Photojournalism: From the agency model to the era of citizen journalism

         Photojournalism is a recent profession which has evolved quite quickly since its beginnings during the 19th century. It created a new way of telling stories in which the photo guides the reader and gives another dimension to news reports. The American publication Life – launched in 1936 by Henry Luce – introduced a new type of periodical based on photojournalism: the photo-magazine. Life gathered a huge readership around political, cultural and social topics, where pictures had a major role in highlighting current issues and historical changes. Photo-magazines contributed to the emergence of talented photojournalists and to the rise of photo agencies as well. However, this model, which became dominant in the 1950s, is not the only one to attract professionals and readers anymore. Citizen journalism is gaining momentum all around the world: in the last few years, photos by amateurs have been used to illustrate major events in Europe, USA or north Africa.

      Photo agencies: a limited model

The golden age of photojournalism, which occurred between the 1930s and the 1960s, enabled the creation of photo agencies, institutions which were essential to the development of the profession. Indeed, it was often hard for photographers to publish or to sell their pictures directly to newspapers. Photo agencies offer visibility. They possess networks of distribution that include newspapers, magazines and publishing houses. They can sell pictures to local clients but they often have an international network as well. During the 1970’s, several famous agencies emerged including Magnum, Gamma, Sygma and Sipa, making Paris the capital city of photojournalism. They built their reputation by cultivating the work of talented photographers, who often adopted a house style. Some agencies are managed by a very restrictive system. For example, Magnum requires photographers to work for ten years before being truly integrated in the agency.

Today, many of these prestigious agencies are facing difficulties. Since 2009, Gamma, Sipa and Sygma have been liquidated or sold to the highest bidder, primarily because of financial problems. These problems are symptomatic of the press crisis, the decline of newspaper sales and the drop of rates paid to secure photo rights [1]. The clients of photo have reduced their photo budgets and are not interested in international reporting anymore. News organizations prefer using their archives or buying illustrations produced by general press agencies – such as Reuteurs  – which are cheaper than reports. But the internet is also blamed for the decline of photo agencies. While the profession and the value of pictures are evolving, the growth of citizen photojournalism enables the emergence of a new model.

     The growth of citizen journalism: citizen vs professionals?

This new form of photojournalism is part of a phenomenon called “citizen journalism” or “collaborative journalism.” Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis have defined this practice as “citizens playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information.” [2] Even if these amateurs do not have professional skills in the journalistic field, access to digital technology enables them to contribute to mass-media. Thanks to cheaper cameras and accessible softwares, news “users” can today become “producers.” They can propose their pictures to professional news organizations or share them on the internet, such as on social networks or personal blogs. Twitter and Facebook are today major platforms allowing citizens to share information, videos and photographs. However Flickr appears to be the most important site for disseminating images. Indeed, citizen photojournalists upload thousands of photographs each day to share them with an online community. This mass participation can be illustrated with the example of the hurricane Katrina in 2005. 116, 000 pictures of the natural disaster were uploaded by amateurs. [3]

Paradoxically, mainstream media are not only “news producers” any longer, but turn out to be users as well. Indeed, they constantly ask submissions from readers or viewers. According to Richard Sambrook, a former journalist at the BBC:

« professionals know now that when major events occur, the public can offer as much new information as [they] are able to broadcast to them. From now on, news coverage is a partnership”.

Citizen photojournalists can sometimes publish their shots in mainstream media as well. During the bombings of London in 2005, amateurish documents played a key role in the coverage of the event. Thousands of pictures, twenty videos, 4,000 messages and 20,000 emails were sent to the BBC newsroom in only six hours. [4] Examples are numerous and concern stories happening in the whole world: earthquakes in Asia, the Arab spring, the South-east Asia tsunami or the terrorist attack on New York in 2001. All these contributions were very useful to the media, and demonstrate the spontaneity and power of amateur photographers, while enabling some news companies to cut their costs. [5]

     Towards the emergence of “hybrid media”

Although social networks are essential platforms in the development of citizen photojournalism, there are websites and agencies specialized in this new field too. For instance, All has emerged in the United States as one of the main citizen news websites. The idea is that everyone in the world can work on this website dedicated to citizen journalism. Contributors can publish texts, pictures or videos. These submissions are then linked to articles dealing with the same topic but coming from mainstream sources. Amra Tareen, founder of All Voices, had this idea after a violent earthquake in Pakistan, her country of origin. She wanted to share her impressions on the disaster and realised that there was no good place on the internet for that. [6]

The French agency Citizenside represents another example of hybridity between professional and amateur journalism. Although content can be broadcast on the internet without any verification, Citizenside uses citizen journalism in a more professional way. An editorial committee checks all pieces of information sent by members. Following that, contributors are paid if their shots are used by mainstream media. The platform has more than 100,000 members, including amateurs and freelance reporters. Citizen photojournalism appears to be more and more professionalized, and examples are quite numerous. Some amateurs have even become photojournalists for mainstream media thanks to their “citizen contribution”. [7]

     An alternative to the mass media

Some claim that citizen journalism can help to improve the overall quality of journalism. A person affected by an event and involved in the production of information could have a positive impact on his community and the general public. In other words, if the reader feels close to the writer, it creates confidence, demystifying and clarifying the journalistic and political process. Indeed, according to some studies, citizen journalists are motivated by several goals: they want to fill the emptiness of mainstream media, to represent their communities, or to document personal memories. [3]

Thus, collaborative journalism can act as a link between mainstream media and communities, social groups, and the public at large. However, although it offers a new way to produce and to analyse information, one must remain aware of the limitations of this model. There is a difference between witnessing and informing: citizen journalism does not always receive professional credibility. Furthermore, novice photographers do not necessarily respect the fundamental rules of journalism ethics: objectivity, impartiality and equity. They can be easily influenced by their social, cultural or political background.

         While photo agencies are declining due to the press crisis, photojournalism continues to evolve through the participation of citizens in the journalistic process. It has never been easier for novice photographers to get themselves heard. Citizen journalism can be considered as an alternative to mass-media, but most of the time it leads to the development of hybrid online platforms, where mainstream sources of information coexist with amateurs’ contributions. In the end, even though collaborative photojournalism is certainly not going to replace professional media systems such as photo agencies, it can perhaps strengthen journalism. [4]

[1] “Le photojournalisme, un métier sans visa”, Stratégies, 8 September 2011
[2] Bowman Shayne and Willis Chris. “We media: how audiences are shaping the future of the news and information” 2003
[3] Owen Daniel. “Citizen photojournalism: motivation for photographing a natural disaster” May 2013
[4] Armoogum Seeneevasen. “Can citizen journalists produce professional journalism?
[5] Kelly John. “The rise, challenge, and value of citizen journalism”, 2009
[6] Rodgers Tony. “Citizen journalism website profile:” About
[7] Tessier Jonathan. “Peut-on vivre du photojournalisme citoyen?” Infos-reportages May 2012



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