Monday, December 18, 2006

Regular Folks, Shooting/Changing History

"The rapid rise of digital technology... is changing the way the world witnesses history... Events that once were recorded only by human memory may now endure in full, pixelated detail, available in seconds around the globe.

The trend is driven by the proliferation of camera-equipped cellphones, introduced in Japan in 2000. Worldwide sales topped 460 million this year and will reach 1 billion by 2010, according to industry analysts."

-- excerpted from:

"Regular Folks, Shooting History
Digital Technology Makes 'Citizen Journalists' Out of Eyewitnesses Eager to Click and Post," By Kevin Sullivan, Washington Post Foreign Service, Monday, December 18, 2006; A01

GLASGOW, Scotland -- At 2:42 p.m. on Oct. 11, Dean Collins heard a thunderous explosion as he worked at his computer in his 30th-floor apartment in Manhattan.

Collins looked out his window and saw a small plane crashing into a building right in front of him -- the accident that killed New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor. Instinctively, he recalled, he pulled his Fuji digital camera from a drawer and started shooting, thinking to himself, "This is going to be on the news."

Collins, a consultant for a software company, said he remembered reading about Scoopt, a year-old agency in Scotland that brokers photos for "citizen journalists." Within minutes, he had e-mailed his digital shots to Scoopt. Hours later, his picture of a smoking Manhattan high-rise was in three British newspapers, including a front-page splash in the Times of London. He earned $650 for his work.

The rapid rise of digital technology, which enables ordinary people almost anywhere to record images and post them quickly on the Internet, is changing the way the world witnesses history, not to mention the dependable misbehavior of celebrities. Events that once were recorded only by human memory may now endure in full, pixelated detail, available in seconds around the globe.

The trend is driven by the proliferation of camera-equipped cellphones, introduced in Japan in 2000. Worldwide sales topped 460 million this year and will reach 1 billion by 2010, according to industry analysts.

With the proliferation of images, prosecutors are increasingly relying on photos as evidence in cases against accused muggers, terrorists and other criminals. Insurance companies balance cellphone photos against recollection as they assess auto accidents.

And the presence of cellphone cameras in handbags and coat pockets means that for the famous, private space is shrinking fast. Scoopt has also sold cellphone photos of Michelle Rodriguez, star of the television show "Lost," drinking and partying wildly in a bar in New York, and shots of Paris Hilton dancing on a table in Las Vegas.

Celebrities everywhere have been stung by stealthy camera phones. Grainy photos of supermodel Kate Moss snorting what appeared to be cocaine, apparently shot with a camera phone, appeared in newspapers worldwide last year. Britain's Prince Harry was forced to apologize last year when a fellow reveler at a costume party used a camera phone to snap the prince wearing a Nazi uniform -- then sold the photos to tabloids for thousands of dollars.

Forty-three years ago, a single person with a home movie camera captured the only detailed images of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. If today's technology had existed then, dozens or even hundreds of people with cellphones and pocket-size digital cameras probably would have recorded the shooting from every possible angle.

"We might actually know if there was somebody on the grassy knoll," said Dan Gillmor, a California-based journalist and author who has written extensively about what he calls "grass-roots journalism."

Governments have always controlled information, from the Nazis to South American dictators hiding evidence of their "disappeared" enemies, said David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair. "But now the photograph has suddenly changed the equation -- the power is in the hands of the average citizen," said Friend, whose 2006 book, "Watching the World Change," explores the rising power of images. "Whatever you do now, you will be held accountable. You will be seen."

Friend noted that camera-equipped cellphones were not common in the United States at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The historical record of events would have been richer if people in the twin towers or on the hijacked planes had been able to send out photos and video of their ordeal.

"We now have as close to an objective truth about an event as we've ever had in history," he said.

Newspapers and television networks actively urge readers and viewers to send in their pictures of newsworthy events to supplement the work of professional photographers. And Internet sites help distribute them widely -- sites such as YouTube and Flickr, where anyone can post their photos and video for public consumption, are wildly popular. After Michael Richards, a former star of the TV comedy show "Seinfeld," was recorded with a cellphone camera last month at a Los Angeles club insulting black hecklers with a tirade of racial slurs, more than 1.3 million people viewed the video on YouTube.

NowPublic, a year-old venture that calls itself a "participatory news network," posts news and images from its "citizen journalists" on its Web site; the site claims 31,000 reporters in 130 countries, tapping into what it calls "the wisdom of crowds." The Reuters news agency and Yahoo recently joined forces to start You Witness News, which showcases amateur photos and video on the Yahoo news Web site.
'So Much Better'

Kyle MacRae, who runs Scoopt out of a converted bedroom in his small Glasgow home, was giving his two young sons a bath when his phone rang minutes after the Manhattan crash. It was Collins calling from New York. There was a plane down. He had photos. MacRae told him to e-mail them immediately.

MacRae said reports out of New York were confusing. Was it another 9/11 unfolding, or just an accident?

Whatever it was, MacRae looked at the e-mailed images arriving on his computer and knew that Collins had photos he could sell.

MacRae, 43, a former journalist and author of a dozen books on technology, started Scoopt with his wife, Jill, after the July 2005 transit system bombings in London. Many of the most memorable images from the subway tunnels were made by commuters with camera phones.

In 15 months, Scoopt has registered almost 12,000 people in 97 countries. U.S.-based Cell Journalist and Spy Media and several other agencies that deal exclusively in celebrity photos are providing similar services.

Verifying photos' authenticity is always a concern. MacRae said he quizzes photographers about their shots to make sure they are what they seem to be. MacRae said he caught one faker who said he got a shot of Mary-Kate Olsen while hiding behind thick hedges -- on a busy Manhattan street. Pressed by MacRae, the person admitted he had lifted the photo from the Internet and tried to pass it off as his own.

Many news agencies are leery of unsolicited photos that could have been altered or staged. Gillmor said one famous hoax purported to show a tourist posing at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, with a jetliner in the background about to smash into the tower. He said he recently rejected a photo that purported to show Cuban leader Fidel Castro dead in a coffin.

When Collins's photos arrived in Glasgow, MacRae called him back. Collins said that he could see photographers scrambling across rooftops and on the ground trying to get a good angle but that none had his vantage point. Within minutes, MacRae put the photos out on Internet-based distribution services monitored by photo editors at all major British newspapers. Almost immediately, the Sun newspaper in London and the Herald in Glasgow called to buy a photo.

In their London newsroom, editors at the Times had just chosen an image from the Associated Press for the early editions of the paper when the Scoopt photo appeared on their computer screens.

"The images from the AP were good, but this one was just so much better," said Paul Sanders, picture editor at the Times.
Privacy Concerns

Sitting in the Scoopt office, surrounded by books and spare computer modems and cables, MacRae welcomed his boys home from grade school one recent afternoon while neighbors bantered loudly on the rainy street below. Snoop Dogg, the American rapper, stared back at MacRae from his computer screen.

At Heathrow Airport last April, members of Snoop Dogg's 30-member entourage got into a brawl with police, apparently triggered when British Airways barred from its first-class lounge some members of the rapper's party who were flying economy class.

Within a couple of hours of the dust-up, MacRae had received five cellphone photos of Snoop Dogg browsing through the duty-free shop just before fists started flying. Because police quickly sealed off the area where the brawl happened, they were the only photos of him from the scene. Ten minutes after the pictures came in, MacRae sent them out to his list of publications interested in celebrity news.

"The phones started ringing right away," he said, and the next day the images appeared in Newsday and the New York Daily News, and later in Rolling Stone and magazines and newspapers in Britain.

With so many camera phones making celebrity photos so easy to come by, MacRae said, he is trying to get the balance right between newsworthiness and privacy.

"We're stuck in the middle trying to find a sensible approach," he said. "But I do know that you can't turn this off. Sooner or later, every news story will be captured first by a citizen journalist."

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