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Of Neighbors and Citizen-Journalists

Demotix Images/B. Carter

Demotix Images/B. Carter

I find what is represented by this photograph to be extraordinarily troubling–a distinguished scholar in handcuffs led out of his own house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after a neighbor had reported him to the police as a possible burglar when he was only trying to break into his own home. The front door was jammed, he had just returned from the airport after a long flight from China, and he was on the phone reporting the problem with his door to the property management company when the police arrived.

All of this is highly upsetting, but what I also find disturbing is the celebration of this photograph by Demotix Images, a new agency that enlists amateurs to provide imagery for sale to media outlets worldwide and, laudably, shares revenues evenly with them. On their website they explain the importance of this widely published image that has, in their opinion, become “iconic”:

“And when a neighbor reached for his camera and uploaded the photo to Demotix, a new chapter in the story of citizen-journalism was written.” Their argument, given the absence of any other photographers at the scene, is that “without this photograph, a valuable insight into the episode would be lost. Some have argued that the sight of an old man in handcuffs proves that police overreacted; others that the presence of black officers during his arrest undermines claims of racism.”

But a question pops up: Why did the photographer/neighbor not try to intercede with the police right away, establishing that his neighbor being arrested in fact lived there? Perhaps he could have calmed down the situation or acted as a buffer for a jet-lagged and irate man. Why is “citizen-journalism” celebrated but the responsibilities of being a good neighbor are overlooked?

(And why did a neighbor call the police in the first place about someone down the street trying to get into his own front door? There can be many reasons, of course, but it’s striking, and sad, that one neighbor calls the police and another neighbor sells a picture of the arrest. It hardly bodes well for the neighborhood.)

Professional photojournalists have long had to balance the requirements of their profession with the desire to help in other ways than releasing a shutter, but neighbors are people who are supposed to come to the aid of others who live nearby. Does this photograph automatically represent an advance?

And why is this a picture of an “old man,” as Demotix claims? He is a 58-year-old professor. Why does his age argue for overreaction by the police, as they also claim? And why does the presence of a black police officer, steadfastly looking away from the scene, “undermine claims of racism”?

Perhaps this neighbor did not know Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and in taking the picture he may have been trying to be helpful by documenting the scene. I do not know, and Demotix does not explain these circumstances on their website. But the idea of citizen-journalists possibly turning into paparazzi-neighbors, whether it happened in this case or not, is something to ponder (look at some of the mean-spirited videos on YouTube, for example).

I am all in favor of citizen journalism as numerous posts here attest, but I think that the variegated experiences of professional journalists, including their many errors, should be useful in opening a discussion for everyone now involved in reporting and disseminating the news. Before we get too far into this new media world we might begin by formulating various perspectives on the ethics of picture-taking for both amateurs and professionals, and follow it up with a conversation on various ways to read an image.

And I am also in favor of neighbors.

(For a follow-up article on the neighbor William B. Carter who took the picture but did not recognize Gates, click here.)


  1. Joanna Lehan wrote:

    Wonderful point, Fred.
    It would have been valuable to know what B. Carter thought he or she was capturing when reaching for the camera.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  2. fredritchin wrote:

    See the follow-up piece on Carter referenced at end of post above, which I added after writing the initial post.

    Saturday, July 25, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. Photocritic International » Digital Lens Culture: Incident I on Saturday, July 25, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    [...] These technologies make “citizen journalism” into not just a catchphrase but a reality. The emergence of “citizen journalism” has its perils; see Fred Ritchin’s thoughtful commentary on the Henry Louis gates arrest photo. [...]

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