Editors Note:


EDITOR'S NOTE: Fresh off a three year managerial stint, your friendly neighborhood lenslinger is back on the street and under heavy deadline. As the numbing effects of his self-imposed containment wear off, vexing reflections and pithy epistles are sure to follow...

Monday, July 11, 2005

Camera Phone Calamity

Many thanks to Mark on Media for leading the Lenslinger Committee to the remarkable findings of one Dennis Dunleavy, Ph.D.

In his intriguing dissertation ‘Camera Phones Prevail: Citizen Shutterbugs and the London Bombings‘, the good professor explores a theme I touched on in my own recent epistle, ‘Birth of the Personal Journalist‘, albeit on a more global and tragic scale. But whether it’s a building implosion or a subway bombing, the hurtling pace and galactic scope of shared imagery is finally reaching the levels predicted in all those great Science Fiction novels I read as a boy. Of all the wondrous gadgets to come into critical mass as of late, I have to agree with Mr. Dunleavy, the camera phone alone has the potential to change the world. Or at least how we swap gossip about it.

Fact is, I been luggin’ a lens for fifteen years, jumping in ice cream trucks with poles on the top and racing them up and down the countryside, looking for that perfect spot to shoot primitive signals to a rickety towers, all so I can feed some shoplifter mug shot back to a station full of slouchy co-workers. Now with the flip of one pudgy wrist, a housewife in the Frozen Foods aisle can capture a shot of the guy with the chops in his socks and instantly zap it to a global information network before she ever hit’s the check-out lane, giving her time to count her coupons and easily out-broadcast my sorry ass in the process. I may be just a greasy photog, but even I know, THAT’S news.

Though I don’t yet own one, I do believe the advent of digital camera phones will be viewed by historians as a touchstone event in the Information Age - a landmark development that first harnessed hi-fi imagery with wi-fi dissemination; sleek, marvelous machines that fit in your palm and plug into the world. These ever-evolving tools may well prove to be the great equalizer in the new media frontier; hand-held, high-tech devices capable of generating new streams of information where not so long ago there was noisy static, and once, only silence. Consider Dunleavy’s evidence:
In modern times, society has come to depend primarily on trained professionals to report what constitutes the news. News, in this configuration, however, has values which reporters, editors and photojournalists learn to prioritize, classify and categorize. Information is placed in a hierarchical order based on values such as relevancy, consequence, proximity, prominence, novelty and other values.

Washington Post staff writer Yuki Noguchi, in a story entitled, "Eyewitness Journalism: Camera Phones Lend Immediacy to Images of Disaster," reports that "camera phones, once a novelty, now outsell digital cameras by about 4 to 1, according to analyst data. As more sophisticated phones and higher-speed networks have become available, wireless companies have recently started offering video camcorders on their phones that can nearly instantly transmit moving pictures over e-mail or onto the Internet."

Of course I would be remiss in my own duties as Doctor of Cinematology if I didn’t bemoan the loss of lensmanship inherent in this merging of citizen journalism and mainstream media. It appears the lowly tripod isn’t invited to the Media Revolution. My advice: Buckle up! If you thought ‘Blair Witch Project’ was a bumpy ride, strap on your crash helmet - here comes the evening news! You grab the protective eyewear, I’ll grab the popcorn!

So can you see how we who make our living seeking artistry in the everyday image can’t help but grimace at the sea of bobbing lenses and glistening cell phones staring back at us. Production values we consider cornerstones of our craft are being distilled into top five suggestions for better video, sacred truths of the viewfinder once known only by the pros now pop up as refrigerator magnets bearing over-sized exclamation points. That sound you hear is the cracking of plastic, haphazard surface fractures of our beloved craft being stretched and cheapened into something new and far less valuable.

At least that’s the view from Tripod Row.

51 comments:

Dennis Dunleavy said...

First and Foremost, I am really impressed with the depth in which you write about visual journalism. Secondly, I am flattered by your comments about my postings. Interestingly, Robert Gumpert, an incredible documentary photographer, takes me on a bit when it comes to the impact of the instant everything that is now the digital information arts and culture we live in. If you have a chance check out what Robert has to say about digital technology and education. Of course, I provide a lengthy response, but it is all such good work! Thanks

Zippy said...

Didn't we have this discussion when home video cameras came out? Wasn't that going to change our world? Did it?

It's the same issue now as then. For a camera phone to have impact, it must:

a) be where the story is
b) be wielded by someone who knows how it works
c) be wielded by someone with the mental wherewithall to use it when news is happening.

I don't think most news events will have all three of those things in order. For all the talk of the camera phones in London, an awful lot of what showed up on Flickr were shots taken off TV screens. I saw one video from a train, and one of people walking out of the subway, possibly filmed by the same person. But that's about it, before regular TV crews arrived on scene.

Can this technology change news as we know it? Certainly possible. Will it? Sadly, I think the vast majority of people with access to the technology probably won't use it, or will use it poorly.

Just my two cents.

Weaver said...

Zippy makes great points. When I was a young guy just out of high school I knew I wanted to do TV news, so I used my police scanner knowledge to find my way to possible news scenes. I knew how to use my video camera (techically) but it took actually getting in contact with the local TV stations and having a relationship. Then I started working my county as a stringer while still in college.

Obviously, if a plane goes down and Joe Blow happened to catch it going down, or even if he only captured the aftermath up close, it's better than what the professional cameras will likely get once we arrive and get stopped way back from the sceneas in the case of the London attack. And most people will share that video, either directly with the news, or with others who will get them to share it with the news.

I think seminars like WKRN's to train the citzen's journalists to shoot better video is great. It increases the number of potential cameras that may catch the next big news event in progress. BUT only by a small fraction when only 20 or so video amatuers are trained. I guess that's better than none.

Billy Jones said...

There's no doubt I see your place as being in flux-- changing and evolving into something very different than what we have today, but as a viewer I'm far from ready to watch an hour a night of shakey camera phone footage of drive-by shootings, traffic accidents, and bar-room brawls like I've witnessed face to face a hundred times before.

I once worked for a man who had ran a business with no local competition for over 50 years. When a competitor moved in next door he was the happiest I'd ever seen him. When asked about it he replied, "Have you ever noticed that everywhere you see a Home Depot Store there's usually a Lowes Lumber store next door? They understand it makes business better for both."

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