It has been widely commented that much of the important photojournalism of the last several years has been done by amateurs — London Underground bombing, Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, coffins of American soldiers coming from Iraq, young woman being flogged in Afghanistan, etc. And now, of course, there are the many images from Iran by amateurs which become even more critical as professionals are banned from the country.
There are a few changes here which may well be permanent:
Instead of seeing a few strong images, we will probably need to get used to seeing many dozens or even hundreds of photographs taken, perhaps of the same scene, without any editorial filter. It will demand more of the reader who will have to try and figure out what this mass of imagery is saying. This will also make it harder to wrongly accuse any images of being fakes because so many other photographs and videos will corroborate, to a significant extent, what any particular image shows.
Instead of a single iconic photograph we will often be looking at imagery made by people who, as amateurs, are not schooled in the history of photography–they will be making imagery for information, not to replicate or create new icons. As such, their imagery will probably often be both more original and more awkward, but it may also make it more difficult to find the telling metaphors. In this sense, the imagery will be more modest and probably more credible.
But there will also still be conventional newspapers and magazines in need of a single telling image, and editors most likely will select one or two images that will serve as symbols of the events. This will both simplify and sometimes distort what is going on, and Readers 2.0 will most likely resist someone telling them which images are the most important, especially people who are far from the action in media capitals around the world.
Imagine if the Chinese protesters at Tiananmen Square all had cellphone cameras — would the image of the lone man standing in front of the line of tanks broken through as a central icon of the event? One could easily argue that it would have been better for it not to have been so central, given that it was in many ways a Western idea of what was going on at that time (the individual vs. the authorities, instead of a large movement of diverse protesters). But of course the mass of imagery we are seeing from Iran, if repeated from many different events in diverse countries, may eventually confuse and tire readers. Would people scour thousands of images from, let us say, Kazakhistan or the Congo?
The outpouring of “insider” imagery will be very challenging for outsiders to interpret. Previously the professional, usually Western, would provide a bridge, making images to explain one culture to another (although many times the professional did not understand the culture that he or she was looking at). Now we have the possibility of looking directly at the photographs by Iranians of Iran, and, since photography is not a universal language, it will be crucial that other Iranians can help caption and contextualize the imagery online for the great majority of readers who do not always know what the images are referring to. Here I am not just referring to translating foreign words that might appear in a photograph, but in explaining many cultural referents such as what a particular way of standing might mean, or a hand gesture, or any of the other many factors that are culturally specific. Even the way an image is constructed may have certain meanings in one culture and not in another.
This, of course, raises once again the question of what the professional photographer will be doing? And here I think that at least one answer is very clear: we as readers will require strong bodies of work that have already explored a society so as to give us a context for what is happening now. For example, it would have been very helpful to have had powerful photo essays exploring life in an Iranian village, or life in the northern, more affluent neighborhoods of Tehran, or what it is like to be a cleric who is considered to be more liberal. Then, faced with the extraordinary anger on the streets, we would be able to contextualize it in a much more meaningful way. Newspapers usually report on governments, not on the people in a country.
The need for professional photo essayists with deep understandings of specific cultures, both insiders and foreigners, is more crucial than ever. Somehow they must be paid for their work, and equally important is to find places for them to publish.