowman and Willis “[w]e are at the beginning of a Golden Age of journalism – but it is not journalism as we have known it. Media futurists have predicted that by 2021, “citizens will produce 50 percent of the news peer-to-peer.” However, mainstream news media have yet to meaningfully adopt or experiment with these new forms. Historically, journalists have been charged with informing the democracy. But their future will depend not on only how well they inform but how well they encourage and enable conversations with citizens. That is the challenge.”

Bowman and Willis talk about Participatory Journalism, as emanating from “we media” – “The Internet, as a medium for news, is maturing. With every major news event, online media evolve. And while news sites have become more responsive and better able to handle the growing demands of readers and viewers, online communities and personal news and information sites are participating in an increasingly diverse and important role that, until recently, has operated without significant notice from mainstream media.”

The gist of their argument mirrors the various Highway Africa premises as well as the Lomography philosophy: ordinary people are most qualified to tell their own story. It follows that journalists will have to redefine the relationship they have with their erstwhile readers, now participators.

A few days ago I read the article “The Rise of the ‘Citizen Paparazzi‘” in none-other than the Wall Street Journal online. The piece tells the story of a 20 years old shop assistant who, while on a cruise, managed to snap a few good picture of singer/songwriter/guitar slinger John Mayer, which she then managed to sell to premium publishers for good cash. It appears that agencies who used to get pictures from top-notch Paparazzi, now “increasingly encourage amateurs and young photographers to send in their findings… the most successful contributors are people who find themselves in the right place at the right time…” And so, the vision became an academic theory, it was then picked by the media and opened for public debate, before it ended in the sausage factory — tossing and turning and making some money.

In closing discussion of their famous paper, Bowman and Willis say the following: “If journalism is indeed about informing the community and lifting up our fellow citizens, we need to evolve. We need to tell better stories and, while doing so, we need to engage the world.”

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