The power of the camera

The power of the camera
: The Red Cross and Red Crescent have just signed a deal with Reuters to distribute photos they take during relief operations at Reuters’ Alertnet, a foundation-arm operation meant to publicize humanitarian crises.

Iraq is just the latest in a series of humanitarian crises that have received wide media coverage on the strength of iconic imagery. Before Ali there was Rosetta, the baby born to a mother who had clung to a tree for two days, who came to symbolise 2000’s floods in Mozambique.

Now there are signs that increasingly media-savvy emergency relief charities are making greater use of photography to publicise their activities.

Sean Sutton, a photographer with the UK-based charity Mines Advisory Group (MAG), has been using both traditional and new media approaches to publicise his group’s operations. Missions to heavily mined areas are turned into “live documentaries”, with daily postings of the group’s demining progress on a website which is, in turn, publicised via press releases….

In some respects the work of humanitarian relief charities can resemble an alternative newsgathering network. Relief charities tend to be based in places where disasters and conflicts are most likely to happen – poorer countries where media organisations tend to have least presence.

This is the central idea behind a new partnership between news agency Reuters and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) signed in Geneva today.

The partnership aims to harness the power of pictures to publicise humanitarian emergencies. Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, who are committed to sharing information about their activities via the AlertNet website, will get free access to Reuters’ database of pictures for use in their appeals and publications. In return they will supply photographs of disasters and other humanitarian activities for distribution by Reuters.

The arrangement will allow Reuters to bring to the world humanitarian stories from remote areas which otherwise would get overwhelmed by the pressure of other news events. It is also hoped that greater cooperation will help build up the photojournalism skills of relief workers, enabling them to best publicise their work.

Cue the journalism punditry: Here is a news organization (albeit a foundation arm) and a news brand saying they will use independent advocacy agencies as an “alternative newsgathering network.” Obviously, this outlet will be used for advocacy. So is advocacy journalism?

In this new age when everybody has a printing press (and, more powerfully, a camera), the new answer is probably, yes.

I’ll have no problem with this — I’ll applaud it — if I see Reuters allow in other agencies and other alternative sources, including individuals (all properly labeled by source). If this is used to push one agenda, that’s not journalism. If this is used to find new sources of news, new witnesses to what is happening from anywhere, anytime, then that is new jouralism.

We shall see.