Moments in time, 2013
- 20 December 2013
- From the section In Pictures
Much has been written of the demise of news photography, killed off by the rise of the camera-enabled mobile phone in everyone's pocket. It's not a theory I subscribe to, but there is no denying the important role it plays in news.
A new BBC programme, Moments in Time, looks back at photographs that captured some of the big stories of the past year, and considers how snaps by amateurs now sit alongside those taken by press photographers.
"Alongside" is the key word in that sentence - they do not replace the professional image, but according to the law of averages it is far more likely a picture of a news event will be captured by a bystander, rather than a professional. Those images are then shared and spread via social media.
Yet the press photographer's role is never to just turn up at an event and capture an image. The skill is to encompass the story in one frame and convey the emotion of the moment to the viewer. That's a skill that only a few acquire - and it's as true today as it ever was.
Of course, mobile phone footage and stills of major events have been with us for many years. Indeed it was 2003 when BBC News Online first asked for pictures from its readers. Even though camera phones were still comparatively rare, we soon began to receive news pictures (admittedly, many of them were taken on conventional cameras), the first being a shot of the Staten Island fire in New York. But it was the 2005 London tube bombings when readers' pictures first led the way. We received many hundreds of images, among them the defining images of that tragic day, photographs that went on to be picked up by the national and international press.
More recently the unrest in Iran and across the Middle East, and of course the conflict in Syria, have been documented by what have become termed citizen journalists.
Yet away from breaking news images, the camera is now far more than simply a recorder of events - it's used to hold conversations and even take notes. Gone are the days when the family camera held an almost reverential place in the household, being brought out only to freeze special moments in time.
The camera is now used to overlay and express our view of the world, and to share pictures with friends and strangers alike. Many of these are simply personal moments, things we find amusing and so on. Indeed, sometimes the sort of thing that might be best kept to oneself.
Yet photography is also a gateway into events that are on a grander scale.
A good recent example of this is a photograph by Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times. It shows a girl in her home, filming television footage of Nelson Mandela's funeral. She's taking the pictures (or in this case video footage), not only as a memory, but as a way of feeling involved in the event.
It seems almost everything we do now has a visual angle. There are thousands of new pictures being created as I write - indeed, the distinction between what is real and what is in a picture is becoming blurred. Yes, the vacuous selfie has grabbed the headlines, but those pictures are but momentary blips in our day as we glance and move on.
Photography, be it moving or still, is no longer passive, and no longer in the hands of a few. The power of production has moved into the hands of virtually anyone who wants to grasp it.
While this should lead many to grab hold of the opportunity and to be creative and express their views through photography, in a news context the lack of context and curation can lead to errors and misunderstanding.
But remember, as the great French photographer Robert Doisneau said: "A hundredth of a second here, a hundredth of a second there - even if you put them end to end, they still only add up to one, two, perhaps three seconds, snatched from eternity."
2013: Moments In Time is broadcast on Friday 20 December at 21:00 GMT or catch it later on the BBC iPlayer.